Posted: 9/25/17 | September 25th, 2017
Amateur and professional photographers alike agree: Getting locals to relax for a good photograph is one of the hardest aspects of travel photography — but not entirely impossible.
Lola Akinmade Åkerström is an award-winning photographer whose work has appeared in publications all over the world. She loves capturing the people in her travels and connecting with them in the process. Here’s how she does it.
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.
When we make these local connections — no matter how subtle or fleeting — they transform the people we usually gloss over into see three-dimensional human beings. When we actively seek out these connections, you’ll not only learn more about the destination you’re visiting but you’ll be able to snap deeper, more meaningful photos.
Here are a few key tips to keep in mind when you’re looking to photograph people while you travel.
1. Make an Effort to Communicate
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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.
By breaking the ice and communicating with the people you want to photograph you’ll find your photos become much more valuable souvenirs, reminders of the shared experiences we all have — no matter where we’re from.
Moreover, you can use this opportunity to learn things about the culture and destination. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, even if there is a language barrier. These answers will open doors in both your photography as well as your travels in general. The more you learn, the more empowered you become as a traveler.
2. Observe Their Daily Lives
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.
Breaking down barriers through action works hand-in-hand with communication; it’s a simple gesture you can use to build a relationship that will help you learn more, have a deeper travel experience, and get a better shot.
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.
3. Cheesy Grins Work
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.
Moreover, smiles are universal. They are something everyone does no matter where in the world they live. It’s a cross-cultural connector. Embrace it.
When photographing children (something you need to be particularly careful with, especially if you are sharing those photos online), remember they love to be entertained. This always starts with a smile.
4. Show Respect
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.
If they don’t, take that as your cue to say goodbye and move on. Not everyone wants to be photographed. That’s ok. As long as you keep an open mind and work to communicate with locals whenever you can, you’ll encounter plenty of other opportunities down the road.
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.
Lola A. Åkerström is an award-winning writer, speaker, and photographer with National Geographic Creative. She regularly contributes to high profile publications such as AFAR, the BBC, The Guardian, Lonely Planet, Travel + Leisure, and National Geographic Traveler. Lola is also the editor of Slow Travel Stockholm, an online magazine dedicated to exploring Sweden’s capital city in depth. She lives in Stockholm and blogs at Geotraveler’s Niche.
Book Your Trip: Logistical Tips and Tricks
Book Your Flight
Find a cheap flight by using Skyscanner or Momondo. They are my two favorite search engines because they search websites and airlines around the globe so you always know no stone is left unturned.
Book Your Accommodation
You can book your hostel with Hostelworld. If you want to stay somewhere other than a hostel, use Booking.com as they consistently return the cheapest rates for guesthouses and cheap hotels.
Don’t Forget Travel Insurance
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Ready to Book Your Trip?
Check out my resource page for the best companies to use when you travel. I list all the ones I use when I travel. They are the best in class and you can’t go wrong using them on your trip.