Have you ever returned from a spectacular trip with a memory stick full of less-than-spectacular photographs? Judging from the number of yawnworthy Flickr albums out there, you’re not alone. Shooting bold, interesting photos on home turf is challenge enough; trying to do it when you’re not fluent in the language or local customs is downright difficult. Will brandishing a camera brand you as an obnoxious tourist? Should you ask permission and, if so, how? We’ve got suggestions for the shutter-shy.
Ask questions. Before you venture out, ask someone at your hotel or hostel how locals generally feel about having their photos taken by tourists. In some cases, it’s appropriate to tip a small sum in local currency to anyone you are photographing. If necessary, hire a guide from the area who can help you navigate the cultural terrain.
Ditch your mates. Take a break from your traveling companions and head out alone (or with your guide). Solo travelers are much more likely to be invited to private events like weddings or into homes, and these are fantastic opportunities to experience and document authentic culture. Look for children at play, adults at work, and older folks shooting the breeze; relaxed settings make for relaxed portraits.
Learn a few words in the local language. Communication is about understanding, not grammar. Most people (the French excluded) are appreciative of tourists who bother to learn the essentials. General pleasantries, like hello, please, and thank you, are a must. Learn how to ask May I take your photo? Alternatively, photo and OK? are widely understood, and you can always pantomime if necessary.
Smile. Approach people as you’d like to be approached, in a friendly, polite, and respectful manner. Never put the lens in someone’s face without permission.
Be brave. It takes some chutzpah to ask strangers if you can take their photograph. OK, a lot of chutzpah. Shy tourists sometimes fall back on taking clandestine shots or using a zoom lens—pretty creepy, if you think about it. Just be brave. Most people will consider the request a compliment, as long as your intentions and general vibe are positive.
Compose your shot. You’ve gotten permission for this fabulous shot, so determine your main subject and make certain it’s in focus. Compose the scene in a more interesting fashion than always having the subject in the center. Remember that pulling out to include other details (like a bit of traditional architecture or the food sitting on a table) will give the image life, as well as enrich the cultural context.
Share. Offer to mail or e-mail your subject a copy of the photo when you get home. If you have a digital camera, show off what you’ve shot right away. Children love it.
Get inspired. Before you leave for your trip, check out Diane Arbus, Alec Soth, and other great documentary photographers who weren’t afraid to approach strangers in search of truly authentic portraits.
Stephanie Glaros is Utne Reader’s art director.