When I travel abroad, once or twice a year, I keep my digital point-and-shoot camera always at the ready, grab-able, right there for the right shot.
I’m something of a shutterbug, a total amateur driven by the blameless enthusiasm of a self-taught neophyte, toting a picture-taking toy. But I learn fast, and one of the early things I learned in my journeys was how dull many of my photos were.
They were dry, cliched, postcardy, filled with stolid if beautiful buildings and places you’re supposed to photograph just because you want indelible proof that you did indeed behold the Taj Mahal in Agra, the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem or Ghiberti’s bronze doors in Florence.
They weren’t awful, but they were lifeless, generic. What they missed were people and faces. I almost always travel solo. Anyway, I’m not a big fan of pictures of friends and family standing in front of oceanfronts and monuments (though I am a fan of truly candid and spontaneous shots of travel companions — the surprises and the droll dramas).
So I started seeking locals for my pictures. The approach not only improved my photographs but also improved my travels. Suddenly I was paying much more attention to the daily activities of people, their work, play, drudgery and joys. Observing residents in action literally put a face on a place and deepened my cultural experience.
Sometimes I ‘sneak’ photos of people engaged in everyday life — men bathing in the Ganges in Varanasi, India; a man selling prayer beads to a customer in Istanbul; a student bicycling in Beijing — yet as a general rule, I approach subjects who have a striking face or are wearing an arresting outfit or are doing something vaguely exotic and ask permission to take their picture.
This requires a spot of nerve, especially for an introvert like me. But I’ve found that in many places, if you are courteous, low-key and smiling, people are receptive, even eager.
This hasn’t been the case in most Western countries, because a different sense of privacy reigns. I rarely try to take pictures of people in large European cities, for example. They’re just not that into it.
Yet I’ve had great success in Asian nations, where residents display a friendly excitement and curiosity toward the dopey American who wants their photo. Children in developing countries are especially agreeable to having their picture taken, posing and snatching at the camera to see their image.
Speak the local language
Taking personal photos is a wonderful way to interact with the locals, even if you don’t share a common language.
I will walk up to a person, say hello, gesture to my camera and either ask if I can photograph them or simply say, “Photo?” Some will grumble and wave you away. But my luck has been good with willing subjects.
Serious photographers like to rhapsodise about their equipment. I’m little more than a passionate dilettante, carrying a point-and-shoot usually set on automatic. I usually carry either a Canon Powershot or a Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX2, which has a small Leica lens and three aspect ratios: 4:3, 3:2 and, my favourite, the widescreen 16:9.