Ma’am, One Photo, Please

August 29, 2013 // Worldnomads.com //

hampi boy

I was in Hampi, India, a landmark ancient civilisation now noted for its perfectly decrepit ruins, just outside Hyderabad. I had been snapping shots of the grotesque ruins, but by the end of the day most of my documented work focused on my group of five friends I was travelling with. You can only take so many pictures of old stone things, after all.

But suddenly, out of nowhere, belonging to no one, a group of Indian children stood in front of me. I charged forward, camera on hip, finger already on the shutter release, poised for action. The kids came clamoring towards us like zombies. But before I could reach the piece of equipment to my eye, I had dozens of little hands already pointing for the lens. Zombie trajectory diverted. “Photo, photo, photo!” “Ma’am, one photo please!” I clicked away.

As I snapped a photo of one child, others would crowd in, inevitably making their way into the frame. Some feigned a smile, most others were straight-faced and stoic in front of the lens. But the moment I whipped around the viewfinder and presented them with their own digital reflection, their faces broke out into a wide grin. Shrieking with delight, they jumped up and down and demanded more. It was a photographer’s dream.

I wish all my travel experiences could be documented so easily. Wouldn’t it be amazing if that alligator in the Nile paused for a second and asked me to take its photo? Wouldn’t it be a breeze if the Hasidic Jewish community in Brooklyn stopped and demanded that I document their everyday life?

My newest home is Tanzania, where I’ve been for three months. That’s three months of people staring me down when I point a lens anywhere remotely close to their line of sight. At the largest market in town, where I’ve only been bold enough to take my camera with me once (more for fear of it getting snatched out of my hands than anything else), I pretty much ran away from a cigarette vendor who demanded I pay him for a photo I took. The photo wasn’t even of him…but of course I wasn’t prepared to engage in that confrontation.

So, I know very well that it’s not always possible to have an accommodating subject matter, especially when you’re shooting on the street. But what can you do when there aren’t dozens of tiny hands pulling you over, begging for your to take a photo?

First, try to familiarise yourself with the location. Rather than take my camera out on the first outing in a new place, I’ll walk around and soak up my surroundings. It’s important to note how the locals respond to an outsider, to cameras, and it also provides a time to scope out some potential subjects or more hidden gems.

Force yourself to slow down and spend more than a day in each location you’re looking to get some good images. I have spent 24-hour layovers where my memories are more of me crouching to get a perfect shot, more than enjoying the scenery. And I’ve heard stories – horror stories – where people will visit five cities on a seven-day trip. Travelling is meant to be enjoyable, not completely unmemorable and stressful.

Don’t be a tourist. At least, not if you’re trying to be a good travel photographer, too. Chances are if it’s milling with fanny-pack wearing camera-strapped tourists, there will be an image online that is ten times better than the one you take. My most treasured travel images happen during the little walks I take in between meals, on the way to these tourist spots.

Buy something. Anything. You know, if I had purchased something from that cigarette vendor downtown, he probably might have obliged to have a photo taken. At the very least, he wouldn’t have snarled at me when I pointed my camera in his direction. I’ve also had great photographic opportunities when sitting down to eat at noodle stalls in Asia. If you’re a paying customer there, it gives you free reign to walk around and photograph some of their open-air kitchen. Same with spice markets in India, juice carts in Mexico, and bodegas in New York.

Think about something that’s special to you and document it, then don’t forget to share it. And I don’t mean with your mom. Share it online, with the world. It will translate into something special to others, too. Despite claiming that I am a travel writer and photographer, I don’t always have my camera on me. And inevitably there are many many moments when I wish I did. I can’t tell you how many “perfect images” I’ve missed. But I have memories in place of a photo, and it just makes the shots that I do end up getting so much sweeter.