Approaching Strangers

One of my weakest areas in taking photos has been capturing people. The other has been night photography. Both have been subject areas that I’ve shied away from. It’s so much easier while traveling, to pick up a camera and shoot a serene landscape than the old woman in the foreground. ItÂ’s often easier to kick back after sundown than to make the effort of venturing out into the night with the hope of taking shots (well those kind of shots).

Recently, I have been making more effort to begin taking portraits and photos of people. People love to see other people – if not, then why does Playboy sell so well? Now, I haven’t gone down that road (yet), but I do feel that it’d be a great shame to leave this country without having focused heavily on the people and their situations.

As I promised – here is my answer to the questions posed to me, in relation to taking photos of people.

“IÂ’m wondering though, because I have yet to master the art of photographing strangers, how did you ask their permission? And was it hard ‘workingÂ’ with them (if you pardon the expression)?”

“I am still too shy to photograph anyone except my kids at school.”

“Did u get any troubles when u were taking these pics, because I bet usually in a non-tourist area (or in an area where it’s rare visited by foreigners) usually people stares at u or kids follow u wherever u go.”

When I approach people to take their photo, I almost always speak to them first. At times, my Indonesian isn’t the best, and occasionally I’ve come across those who speak Javanese or other tongues, who didn’t understand a word of my Bahasa Indonesia. I’ve sat down with some old men, and let them speak to me in Javanese for half an hour before letting them know I didn’t understand a word of what they said beyond “kulo saeh” (sp?). The most difficult part of asking their permission is the fact that many are very shy and reluctant to have their photo taken. I always honor their wishes.

I sometimes use a 300mm lens when taking photos of people is that I can capture them without making them feel uncomfortable. With the multiplier in a Digital Rebel, it becomes 480mm – sufficient to take them at 50 meters away or more. There are times when this is a good thing – especially out in the city. Sometimes the shady characters are not so friendly and wouldnÂ’t be so fond of a bule taking their pic.

The old women that you see in my images were simply sitting out on their porch, enjoying the remains of the day. When I spoke with them, they were not eager, nor in opposition to having their portrait taken. I saw so much life in their faces – so much time etched in the lines on their faces. After taking a photo, I turned the camera around and showed one woman the resulting image on the LCD – I said, “So beautiful!” and winked at her – she slapped me jokingly in a manner expressing how shy she really was. In that moment I actually saw striking similarities to her as a child – mesmerizing.

That’s another thing I always do when possible – I show them the photo after I take it. None are able to hide a smile.

Children here are almost always excited to have their photos taken. While traipsing around the village, I actually had a swarm of a dozen children following me. If I turned around and aimed my camera at them, they’d scream and disperse – only to return in the blink of an eye. A few of the young girls followed me all the way back to the car – they were the ones in front of the green “baso” cart. It’s fair to say the word “genit” would apply. I have many more images of all of these people – in time I may put them on here.

I never once had trouble when taking these photos in Yogya or Magelang. The entire time I spent in these villages, only a sense of welcoming was given to me. I’m sure some people weren’t so courteous in their whispers, or thoughts, but even the young men I passed refrained from making negative remarks – very different from Jakarta.

I have indeed had trouble taking photos in Jakarta and Cape Town. I’ve been kicked out of many areas, had police try to grab my camera, and last month had a team of security guards boot me out of an area because they said I couldn’t take photos. I refused to leave, told them they were idiots, as it was a public area – so they called in 4 more guards to persuade me. It worked.

I hope to continue to work on taking more portraits and photos of people. The night shots will come in time – this isn’t a typical city, and it’s not as easy to get around after dark. I hope I’ve answered your questions, but it’s probably best to refer to a professional’s advice, as this is only my own perspective and may not be the “right” answer – and certainly not the only opinion out there.