Travel Photography: Connecting with People

By Nomadic Matt | Published September 25th, 2008

Amateur and professional photographers alike agree: Getting natives to relax for a good photograph is one of the hardest aspects of travel photography — but not entirely impossible.

Locals Are Not Scenery
Locals are not scenery
While traveling through a region where you see locals you’ve only viewed in magazines (for example, monks in Southeast Asia or Zulu tribesmen in East Africa), there is a tendency to get excited while subconsciously putting up a “no-interaction” wall. You tiptoe around them in a fragile fashion. Whether it is through eye contact or some other form of personal acknowledgment, you have to engage them. This transforms them into living, breathing beings.

While shopping in Cusco, I felt a little tug on my pants. Initially frightened, I peered down only to find an old lady sitting on the floor, arranging flowers, and asking for money. It could have been easy to paint her into the Peruvian market scene, but I instantly squatted down and spent quite some time down on the floor with her.

Make an Effort to Communicate
How to photograph people
She was fiery and infectious. I could never forget this old lady I met in the tiny remote village of Krang Yaw in Cambodia. I didn’t speak a single word of Khmer, yet we were able to converse through gestures. Oral communication can sometimes be overrated.

Observe Their Daily Lives
How to photograph people
Let them know their work isn’t insignificant and, if possible, momentarily partake in their work with them. Whether helping a porter take down the tent, or lending a hand to a baker, it communicates that you find their duties equally important.

How to photograph people

Once in Lima, I wandered into a gift shop. After chatting with the shopkeeper, she seemed perplexed as to why I would want to take her picture. Letting her know that I found her more interesting than the wares she was hawking instantly warmed her.

Cheesy Grins Work
How to photograph people

Smiling usually disarms people and breaks down their defensive walls. A smile and gentle nod always goes a long way and lets your subject know that you are very approachable. When photographing children, remember they love to be entertained, and this always starts with a huge grin.

Show Respect
How to photograph people
Connecting with people ultimately boils down to respect. Give them their space. Know when to quit stalking them for the perfect shot. They will naturally open up to you of their own accord.

These experiences have happened organically during my travels. When it comes to personalities, people are inherently different, so only by trial and error (and, frankly, embarrassment in some cases!) would you be able to hone the body language necessary to communicate through your lens.

Photographer and writer, Lola Akinmade is the editor of Matador Goods. She has received numerous recognitions for her photography and written for many resources. She currently shuttles between D.C., Baltimore, and Stockholm.

comments 24 Comments

Just the tips I’ve been looking for! Thanks, Lola.

great tips..Ive enjoyed taking pictures of locals and its something I always do wherever I go

It’s also important to know the local culture surrounding photography. There are many places where photographing women could get you into big trouble.

Lola, great tips here! I also agree that respecting and making a human connection with locals is the best way to get great shots. I also find that admiring a baby/child is a good way to make a connection with the mother or father and that sometimes yields fun children or family shots. Some of our best people images have come from food markets.

Here’s what not to do: We saw a “professional” photographer with two DSLRs around his neck, each with a lens over a foot long, get in the face of a hill tribe woman selling vegetables at a market at Inle Lake in Burma. He treated her like a complete object, poking her to lift her arm up or move the vegetables around. Her face told it all – she was miserable. We saw him flip through his images on his LED screens – they were awful.

These are really great, Matt! It an be intimidating, but connecting with your subject is so key to capturing a beautiful photo.

NewWrldYankee

These were the kinds of tips i was asking for! Thanks, Matt. Keep them coming! Where are you now?

Lola- I’ve learned so much about photography from you! Thanks for more great tips.

trang

lola, great tips! thanks for the vibrant pictures!

amazing photos – thanks for the tips

Great tips, it is never straightforward with anyone! Sometimes they even ask for money! But smiling probably makes the biggest difference.

NomadicMatt

@anil: great advice!

@audrey: that is very true! Being one of those obnoxious travel photographers is a sure way to no get the photos you want and not connect with the locals.

@Newworld: Don’t thank me!!! Thank Lola! These are her excellent tips!

@beth: I wish I could take credit but Lola is the expert here!

@Julie: me too! Lola is such an amazing photographer!

These are gorgeous and lovely. Just lovely.

Hi all. Thanks so much for your comments. You’re making me blush :)

Beautiful photographs and great advice. It takes courage to approach and photograph people and of course charm and talent to get good results.

Stevo

Respect and understanding goes a long way. Great tips, Lola.

This is a wonderful post with awesome photos. One of the most human travel posts. So very true! Wow. It made such an impression on me….

Yes, smiles feeds smiles :-)

Taking pictures of people is very tough, and requires you to think about the person and not just the photo. Respect goes a long way to getting the right picture and the right reaction from the person AFTER the shot.

@Anil: great point on local culture; there are huge differences in how people react to having their picture taken around the world.

I’m a big fan of being able to give away prints of people: used to be easy with the old Polaroids… but the portable ink-jet printers are bringing it back. I’m considering getting a Polaroid PoGo for my next trip…

Lola, I am so impressed with your ability to photograph people like that. I’m always too nervous/embarrassed to approach people with my camera!

Very inspiring article Lola. I will keep these tips in mind the next time I’m out and about with my camera.

NomadicMatt

@tanya/Erica: Lola is simply amazing and we’re blessed to have her coming by to write once in awhile.

“Locals Are Not Scenery”

Truly so. I especially feel that, after just returning from a long trip, seeing the locals getting objectified to a great degree.

I take a lot of photos, but I have a hard time asking people to pose for me.

These pictures are wonderful. Indeed not scenery. Isn’t it the people who make a place what it is? I debated this with a friend recently. She’s travelled, but said something like “I’ve seen Victoria Falls, so why do I need to see Niagra?” It’s about the people. It’s always about the people, and you portray that magnificently!

Awesome tips, and super shots.

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