Animals, landscapes, the lodges and camps and your off-road vehicle are probably the main subjects on the photos that you bring home from a journey. The more exotic the encounter, the more extraordinary the moment, the sooner we press the shutter release to capture the sight or the feeling it imparts. But what about the people you meet on your journey? Perhaps you take pictures of some of your travelling companions or the guide with whom you get along so well, but who else?
People are an important part of the journey. Human encounters occupy our mind as much as the animals and the landscape. They provide an emotional connection to a place, and scenes from everyday life show us how they live in that particular area. People should therefore feature in every travel story.
But how do I take photos of the children waving at the roadside, of the tour guide’s family, the villages that I pass, the people working in the field, the fisherman who wants to sell his catch, the women in festive attire or the hustle and bustle on a market?
Unfortunately, many tourists cause bad feelings when they take pictures from the moving car or stop for just a moment and drive on as soon as they have their photo. You should not be surprised then if sometimes more than abusive words are flung your way.
The most important prerequisites for taking authentic pictures are
Courage, respect, practice and time.
If I want to capture a scene, be it in a village or at the roadside, I need time. I park my car and take my camera along in an inconspicuous bag.
Reach out to people
Before I take my camera from the bag I try to familiarize myself with the environment, and whenever possible I want people to have the opportunity to get used to me. I don’t want to attract negative attention as the only white person around, wielding an expensive camera to boot. The more I practice this, the less effort it takes for me to start talking to people. Nevertheless, in areas where whites are rarely seen, I still need a little courage to approach locals and ask for their permission to take pictures. But it is easy to talk about the goods on offer at a market, about the weather with a farmer, with parents about how their children are doing at school, and with children about games.
If I am told that I cannot take photos I have no problem accepting that, and usually there are others who happily want to be photographed.
Take photos together
I prefer to travel with a companion and search for interesting people and positions together. He or she can then keep the conversation going while I focus on the pictures. Often I unpack my camera only after permission to take photos has been granted. Usually I take the first shots from quite a distance to get an overview of the situation as a whole and to avoid being seen as too pushy by the person I am focusing on. While my companion continues with the interaction, no attention is paid to me and I have enough time to take pictures from all sides and get to know the lighting conditions, discover exciting accessories or a beautiful background that I can deliberately use for my pictures. Then, as I move closer, I get more eye contact. I can get it by briefly addressing the “model” or by signalling to my companion, who is aware of the process. Depending on the situation, and if the person I am photographing is relaxed, I can ask him or her to change position so that the picture tells a story or to produce a photo series for a feature.
For me it goes without saying that I should pay something for a photo. I use another person’s time, I get a glimpse into their everyday life and drive away with exciting pictures. Not only do I want to leave a good impression, but I really want to reciprocate. Therefore we agree on the price when we first start talking. It is N$ 20 per person. If others crowd into the picture while we are shooting, a new price has to be set or the person barging in will be asked to leave – which is especially important in the case of drunks, as they can cause unnecessary trouble later on.
After a pleasant encounter I quickly go to my car, connect a little printer to my camera and hand out some of the photos. Not many people have a real picture of themselves, and a photo is sometimes received with more joy than a couple of Namibia dollars. Those who like to photograph people may also want to buy an inexpensive instant camera and magically conjure up a picture at the right moment. Sometimes this leads to further conversation and exciting themes that otherwise you would not have been able to obtain.
Unfortunately it can be seen over and over that photos, especially those of children, are “paid” for with discarded toys or with sweets. Toy cars, however, do not function in the sand and blonde Barbie dolls, apart from giving a strange picture of our world, are no better suited to a durable life in the desert or the bush than plastic balls. As a result, such toys soon become garbage and litter the village. On annual visits it is easy to see from which countries the tourists came who left their toy garbage as gifts.
No need to emphasize that dental hygiene is a different matter in a remote village from what it is in Europe and North America. Dentists are far away and expensive. Therefore, apples rather than sweets are the best present that we can give to children. In many regions consumption of sugar is low because it is difficult to obtain. It often happens that children go wild and run into the street to pose for sweets when they see tourist vehicles approaching. There have even been cases where children were run over because they rushed out from behind a bush.
On the road
When you come across a donkey cart on a gravel road, just stop and let it catch up with you. Ask the people where they are coming from and where they are going and whether you may take a photo as a souvenir. In addition to a story for your travel diary you will definitely have one or two good pictures in the box.
Remote gravel roads always offer plenty of opportunities for taking beautiful pictures right there on the side of the road. Colourful villages, herdsmen with cattle or women at work with the mortar.
Stop the car and walk over to the scene. Again, it is an advantage to travel with a companion. Sometimes it is better if contact is made by a woman, sometimes it should be the man. With a little practice you will acquire the necessary tact for these situations. Tact has made it possible for me to take a look at the inside of huts, to accompany the lady of the house while harvesting or to meet the chief and thus be able to capture pictures of a piece of everyday life. When travelling by car, always allow for enough time to stop for photos on the way – and have the courage to stop.
In the evening
It’s definitely worthwhile to visit one of the many colourful shebeens, clubs and bars that sport the most dazzling names. Just ask how the place got its name and you will find yourself in the middle of a conversation there and then.
I try to arrive early to speak to the owner about taking pictures. Then I sit down and have a Coke. I am greeted by arriving patrons and I have the opportunity to observe people and scenes and to get talking. Usually I only sit with guests who are interested. In exchange for a cigarette or a Coke I can take all the pictures I want. I avoid buying rounds of beer because then the audience changes and photos become impossible. Again, it is good to have a travel companion, whether in the bar or afterwards as a “taxi”. If it is for the latter we agree on a pick-up time because shebeens will rarely be found in the vicinity of your accommodation.
I always take my pictures without a flash. Sometimes I put my headlamp on the table for discreetly illuminating the scene. Then I also use a wide aperture, increase the ISO number and set the exposure time in such a way that I could still take steady pictures by hand. On such an evening only a few pictures turn out worth seeing, of course, but the worthwhile ones can be stunning.
Since we are familiar with the proportions, people in a picture give an indication of the size of the surroundings. Whether it’s vehicles, huts or a market stall, the width of a road, the focus in a picture, the loneliness in the desert. If you cleverly integrate a person, it becomes easier for the viewer to place things and connect with them emotionally.
When a situation involving people takes me by surprise, I switch to automatic in order to at least capture the situation. Later, with more time, I choose aperture preselection with ISO 800. With that I can lift my subject from the crowd through a blurry background. I use the continuous mode and focus only with the centre section directly on the face and on the eyes, so as not to accidentally aim at the foreground. When selecting the image detail I try to leave enough space so that I have sufficient scope for optimization when I later process the image at home. That is, I leave more space in the line of vision or the person’s direction of movement than behind it; usually the image detail then coincides with the rule of thirds.
The term street photography keeps cropping up and there is much debate about the definition. For me, the way I capture people is definitely part of it. I would expand the term and collect as road pictures any images that do not depict big city life.
On your next safari, try and write your own road story and illustrate it strikingly with road pics. Recount your experiences with words and images.
Author: Lambert Heil