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. 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.
Make an Effort to Communicate
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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Note: This article was originally published in 2008.