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Guatape, Colombia, Photo by Bruce Berger

How To Take Pictures of Strangers And Have Them Begging For More

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Mali, Photo by Pam Perkins

Whether it’s true or not, I have a reputation as being fearless.

Fearless in the way I travel and fearless when taking pictures of strangers. These aren’t words I’d use to describe myself, but rather I prefer saying I’m someone who steps out of my comfort zone in order to experience and understand the human condition. One way is through travel and connecting with people. For me, this happens when I take pictures of people because when I look through the camera’s view finder and see a face, I swear I hear a heart beat and see an open mind. This begins a personal connection based around the creative process that involves mutual respect and trust. The photographer must respect his or her subject and the subject must trust the person behind the camera. This relationship creates a structural tension that can result in a beautiful story.

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Southwest China, Photo by Pam Perkins

My Travel Philosophy

Serious travel and photography started simultaneously after I retired and married a great guy who shared my enthusiasm for exploring the world. Considering that our first trip together years ago involved a lot of eating and drinking while driving around Italy, it’s surprising that our travel philosophy is to visit places that are on the brink of change. This objective evolved after our first trip to Africa and a visit to remote villages on the Sepik River in Papua New Guinea. This focus has been the driving force behind travel to the Middle East, Asia, Africa, Greenland, and Antarctica.

My happiest travel moments are when I connect with people,

so it’s natural for me to take photographs of strangers. My friends claim I’m fearless because I react to a person or a situation and start taking pictures. Sometimes I ask permission, either indirectly by quietly showing my camera, raising my eyebrows in question, and waiting for a signal that says it’s ok or I ask directly. But often I don’t want to interrupt what famous street photographer Henri Cartier Bresson calls “the decisive moment.” Photography must seize upon this moment and hold immobile the equilibrium of it. After taking a picture, I usually try and strike up a conversation, so I can show the photograph and benefit from a reaction. For me this one-to-one interaction is an important element of the photographic continuum, and often door-opening opportunities show themselves after making this personal connection. When I take the path of least resistance by assessing the person and/or the situation and then determining what I want to create, something unique often happens because of an energy that author and composer Robert Fritz calls structural tension.

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Bogata, Colombia, photo by Pam Perkins

Successfully taking photographs of strangers

is due in part to being perceptive and sensitive to the person, the space around them, and their situation. I seldom photograph homeless people unless they are part of a scene and a larger story rather than being the focal point. And photographing children without asking their parents first is a no-no. I learned my lesson the hard way.

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Cartagena, Colombia, Photo by Pam Perkins

I can start a conversation with almost anyone.

This is true. Under my picture in my high school and college year books I’m labeled a talker. This is the correct moniker. I’m a gregarious extrovert who can strike up a conversation with almost anyone (animate or inanimate), and while being chatty helps to photograph strangers, I believe that with practice, and possibly a glass of wine, any one can learn to take great photos of strangers.

HOLA!

Last year I went to Cuba for the second time to experience an appreciation for the people by digging more deeply into their lives and documenting these relationships with pictures. My approach is always the same no matter where I travel.

  1. Begin with a warm smile and use other friendly body language.
  2. Make direct eye contact.
  3. Say a simple greeting in the language of the country, such as hello or how are you.

In Cuba the word for hello is simple — Hola! Sadly my vocabulary only consists of a dozen or so Spanish words, none of which can be strung together to make a complete sentence, but somehow I don’t think it really matters. You don’t have to say something important to make a good first impression. Just refer to the tactics I mentioned above.

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Cuba, Photo by Pam Perkins

Back to my story. While visiting a small town on the Eastern side of Cuba, I explored the back streets where most of the locals live because staying off the tourist route is important if you want to photograph authenticity. That’s when I saw an older man and his twenty-something daughter sitting on a doorway stoop looking at me in a friendly way. Seeing me smile first, they smiled back, which I interpreted as an invitation to get closer and start a conversation. But as you know, my non-existent Spanish wouldn’t get me far, but my body language and our mutual smiles could and did. This was the beginning of the respect and trust quotient which was the catylyst to taking pictures. To make a long story short, an invitation to come in to their modest home resulted in some of the most meaningful non-verbal dialog I had on this trip and at the same time I was able to create authentic photographs.

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Cuba, Photo by Pam Perkins

What makes this work? Photograph with intention. This kick starts the creative process.

In Cuba my intention was to get closer to and understand the people.

In Sudan my intention was to show how people bond together to create their own powerful connections and positive energy regardless of their personal hardships or situation.

How do strangers respond? Mostly positive, but…..

