When you’re traveling, everything is new to you and there’s so much to photograph: nature, landscapes, cities, and of course: the people. It seems like a dream come true, but it can be a real challenge to photograph people in a country new to you and in a different culture. There are so many nuances to keep in mind and many potential misunderstandings.
In this video, Mitchell Kanashkevich discusses all the hard truths about photographing people while you’re traveling. But he also offers solutions to overcome challenges and end up with splendid photos, memorable experiences, and perhaps even some new friendships.
1. The balance between friendships and working relationships
It’s almost impossible to find a perfect balance between friendships and working relationships when you’re on the road. On the plus side, friendships you make along the way give you more access to places and personal moments of a family. Being friends with your subjects, guides and translators makes both of you go an extra mile for each other.
But on the minus side, sometimes making friends with those people can create misunderstandings, especially if you come from different cultures. Things can sometimes get too complicated and tense. Or on the other hand, they can get too relaxed so you don’t get all the work done. This is why preserving a little bit of distance works best, but Mitchell personally prefers to lean towards friendship. It gives you a possibility for something deeper, both in photography and in life.
2. You need a cultural filter
Some of the most incredible journeys will be to the countries where the culture is totally different from yours. But this also means that there are a lot of nuances and many chances of doing and saying wrong things. In such cases, you should have a cultural filter: a person who understands both worlds. It can be a guide, a translator, or a friend. Even if you speak the language, you may not know the culture. So, it’s the best option to seek help from somebody who understands both worlds.
3. There are sometimes bad guys along the way
From time to time, it will happen that people won’t respect deals, cheat you for money, or you may even get robbed. Don’t dwell on these negative experiences. Learn from them, get wiser, and move on with your journey and your work.
4. Sometimes you’re not really wanted around
Sometimes, you’ll feel welcome in a community, but after a while, you’ll feel that you’re not welcome any longer. There may be no aggression or animosity, but you’ll be able to feel the tension and that you’re not wanted there anymore. If you’re on an assignment and need to take the photos, this can feel awkward and unpleasant. But if you can choose, then don’t disturb the daily life of these people and stay longer than you feel wanted.
5. The rest of the world is probably not like your world
As Mitchell puts it, in the “Western world,” we’re in a bubble and we’re shielded from pain and suffering. Outside our bubble, in some parts of the world, this pain and suffering are very “in your face.” And you’ll inevitably get affected by these things.
When you travel a lot, you’ll inadvertently encounter something you wish you’d never discovered. Even if you eventually get tougher, everyone has a soft spot. So, whenever possible, isolate yourself from the situations you know that will hit you hard.
6. Countless questions will keep you up at night
The more you travel, the more you discover. And the more you discover – the more questions you have. When you see aforementioned the pain and suffering, what should you do? You’re not just a photographer, you’re also a human being. Should you get involved? Who do you help? How many people can you help? Or should you just take photos and move on? Another very important thing to consider is how far you will go to take a photo: and this will bring out many more questions.
The answers are personal and subjective, and there are no right or wrong answers. Try to stay away from the extremes, but everything in between is a matter of choice and situation. Prepare to make some mistakes for sure, but keep in mind that, many times you’ll also do the right thing.
7. Awkwardness and discomfort are normal
For a professional travel photographer, awkwardness and discomfort are very normal. You’ll sometimes be put in situations that can be very unpleasant or awkward for you. But, consider it as the price you need to pay for bonding with your subjects or to get access to their daily lives.
Ask yourself is it something worth doing for photos and how much discomfort it would cause. For example, if you don’t drink and the locals want you to drink with them, then perhaps this isn’t worth it. But if it’s just something that will cause a minor discomfort – go with it. After all, it’s good to sometimes step out of our comfort zone.
Some advice to help you in all situations
- Don’t generalize: most people are good, some are bad, and some will try to convince you that the others are bad. As a traveler and a photographer, you need to be as objective as possible. This will allow you to see all the possibilities but also stop you from letting your guard down too much.
- Make yourself as likable as possible as quickly as possible: how you do this is up to you, but keep in mind that the more people like you, the more they’re willing to cooperate and to let you into their world.
- Don’t ever lose your temper: you’ll never get anything done if people see you losing control. People won’t know what to do and how to react.
- Keep your sense of humor: it’s easy to get frustrated when something goes wrong, but this state of mind is unproductive. Make jokes about your misfortunes, it makes it easier for you to overcome the tough moments.
Traveling and photographing people certainly sounds like an amazing thing to do for a living. But, just like everything else in life, it has its downsides. Hopefully, these guidelines will get you prepared for some tough moments you may encounter and help you make the best out of them.
[Hard TRUTHS about travel and photography of people | Mitchell Kanashkevich]