Having photographed people in foreign countries for over 35 years, I’ve found that sometimes people don’t actually care if you photograph them. Of course, how you act can make a difference. I tend to smile a lot, look happy, and emit a pleased presence, as if we were all having a great time. But sometimes, even from the start, people honestly don’t care. I was in a tiny village south of Shanghai one clammy March when a traveling opera troupe came to town. They were performing in the local temple and twice a day donned colorful silk costumes and entertained the audience with their dramatic singing and acting. In between performances, they ate meals, smoked cigarettes, played cards, or got ready for the next performance. My Chinese was little to nonexistent, and I had no translator. Much to my surprise, they didn’t pay the slightest attention to me, so I just shot away. During the four days I spent with them, we barely communicated outside the occasional smile and nod. Every once in a while, it’s nice to be a fly-on-the-wall photographer.
When I’m shooting in a market or shop, I always make it a point to buy something. In Hong Kong, I walked into the city’s oldest herb shop and was astounded by all the drawers of dried herbs, roots, and strange reptile specimens. Behind the counter, the shopkeeper was weighing mysterious items and wrapping them in bits of paper. It was all so fascinating that I could have spent the entire afternoon shooting photos there. To make a positive impression on the shopkeeper, I asked her to put together a package of remedies for me, gesturing to convey my various ailments. Since I was now a bona fide customer, she didn’t seem to mind being photographed—and even seemed rather pleased.
It may be a surprise to learn that one of the hardest places in the world to photograph people is in Paris, home to so many legendary photographers. Although I’m fluent in French, my perfectly crafted requests are often denied. Parisian cafés are particularly daunting places to shoot—as soon as I raise my camera, I’m greeted with angry looks. My solution has been to approach the patrons who have dogs. Since the French love to bring their dogs to cafés, I usually have a selection of subjects to choose from, and they rarely object when I ask if I can photograph la petite Fifi. During the cooing and petting, the owners often come around to allowing themselves to be in pictures too.
Photographing people in a foreign country presents a specific set of challenges, among them increased anxiety, language barriers, and unfamiliar customs. But when you’re abroad, as at home, it’s most important that you gain the trust of your subjects. This is what will allow you to photograph people as they are in their shops, their favorite cafés, and even their homes. Always emit a positive vibe and approach your subjects not as a camera but as a person—let your smiling face be the first thing they see. And ask permission to shoot when you feel it’s appropriate.
Before I travel to a foreign country, I always learn a handful of complimentary words like “beautiful” and “wonderful.” Even if they’ve agreed to be photographed, many people are uncomfortable in front of a camera and uncertain of what they should be doing, so it’s essential to be encouraging by repeating positive words. While in France, I came across a farmer and his wife heading home for lunch in their classic Citröen. They were confused about why I wanted to photograph them, so I explained that it was because they were a handsome couple and the car was wonderful. Simply conveying that I saw something beautiful in photographing them was reason enough, and they gave me time to make this gentle portrait.
Socializing with the people you hope to photograph lowers barriers and puts your subjects at ease. I was lucky to be invited to the home of these Russian twins whose likeness to Lenin has led to parts in movies and print ads. During my visit, I wanted them to be themselves and found that we all became more relaxed once I sat down with them to share a bite to eat and shots of vodka. Their English was good enough to make (very) small talk, and between looking at their photo albums and conversing with gestures, I was able to get natural, spontaneous photos.
Cultural sensitivities vary greatly around the world, so it’s always important to get to know the customs of the country or region you’re visiting and to understand when it’s okay to shoot and better not to. If I’m uncertain, I ask permission of a person in charge or try to catch someone’s eye to get an affirmative nod. When in doubt, keep a respectful distance. At a temple in Beijing, I wasn’t at all sure of the correct etiquette for photographing these monks, so I stayed well behind them and decided to include the beautiful old bell to make this shot.
In certain countries, I always seem to get invited to weddings and parties. In the lobby of my hotel in Jaipur, India, I met a bridal party getting ready for a wedding about to take place on the hotel grounds. After offering my congratulations and shooting a few fun snapshots that I would email to them, they generously invited me to the wedding. Indian weddings are about as photogenic as any event can get, so I eagerly accepted. Weddings and parties are great places to shoot because people are joyous, festive, and usually delighted to be photographed.
Every time I start an assignment in a foreign country, I feel shy all over again. To get warmed up and into the groove, I’ll sometimes begin by photographing my guide or a doorman at my hotel. They’re usually willing subjects, and the environment is unthreatening. In Phnom Penh, Cambodia, I was drawn to the gentle features of the bellhop stationed in the hotel lobby, so I decided to spend some time shooting his portrait. Seeing his pleasure at the image on the back of my camera gave me the confidence to venture outside and start my shoot.
People who look confused and distant in portraits probably were confused and emotionally far away when the photo was shot. To get a direct, unwavering gaze, you have to clearly and persistently communicate your intentions. I was with the clergy members from a village church in Transylvania one Sunday, and as they were about to go home for lunch, I suddenly decided to do a group portrait. My translator was nowhere to be found, so it was up to me to ask for the few minutes it would take to get a powerful portrait. I gestured for everyone to look directly into the lens. Gracefully, keeping my hand gestures gentle and nonaggressive, I pointed to my own eyes and then touched the front of my lens. The men were distracted, though, so I gently guided darting eyes back into the lens. When people sense passion and a resolute desire, they respond despite any language barrier.
If you show a genuine interest in your subjects and their work, your portraits will communicate the bonds that you’ve created together. In Sydney I came upon a wonderful shop that sold didgeridoos. As soon as I saw the owner’s soulful eyes and splendid leather hat, I knew I wanted to photograph him with the instruments. But I could sense his shyness and knew enough about the Aboriginal culture to understand his reticence. So I started by getting permission to shoot the didgeridoos and asked him to explain the significance of the various carvings. As we talked and worked together, he saw that I was fascinated with his artwork and culture. After shooting the didgeridoos, I gently asked him if he would pose with his own creations. I was happy that he easily agreed, and I knew that he felt proud. For the subject to have had as meaningful a time as I’ve had is deeply important to me.
Catherine Karnow is a San Francisco-based photographer whose work has appeared in National Geographic, National Geographic Traveler, and other publications. She has been teaching photography workshops since 1995.
is a National Geographic photographer and contributing editor. She has shot for Smithsonian magazine and the French and German editions of GEO.
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