Taking Pictures of people, without making them mad

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Photography is a big part of many trips these days; but how do you get that great shot of the people you meet along the way? We spoke with Andrew Lubran a motorcycle tour leader based in India, to find out…

So there you are, after days of riding out into the middle of nowhere, you finally arrive, and it is stunning. There in the fields are a group of ladies working away looking fantastic against the spectacular backdrop, so without dismounting from your bike you pull out your do-it-all compact camera, point it at the nearest one to you, and while looking avidly at your screen to make sure it is in focus, bang, you squeeze it off. Sorted, on the road again with a great picture to show your mates once you get home, right?

Well, er, wrong.

What you tend to get is either people so far away that you can’t see their faces, or you can see their faces but they are either pulling a gurning type expression, or they are looking pretty hacked off at your ignorant display of rudeness for having photographed them without asking.

Not many of us are natural David Baileys and we tend to feel uncomfortable photographing people we don’t know. wanting to get it over and done with as quickly as possible, preferably without them noticing. With a large dollop of luck, it will turn out okay.

Well, as you no doubt know, it won’t. The camera can be a wonderful way of building bridges of friendship and understanding between people, cultures and nations, or it can be a tool that causes discomfort and disrespect. It all depends upon you and how you use your camera.

I take it here that you have not ridden deep into somebody else’s culture in order to insult them. Therefore let us put these indiscretions down to misunderstanding and lack of information, and let’s put them right.

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I’m talking here primarily about the East, from Turkey across to Vietnam and most places south of this line. These cultures are fundamentally different from our own and require more thoughtfulness when photographing. Firstly, get off the bike, take off the helmet (especially closed face ones), smile and say hello or preferably use the local greeting to your proposed subject or subjects.

Move slowly towards them so as not to freak them out and make some small talk as to why you find them so interesting, such as nice plough! What time is it? How far to Timbuktu? Is this your brother? That’s an amazingly large bullock! … Whatever. Use sign language if necessary, but remember a genuine smile says it all.

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The point of this is to show you are a human and that you are friendly and sociable. This alone will immediately build a rapport.

If you don’t want to take the conversation any further, then at this point you can pull out your camera, indicate you would like to take a photograph and then on receiving the nod, raise it front of you while continuing to smile at your subject, and take the photo. With the ice broken you can now belt off another couple of informal shots on the back of it.

Next thing is to flip the screen around and show your subject the photo that you have taken, they may want you to have another go. They may want to have another one taken with both you and them in it. They may want you to photograph their dog.

All this can take a few minutes, but in that time you will have represented your country and your culture in a very positive way that will be remembered for years by the inhabitants of this small village. As you ride away, you and they will feel a warmth in your hearts that something beneficial has happened to bolster international understanding and friendship between nations.

It really is as simple as that.

Now here are a few extra tips to think about.

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Let’s face it; it is the women who we want to photograph generally because they always look so much better than the men. So let’s talk about that first.

Women like to look good in photos, so if they are dressed up for the market, a festival or some other occasion there is a good chance they will be happy to be photographed.

If they are covered in sweat and grime and in their work clothes, then chances are they won’t be up for it.

In Asia it is considered immodest for ladies to pose for photographs for men or with men. Therefore if your female subject is in view of neighbouring men she will glance around and say, “no thanks”, to a photo for the reason that the men will say to her husband or father, “I saw Fatima out there posing for photos from some European dude on a motorbike,” and she will get told off.

In some circumstances such as photographing a lady selling fruit in the market, you can get away with making eye contact with a smile and lifting your camera to show her. She will either shake her head or ignore you, which means, “ok, but do it quickly and be on with you, I’m working.”

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Asian women are generally very happy to be photographed by another woman as long as she is polite about it; ie, follows the aforementioned procedure. If you are travelling with your wife or girlfriend then get them to break the ice and then you can get in there over their shoulders and photograph discreetly.

In some circumstances where the man or lady is very poor, or sick of having their photo taken, or dressed up to be paid for photos, they will ask for money.

This is usually done by rubbing the fingers together ‘Fagin’ style once they spot the camera. There is nothing wrong with paying, and you can get great shots this way, as once you have agreed to pay them the subject will pose for as many photos as you like.

In Asia, this will cost you between 50p and £1 for the round. Basically, just nod your head and say okay, take your shots then give them the cash in local currency. This is the going rate so don’t be bullied into giving more and don’t pull out big wodges of notes, but have the right change ready in your hand and be sure to say thank you in every case.

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Interacting with locals really brings out the best in your pictures. Andrew’s advice is to treat people with respect, engage with them, and politely suggest taking their photograph. If they agree, then click away.

Bear in mind that in Asia men and women don’t touch, so shaking hands with women is generally a no-no. Also, the man/woman comfort zone distance is much greater than in Europe, so keep around five feet away from women at all times and they will feel comfortable.

If you are a woman then there is no problem, you are considered a sister and will be encouraged to make physical contact as the ladies will want to look at your hair and jewellery and talk with you if possible. They will also be happy for you to photograph them.

Children love being photographed by and large so you won’t have to try too hard, just remember to kneel down to get to their height, but don’t be tempted to hand out sweets, pens, money etc, as this gives them the impression that we are there to be taken advantage of and also encourages them to be beg as it looks like they can earn without effort.

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Talk to the hand…

What Asian children love is a bit of chat and laughs… it’s very easy!

Men are generally easy to photograph, too, following the above courtesy guidelines.

If there is a religious festival taking place, or a cremation for example, then please show a little respect and check with a local that it is okay to photograph before blasting away.

It is worth thinking about turning off your flash if it is going to disturb the atmosphere.

So in summary, taking photos of exotic locals should not be a case of, shoot them from a distance while they are not looking and try not to meet their eyes.

It should be ‘wow’, these people look great, okay, I am going to engage with them as a human before I take the photo and see what happens.

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A Polaroid camera would allow you to give them a copy

Here are a few travel photography tips to help make sure that your images turn out the way you want them.

Firstly, forget using your zoom. Use your feet and get up close, really close, fill the frame with your subject. If you just want their face then fill the frame with their head and shoulders.

Have a quick glance at the sun and by moving your position ensure it is falling onto their faces.

Don’t fiddle. Take the pictures quickly and take a few in succession.

The first shot is inevitably formal and Asians don’t like to smile for formal photos, but as soon as the first one is done and everyone relaxes, it is the time to take the really good images.

Check the background. Is it cluttered or ugly? Move your position to adjust for it.

Remember, the more you put into a photograph, the better it turns out, simple as that.

Think about how you would like it to look and work towards that smiling, all the way.

If you agree to send a copy of a photo to the people in it at the end of your trip then you will be providing them with an image they will always treasure, so remember to do that.

Lastly, let your camera be the catalyst to open the door to wonderful opportunities of communication with other cultures and let it be the source of happy encounters on the road with the overwhelmingly charming people who inhabit this incredible world.

About Andrew

Andrew has been a pro-travel photographer for 20 years supplying images for a huge range of publications and websites as well as being a contracted Lonely Planet Images photographer since 1993. Andrew currently owns and runs LiveIndia Motorcycle Tours, specialising in taking small groups deep into the cultures and landscapes of India.

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