If you like this post, please read the comments too – there are some real gems including some really interesting points from one of the photographers I mention in the article.
Lately, I write my posts with less and less certainty and with more and more questions. This might be a problem. After all we influencers/travel bloggers/whatnot are supposed to be and establish authority for the things we write about, this is why people go and read you. Or so they say… I don’t feel very authoritative at the moment but instead quite insecure about everything: my travels, the world, and what I put out here.
It’s not that I am afraid of a discussion, afraid to be told I am wrong or questioned, afraid to be too politically incorrect or not enough, I sometimes just don’t know what to believe anymore and how to decide what is right or wrong or even if there is a right or wrong. All I do know I am not in a position to give a definite answer so I will write this post not to give answers but raise questions. And maybe that is okay. Maybe you will, in fact, forgive me that I am not an authority on nothing and maybe you actually come here to find some questions to make you think in return. Not to agree and nod along but to wonder, wrinkle your brow and counter with another question that just popped into your head.
So here we go with today’s non-authoritative post which actually has been in the making for a while but I couldn’t really put it into words until now.
To shoot or not to shoot?
L et’s talk about people photography. The holy grail of travel photography and one that seems to separate the amateur from the professional, the influencer from the journalist.
These past few months I have been on a lot of group trips that make you inevitably learn how to deal with a whole bunch of different characters. It doesn’t matter whether you pay for it and call it a holiday or join a press trip which is basically work. You will meet different characters and people from all walks of life in the country you are visiting but also the ones traveling next to you on the bus. I guess that is part of what makes traveling so fun and I dare say I have been incredibly lucky with the people I met. Except for a few ‘interesting’ exceptions, I have met a lot of wonderful humans and some even became friends.
One thing, however, struck me especially in the last few months – the ease and sometimes carelessness these other bloggers/journalists/travelers take pictures of local people.
“Did you get her?” I overheard one girl ask a photographer from National Geographic in Nepal after an old Nepalese woman had walked by carrying her heavy yet oh so picturesque basket full of firewood. Mind you, the guy was carrying a zoom lens long enough to beat any Porsche as a status symbol for a male midlife crisis – if he ‘hadn’t gotten her’ he needed to find another job. But I was shocked by the words somehow. Was this woman as so many others a mere subject for him? A Pokemon in a photographer’s game of ‘gotta catch them all’? What about her story, her face or at least her name?
I didn’t matter to me if he was working for National Geographic or a regular tourist or a semi-professional blogger. It felt icky and working for a publication that everyone in my field adores and covets didn’t make it
better – at least not for me. Does it make a difference whether you just shoot for your own Facebook page, your blog or a big international publication? Does the end justify the means?
I am not sure where the line is. I tried to set some ‘rules’ for myself when I wrote this post after my trip to India last year. It was the first trip I started taking pictures of people and actually enjoying it as the locals were incredibly open and forthcoming. For some, these rules won’t work. A friend of mine is a CNN cameraman. He has been everywhere and seen it all, won the prices, got the t-shirt, and is definitely someone whose professional opinion I trust explicitly. In Bangkok, we had a conversation about Steve McCurry and his staged yet beautiful images. To my friend the staging of pictures, even the asking permission of a person first was a big no-no. “You can never ever get a picture as good if you ask the person first; everything about them and the situation changes,” he said. That made me think too.
I am still not sure I agree with him or rather I don’t know if it should matter. I have taken some, what I consider beautiful portraits, and asked the people for permission first, gave them a moment to compose themselves, to show me the face they wanted to put forward. But to be honest, maybe I had to. I realized I am not there yet with my photography skills where I ultimately want to be and maybe my morals for a lack of better word will never get me there.
As much as my fingers may itch, I simply don’t want to ‘get’ an old woman on the street; I don’t want such a phrase and the action of running clandestinely after someone be part of the picture I take. My trip to the World Nomad Games was different. Everyone seemed to be there to put on a show whether they actually were or not. Somehow that made it alright for me. But is it?
On my recent trip to Uganda, it was a whole different matter. Spending most of our time on a bus it was a lot harder to connect with people and so there was a lot of ‘from the hip’ shooting while we drove. The more it happened, the more it started to irk me. People were treated like zoo animals and the fact that they usually didn’t notice didn’t make it matter to me. But also – I was envious. Envious because I knew that the guys happily shooting away, hiding behind their lenses, would get the better shots than I who managed one mere portrait during a week-long trip.
On our last day when some were shooting a few children while waiting for the ferry, it hit me: the reason that it bothered me so much was simply the fact that we would never dare to do that at home with let’s be blunt – white kids. We would feel too apprehensive to just approach a random stranger and start snapping away and even more awkward to lean out of a moving car and take pictures of a few kids on the playground. And I can’t even imagine what we would do if we ever caught a stranger taking pictures of our kids. Not that we would want to take these photos. Our photography subjects need to be exotic and preferably poor. Or so it seems; maybe I am becoming a cynic but have most of us crossed the line to poverty porn? Do good intentions behind a picture make it any better?
As I said at the beginning of the post – I don’t have all the answers and this is not a story to blame others out of spite and jealousy. I want to photograph people and take beautiful pictures but I also want to do it right and do right by them. This might depend on the situation but trying to ‘get’ people from a moving vehicle especially kids is not it for me.
My own hesitation might be the reason why I will never become one of the photographers I so admire but maybe that is okay. Maybe I can just become the person who puts her camera down more often to actually enjoy the moment. To pull funny faces at the kids others are so desperately trying to shoot. Maybe I won’t have digital proof that the moment happened and maybe that is okay – I will know that it happened and no picture can ever adequately retell the joy of turning a little stranger into a friend with a high five or pretending to be roaring lions.
What do you think? As a traveler or as a professional – where are your lines, when do you shoot and when do you put the camera down?