Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Always ask for permission first

I get asked many times about how I come up with interesting portraits and features taken out in public. Normally if you stand from a public street, sidewalk in American a subject used to be fair game. It still is, but during these times where everyone is suspicious it’s good to ask beforehand.  Once you go onto someone’s property, such as a cafe, business or mall, it’s best to ask permission of owner and those who you hope to photograph.

One of the keys of photographing people of different cultures, not only in the United States, but abroad, is to do as much research as you can before you depart. Find out if there are any taboos concerning photography. Another key to taking good pictures abroad is to be sensitive to local customs and the different reactions people may have to you and your camera.

Some people will have no problem, while others have objections to photographs being made of certain individuals or groups. Some will deny pictures taken on religious principles. Some will feel that you want to make fun of them, to show their poverty or some other bad aspect of their lives to the world. Then, there's some that believe that when you make an image of them you are stealing their soul or in some way taking something away from them.

And they are right; when we photograph them we are capturing the essence or spirit of a person or place. You should always respect others' feelings and beliefs and you don't want to get beat up or land in jail. People are always more important that pictures. It's best to first ask them before you take a picture.

While in assignment in Hanoi, North Vietnam, my press guide and I were visiting a typical neighborhood and I came across this picture of an elderly woman and a young child sitting in a doorway. As soon as I raised my camera in their direction she scowled and let out a stream of Vietnamese. My guide said she didn’t want you to take their spirit. I asked him to explain that I only wanted to capture the beautiful child sitting on his grandmother’s lap to show the importance of family relationship in their country, where the aged are still important family figures and respected, not unlike in the United States where the sons and daughters often put their elderly parents in rest homes. This led to conservation and soon she agreed on letting me take their picture.

But mistakes are bound to happen. Once while photographing in Kenya’s old Muslin section of town, I spotted three kittens climbing up a white elaborate drapery that hung in front of an open door. So, in order to get a different angle I laid on my stomach, took some pictures and  heard some loud talking coming from behind me, but didn't pay too much attention as I was too intense on getting the photo. Then, a rock landing nearby got my attention. I got up looked over at the angry crowd that was gathering,  pointing and yelling. So deciding to head back into town, I turned to walk away and they followed. I walked faster and their pace quickened as well. Soon I was off and running down narrow alleys and streets with them in pursuit. It was like a scene out of the movie, “The Arabian Nights.” I ran around one corner and my escaped was blocked." When things started to get exciting, an old Indian man came out from his store and asked what had happened to cause such an event.  Looking kind of worried he turned in my direction and I explained to him in English, that I was only taking pictures of kittens playing. When he explained what I was shooting, the whole crowd busted out laughing and the tension quickly eased. They had thought I was taking pictures of unveiled women from under the protective cover of the drapery.

All ended well as I was treated to some of the finest Indian curry that night in a local restaurant and was able to get a guided tour, which ended up in capturing some great shots the following day in Mombassa.