Taking travel portraits on the road

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I remember once taking a photograph of a man in Botswana when I was younger. His face was intriguing – beautiful and expressive. I knew it was going to make for an interesting photograph. He saw me take the shot from a short distance and was angry that I had not asked his permission. I had invaded his privacy and he walked away furious. When I looked back on the photograph I couldn’t see what had initially inspired me to photograph him, only the anger I had made him feel. I felt ashamed and deleted it. From that point on, I changed my approach to taking portraits on the road.

Here are a few tips for portrait photography when travelling to ensure everybody involved gains from the experience:

Ask for consent

First and foremost, you need to ask for consent when taking anybody’s photograph. It is not your right and you need to respect theirs if they decline. Many people, particularly children, jump at the opportunity and can’t get enough of being in front of the camera, while for others it is culturally offensive to take images. If there is a language barrier, show them the camera and ask with a questioning ‘thumbs up’. A nod or shake of the head will usually be the internationally understood reply. If the parents of children are nearby, ask for their permission first to avoid any problems (or threats) after you have taken the shot.

Dogon Elder, Mali

Distance and consent

Sometimes distance allows you to take a photograph without invading somebody’s privacy or revealing their identity. They made be a silhouette or figure in a landscape and they are not central to the image. I think in such cases consent is not required, but if somebody starts waving aggressively at you ‘NO!’, don’t point your lens in their direction.

Petrol for sale on the side of the road, Uganda

Money talks

When asking to take somebody’s portrait, you will occasionally be asked for money and whether you agree or not is at your discretion. In some communities, particularly tribal groups, who experience what is referred to as ‘human safari’ tourism, money is often required before any photographs may be taken, or you must deal with the consequences! In my opinion this is fair enough. They are well aware that tourists return to their home countries and some earn money from the photographs they have taken, so it is only fair that the subject is getting something in exchange. In other instances I think people are just being opportunistic – there is nothing to lose asking a supposedly rich tourist for a dollar or two in exchange for your photograph. If you feel it is a fair exchange, then why not? However care does need to be taken, particularly with children, who could see it as a lucrative means of earning money and seek out tourists as an alternative to going to school. I try to straddle the line a bit and instead of paying money I will buy produce from the person if they are a vendor, or utilize their services, perhaps with a rickshaw driver, establishing a relationship built on their business, and the photograph also becomes a record of that.

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Make adjustments, but make them fast

When somebody agrees for you to take their photo remember they are giving up their time for you so don’t prolong the situation unnecessarily. Sure the light may not be perfect, or your aperture could be different, or there may be something distracting in the background, but if you need to make adjustments, do them swiftly so that you are not making your subject change positions 10 times or wait until the goods train passes behind them. Remember that spontaneous moments can offer an expressiveness that no amount of planning can surpass.

Home-made football, Tanzania

Sharing the shot

In the digital age of instantaneous images and LCD screens, there is no excuse to not show people their photograph after the shot has been taken. The reaction of people to seeing their image, and those of relatives and friends, is the most enjoyable experience of portrait photography when travelling and it creates a connection between you and your subject. Sometimes when I go back through images it is the ones that hold the most memorable recollections of the shoot itself that speak the loudest.

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Connect
Remember that portrait photography is about having a connection with your subject, whether you are in a studio or on the road. So take the time to talk and relate to whomever you would like to photograph. You never know – their background story could add a whole different dimension to the photograph that you were never expecting, and it is often these informed images that create the biggest impact.

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