In Africa some of the tribal families responded differently to my intentions.

I was probably more interested in creating a human connection than the locals wanted to develop with me because I was such an oddity for them. Few Westerners travel to the remote region of South Omo, Ethiopia because it’s a rugged trip, so the tribal people were curious and somewhat skeptical about me. My connection with them was knowing that my photographs could possibly be the first time these people had ever seen a picture of themselves. It’s hard to imagine in the 21st Century, but what a positive difference it would have made if I had used a Polaroid camera so they had a picture to keep. Note to self: Take a Polaroid camera to Côte D’Ivoire in 2020.

The Iranian people were more interested in taking pictures of me than the other way around, since few Americans travel there because they consider Iran a risky destination. Because of the relationships I developed through photographing the elusive nomads of the Quasgai tribe, I’m now connected and have friendships with a half dozen Iranians on Instagram.

Laughter doesn’t require a translator. It’s a universal language.

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San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, Photo by Pam Perkins

Humor also helps close the gap between photographer and subject. On a trip to Colombia, I approached a group of women about my age who were engrossed in a rapid-fire conversation that had them all laughing. They were having so much fun that I wanted to join in and laugh too. So I stood close by thinking I could eaves drop, but they weren’t speaking my language. Then one of them saw me smile while sneaking a peek, so she opened their circle, and welcomed me into the group, not caring who I was. When they saw my camera, they figured I was an out of towner, but after hearing “Yo no habla Espanol, Yo habla Ingles,” they knew I was from another country. These are two short sentences I have mastered in Spanish. “I do not speak Spanish. I speak English.” One of my other techniques, which endeared me to these ladies, is a countdown of the 12 words I know in Spanish. I announce them in staccato fashion but in a self-deprecating and humorous way. My 12 words of Spanish, which I call my Spanish shtick, works well for me because people sense that my heart is in the right place. It’s my tongue that has the problem.

Yo No Habla Espanol. Nada

So, yes, when language is the barrier, photographing strangers can be a challenge. For example, how do I photograph these women who were standing in poor light in front of a distracting background? With no time to waste, I spotted a doorway that solved both problems, but required moving everyone around. So how did I manage to do this without breaking the spell, changing the mood or affecting the dynamics? Well, after making it clear we needed a better site, I used every personal prop I had— my voice, my LOUD and BOSSY voice, hand gestures (be careful with the hand gestures as they mean different things in different countries), and other body signals like nodding or shaking my head. Thankfully, everyone understands the word NO. And Yes in Spanish is Sí, which is one of my 12 shtick words. To move a person might require tapping someone’s shoulder and pointing to the place I want them to stand. Something like that. Often I take my two fingers and point to my eyes which is a way of saying “Hey, look at me, not at her.” Then if I want serious facial expressions, I’ll slide my fingers across my lips which substitutes for “Hey, you, stop smiling.” This seems to work for me, and my subjects don’t smile until they hear the camera click. And then after, they usually burst out laughing. I work hard to make it a good time. These women had no idea who I was or where I came from, but it didn’t matter. We were all enjoying ourselves — so much so that a man on a bicycle and a neighborhood dog joined the group to be in the photo.

And what about taking pictures in stealth mode?

Some times it’s best to be invisible as a photographer so as to not change the mood and thus affect the story. While standing on the edge of a doorway of a small cafe, I saw an older man sitting at a table by himself, looking away from me, and gazing into space. I loved his face, so I put my camera into continuous mode and took a series of images that made me want to know him better. What was he thinking? Was he worried or was he remembering a happy time? I found myself connecting with his thoughts in such a way that I moved closer and closer until I was standing about four feet from him. That’s when he saw me and my camera. He didn’t move. He didn’t smile. He just stared at me, but his expression changed from a gaze, indicating deep thoughts, to a very slight upward curve of his lips. I could tell he was enjoying this. Here was a strange woman with a camera pointed at his face. Neither of us spoke, but something magical happened because I felt a connection with him on a level I can’t quite explain. Simply put, we felt the emotional presence of one another.

After taking several close-up portraits, I turned the camera toward him so he could see the beautiful pictures I’d made. He smiled warmly and softly touched my face with his hand in a way that silently said thank you. I smiled too, and then slowly walked away. No words were exchanged between us. Later on I saw him in the town square talking to his friends and pointing at me. By then the magical connection had disappeared, so rather than walking over to meet his friends, I just gave him a big smile and waved goodbye.

These are the intrinsic experiences I crave when I travel and take pictures of strangers.

Written by

Writer, Photographer, Cyclist, World Traveler, 76 countries and counting. www.pamperkins.com.

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