Photography is not about the camera. It’s not even about the beautiful images we create. It is about telling powerful stories. Photography is a tool for creating awareness and understanding across cultures, communities, and countries; a tool to make sense of our commonalities in the world we share. I believe the way to find common ground is by seeing yourself in others.
A lot of my work involves traveling to foreign countries and living in remote places. My job is to become invisible and get close to people and wildlife, so I can bring their stories to life. It’s no different being in my home state of Montana than it is being in a country ten thousand miles away. For me, the intimate moments always matter the most. Photography has been my passport to meeting people, learning, and experiencing new cultures.
Firstly, study in depth everything you can about the place you’ll be visiting, especially local newspapers and social media. Local stories that may not reach the large international papers give me hints about what’s really trendy in a place. Create relationships before you even get on the plane. Make a point of supporting other photographers and foundations. Nothing is as valued as another photographer who has been there. I like to use social media to meet people, or through websites.
The calm way to make convincing, real photographs of people is by being faithful. Making truthful images of people is not a trick. It’s a skill a photographer can develop, which requires respect for the subject and building a relationship in the time you have together. Successful pictures of people almost never capture from a distance. Put away the telephoto lens and become part of the moment.
You think you will remember everyone you meet, but time and age fade the memory. In the past, I used to take down people’s names and a short description of what they were wearing, or some distinguishing feature about them. I would get back home, start looking through my notes and discover many of the girls I was photographing wearing similar-looking pink dresses. Now I carry my mobile, loaded with a model-release app, which allows me to take pictures and get their consent at the same time. I also make a practice of writing captions and labeling images right after a trip ends, and not delay.
Fit in with the scene, understanding is always the best. Again, sensitivity for the values and norms of where you are going a long way to being accepted. A female photographer may want to wear a scarf to cover her head in some cultures. It’s one of the most visible ways to show respect for local sensibilities. I also avoid looking like the stereotypical photographer.
I rely on the humanity of strangers everywhere I go. It is real and out there—most people are lovely and kind. It’s a delightful world out there, but remember to be on the protector, as unfortunately, bad clouds can form and pressures can escalate. Trust your instincts and don’t ever accept or be calmed into a false intellect of security. Even if it feels safe, don’t let your lookout down. I have found that creating relationships in advance is the best way to prepare.
Your subjects are giving of themselves. Don’t misuse their gift of sharing their lives. Don’t treat them like models. Send back some prints, cherish the moment, and treat them well. Don’t promise if you don’t intend to deliver. In this age where many people are digitally connected, it has become easier than ever to email a jpeg to an address for your subjects to share.
Yes, getting the shot is important, but be thankful that you have the opportunity to even be where you are. Pinch yourself and enjoy the moment. It relaxes everyone, and the pictures and stories are better for it.