How to photograph people when travelling so that they engage with the camera and, more importantly, you don’t offend them, isn’t all that hard. Yet every day in Hoi An, Vietnam, I witness some very disappointing behaviour.
On my early morning photo-taking walks through the local Hoi An markets I rarely spot a foreigner.
The market opens well before dawn and most visitors arrive a few hours later as part of the obligatory pre-cooking class market tour when groups bump into each other, annoying local shoppers, while being quizzed by guides as to whether they know the names of fruit they’re holding up. It’s a shit-fight worth sidestepping.
A couple of hours earlier though, around 6am, the markets are still busy but are way calmer. It’s my favourite time to visit as there’s just enough light to start shooting.
Today, however, I literally bumped into a group of tourists out taking photos. Expensive DSLR cameras were slung over the shoulders of the four amateur photographers and each photographer was pointing a colossal zoom lens at an elderly lady sitting in a doorway.
The woman was wearing the classic printed pyjamas, favoured by Vietnamese ladies as daywear, and she was yawning, as if she’d just woken up. Or perhaps she’d been up since 3am, rising early to do a bit of shopping or trading, and was ready for a nap.
At first the old lady appeared oblivious to the several frames-per-second bursts of the cameras and the clack of the shutters stopping briefly as the visitors examined the backs of their cameras — before firing off another volley of shots like they had spotted a white rhino on safari.
While this group was with a guide, at no stage did they ask the guide to speak to the old woman and ask her if it was okay to take her photo, let alone continue shooting her like this. Instead, they inched even closer, and fired off even more frames, blazing away as if they were covering the diving at the Olympics.
The elderly woman was, by now, very aware that they were there and what they were doing. She didn’t move and she didn’t change her expression for the whole 10 minutes — yes, they stood for 10 minutes training their lenses on her. And she was not happy.
Just before they moved on, one photographer began to approach the woman, but stopped just a few feet from her, and fired off yet another volley of shots before turning on her heels and returning to the rest of the group. But not before she had checked to see that she had the shot she wanted.
The whole episode made me embarrassed to be a photographer.
How To Photograph People — Candids and Portraits
There are street candids and then there are portraits. Know the difference.
When you shoot a street candid of someone at a market you shoot quickly and move on. You want to photograph them doing what they naturally do before they notice the camera and change what they are doing.
The idea is to capture a slice of local life, not intrude on their lives or disrupt them from making a living.
When four photographers are banging away like they’ve just spotted Brad and Angelina, that’s not a street candid anymore.
Engage with people you are photographing
You need to engage with your subject — and you don’t do that with a 200mm lens from six metres away.
I have a pretty good idea of what the photos shot by this group turned out like.
I can guarantee you that their images would have been better if they’d connected with the woman, if they’d smiled and said “xin chao” (good morning), and if they’d asked the tour guide to talk to her first — to find out how long she’s lived there, the changes she’s seen, how many children, grandchildren, and possibly great-grandchildren she has.
Then they might have seen some engagement with the camera. They might even have seen a twinkle in her eyes. Acting like great white hunters in an everyday situation makes you look like you’re actually scared of engaging with ‘the Other’.
If you’re going to act like a pro photographer, behave like one
If you’re going to start acting like a professional photographer, some further advice on how to photograph people in Hoi An, or people in any similar tourist destination in any developing country: if you make a portrait of someone who clearly is ready for their close-up, the right — and polite — thing to do is to pay them.
As a professional photographer shooting for publications that are paying me, I will generally give local people here in Hoi An, in situations like I’ve described above, US$1 or 20,000 Vietnamese dong. That’s the going rate, so if you don’t want to pay it, don’t go acting all professional and setting up a shot.
Those strong little women who carry the yokes with baskets of fruit or snacks on their shoulders all day every day make as much money from posing for photos as selling pineapples. Having said that, it’s not very much money at all. Especially for you, if you’re slinging a $1000 camera on your shoulder. Pay them. If you object to paying them because you’re not a pro then buy a pineapple, they’re delicious.
Those little girls who sit cross-legged in the cute flowing silk ao dai selling candles in paper lanterns? They’re wearing the national costume so you can photograph them, and, you guessed it, they expect you to pay them.
Now, I wouldn’t normally be telling travellers to pay children, because as responsible travellers we know that we shouldn’t be giving money to begging children as it encourages their parents to keep them out of school to make money. See this post for our views on why you shouldn’t give money to begging children.
However, in the case of these kids in Hoi An, I know them. The work they do in the evenings with their families is the equivalent of the part-time jobs we did after-school and on weekends as kids: delivering newspapers, stocking supermarket shelves, waiting tables.
The kids are from very poor fishing families who live in modest homes that are little more than shacks. I’ve seen where they live. I also see them going to and returning home from school every day when I’m out taking photos. If every person who took their photo bought a candle-lit lantern or gave them a dollar, they’d be able to finish work early and go and do their homework or get some more sleep.
If you have a deep conviction that you should not pay children for photos, that’s understandable. But don’t ask them to pose for your photos and then just walk away. Better yet, don’t shoot their portrait.
Proudly pointing out to someone that you’ve just taken their photograph by showing them their image on the back of the camera is not payment. They have mobile phones with cameras and they also have mirrors at home. They know what they look like. You’re not visiting a remote hill tribe who has never seen a soul-stealing device called a camera. They’re not going to freak out and think you’re some new god. Or even photographer Steve McCurry.
Don’t be rude, show some respect
I thought about writing a list of do’s and don’ts, but to me all of this is just common sense.
You’re going to get better photos shooting on your own (rather than in a group), not being obnoxious, engaging with people, and just generally showing some respect to the people whose town you’re visiting.
I guess what I’m saying in short is: don’t be rude jerks. Show some respect.
If you found this post helpful, you might like this one on Taking Portraits — Tips for Travellers
The image that heads up this post is from the hills of Sapa, where we ran into this young man herding buffalo. Our guide, who is used to working with pro photographers, asked him if we could make his portrait first.
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