I cringe at photos of tourists posing in front of world renowned landmarks or standing with their arms around the locals.
They come across as desperate for proof of their travels, or worse – quasi colonialists. Check out this old git – me. I look as if I am about to run off with that helpless little scrubber. Not a good impression.
But staying on the other side of the lense, and especially taking portraits of people, changes the dynamic. You shouldn’t really take a person’s photo without asking permission but that’s a great excuse for a chat, to get to know someone and learn more about them.
Paradoxically, even though you aren’t in the photo, you become so much more a part of it. Your photos will improve by connecting with the people because you’ll understand them better and they will be more at ease, more themselves. They might even show you the real side of their country, invite you for a meal, meet the family, attend the local football match or even be invited to their place of worship. And here’s the best part: you could make new friends.
It’s not easy walking up to someone to ask if you can snap them. But the response is often, yes. Some might be shy: I once asked a pretty young lady in a Benin market if I could photograph her and she wailed and ran off. But as I made my way through the market I realised she was following me. She wanted a photo. After three more attempts to get her photograph and three awkward moments when she ran off screaming, she eventually beckoned for me to follow her down a dark, narrow alley. I was a little worried I was being set up, but I judged by her nature that she was sincere and I followed her. We soon alighted on a neatly swept courtyard where a plump, mean looking man was sitting. The young lady bent over to ask a question of him, pointing at me. I assumed he was her father and he eyed me viciously, then his face completely changed and he smiled and nodded.
I spent hours with them and their family in that little courtyard. I met the sisters and brothers and cousins and aunts and uncles and grandparents and newborns and dogs and cats. I ate chicken with them and drank tea. I learned that this huge family were most proud of their motorcycle and their catholic faith. I will never forget them. It was one of the best times of my life. I almost forgot I had a camera but when I started snapping, I felt I knew them and they felt at ease with me. I was even granted the honour of holding one of the newborns, and by this time, the camera was doing the rounds and one of the uncles photographed me with the child.
So, as ridiculous as I look in it, I like that photo because things had come full circle. They were on the other side of the lense.
I felt that I knew the people in the photo and it felt natural, discounting the unfortunate look on my face that I have been stuck with ever since some geezer came to school to take individual portraits of 800 kids in one single day. He didn’t have a chance to get to know his subjects before they were whisked from the chair to be replaced by another shy kid, then another and another. Those photos deserve nothing better than those cheap brown cardboard frame.
To me, a camera is an olive branch of sorts. A peace offering and a way to start a conversation. I only like snapping once the conversation ends and no matter how the picture turns out, I always feel incredibly rewarded by the experience.