Getting to Know the People You Photograph
If you ever want to capture a more personal side of people than candid Street Photography provides, you should get to know the people first. This could be for something as small as street portraits or as big as a project where you spend time documenting their lives and who they are.
How do you get to know people you’ve never met before and have them allow you to photograph them?
I’ll go over some things that help me get to know the people I photograph while giving examples from one of the small projects I did documenting the people of Mararikulam, India.
Marari Beach Families
Down in Kerala, India I did a short photo series covering the families of a small fishing village called Mararikulam (commonly referred to as Marari Beach). This is a sleepy little village on the beach that hasn’t been taken over by resorts and tourism yet (the takeover is starting, though).
In order to take photos of these families, I wanted to get to know them first so I could see how their life really is. Fortunately, they made this as easy as possible. The people in Mararikulam are probably the friendliest I’ve ever met, especially all the children running around. Within a day, I was everyone’s friend and being invited for juice at every home in the village (I probably drank 15 cups of orange flavored juice a day).
If I hadn’t spent time getting to know these people first, I never would have gotten the photographs I did. I never would have been invited into their lives and had them be as comfortable as they were behind the camera.
If you want to go deeper with your photography of people and get to know them, here’s some things that have worked for me.
7 Steps to Knowing the People You Photograph
1. Be Friendly and Smile
Making eye contact with people, smiling and being friendly is the key to starting off with people you don’t know. A simple smile alone already makes people feel less uneasy about who you are and what you’re doing.
Try it out and see how much a smile can change people’s reaction. When shooting street photography, I’ll notice people watching me sometimes, much of the time with a seemingly unfriendly expression. As soon as I smile and nod to them, 90% of the time their expression completely changes to a friendly one. A smile makes people go from wondering about your intentions to realizing you are harmless and friendly.
Once you’ve made this first connection with a smile, people will be much more open to having you approach them and start a conversation too.
Your camera is an extension of yourself, so their feelings about you will reflect in how they react to your camera. You need some trust for them to be more comfortable behind your camera. A smile and friendly demeanor goes a long way in starting to gain this trust.
2. Be Genuine!
This is a big one for me because I see so many photographers use scripted lines to break the ice and act like they care, just so they can get a photo. If you’re not being real with the people you photograph, then why do you photograph them?
If you want to get to know the people you photograph, make sure you’re genuinely interested in them and not just in making a photo. Treat them like people, not props. They will know the difference.
Talk to them and be interested in getting know who they are. Ask questions, talk about their life and where they live. Hear their story. Most people like to talk about their life if you genuinely listen.
3. Be Open & Respectful
Being open and respectful to any differences is important to getting to know people. People are all different and if you really want to get to know someone, you need to embrace those differences. Being closed off will only push people away, while being open will bring you into their world.
This is especially true in foreign countries with different cultures. Being open helps you learn about their culture and traditions too, which can only add to your photos.
4. Give Your Time
If you really want to get know them, then you’ll need to give them your time. If they invite you to join them for a drink, food, or even to meet their family and friends, take this as an opportunity to get know them even more.
The people, especially the children, of Mararikulam all wanted to share their culture and traditions with me. They gave me tours of their homes, had me meet their families, taught me traditional songs and dances, had me play cricket with them and more. They kept me busy, but I was happy to give my time and learn all about their life.
It takes time to get to know people so the more time you give, the better you will know them.
5. Take Your Time
When it comes to actually making your photos, don’t rush. One of the biggest benefits from getting to know the people you photograph is being able to take your time. You’ve already formed a relationship, they’ve given you some trust and agreed to let you take photos of them. So the least you can do is make sure you take your time with the photos you make.
This goes along with being genuine, but you should care about the people you are getting to know and photographing. Treat them with care, especially when photographing them. Don’t push them to do anything they don’t want to.
If they want to take certain photos then take those too. They might even turn out to be better than any of your photo ideas.
7. Show Appreciation
Getting to know people who allow you into their world for photography is a gift. So pay them back with more than a “thank you.” Make sure you get their email or address so you can send them the photos you made with them.
If you travel a lot for photography, like me, then you won’t always speak the same language as the people you photograph. This can make things more difficult, but it’s definitely possible to overcome. Body language is the universal language so use it.
Gesture is a big communicator. When I photographed the people of Mararikulam, there were only a few words of each other’s languages that we understood. Through gesture I was usually able to communicate with them, though.
You’ll Gain More Than Photographs Too
Getting to know the people of this amazing little village not only gave me access into their lives for my photos, but it also provided my most memorable experience during my whole time in India. I believe people make your experience and while I love candid Street Photography, there’s nothing like getting to know the people you photograph.
Some More Portraits of the Families of Mararikulam, India…
Have you found anything that helps you get to know the people you photograph? Share in the comments below!
And be sure to check out another project series post on Why You Should Shoot a Photo Series Everywhere You Travel and 33 of my Street Photos from India !