Stop snapping, start seeing
Arguably the most important piece of equipment in my camera bag is not an expensive SLR or lens, but a simple Fuji Instax; the modern version of a Polaroid. This little camera completely changed the way I approached photography.
I wrote about the photographic skill of putting the camera down for a moment - and giving something back - Issue #36 of Get Lost magazine:
If you’re going to shoot someone, at least get to know them first, says Tom Perry. F-stops and aperture settings aren’t everything – open up an exchange with your subject, and leave them with a memory too.
There are Two Marilyn Monroes over there. And a spiderman. Elvis is chatting to Darth Vader. People are happily lining up, paying $5, and having their photo taken with the ‘stars’. It’s a standard day on Hollywood Boulevard. Yet take the equivalent scene in India. A boat pulls up on the banks of the Ganges in Varanasi, there’s a group of sadhus, covered in powder and henna. They are sporting impressive manes of hair and beards and some have their legs crossed in contorted positions behind their heads. A group of tourists reach for their cameras, and the sadhus immediately raise their hand, rubbing their thumb across their palm – the universal symbol for money. The tourists scoff, and walk off in a huff.
To pay or not to pay
Almost every traveller now has a camera, whether it’s a smartphone, a point-and- shoot or an SLr. People and places have adapted. The task of taking genuine, honest pictures of the people we see and meet on our travels becomes harder with the tourist desire to get that travel photo of the monk, the musician or the poncho-wearing Bolivian woman who was, until recently, just out to pick up some groceries.
Many people scorn at the very idea of paying locals for their photo. Yet the debate over whether to pay is far from simple.
“‘Pay one person,’ the argument goes, ‘and you ruin it for others,’” travel photographer David DuChemin says. “[But] stick a camera in my face without introducing yourself or talking to me, and see if I don’t ask for a couple bucks. It seems a small thing to give someone a dollar when they have nothing, we’re asking for something of value from them, and we’ve got hundreds, if not thousands of dollars of gear around our necks.”
But DuChemin suggests there are better, more beneficial ways to, as he explains, “create an exchange, without giving money.”
“There are no rules, but if you’re giving cash because it makes it easier and is a substitute for the harder act of spending time and muddling through language, then take the higher path, put the cash away, man-up and spend some time.”
One of the key ways DuChemin and many other professional photographers suggest travellers build a genuine exchange is through the use of an instant, Polaroid- style camera.
And I heartily agree. For the past three years, I’ve been living and working as a writer and photographer in the Solomon Islands. It’s the sort of place that a photo – even a simple, credit-card sized print – is, for many people, a special gift. Many people had never had a photo of themselves before. The instant camera quickly became an essential item in my camera bag, and my photos were far better as a result.
Importantly, however, I don’t want to suggest that travelling with an instant camera – or stopping to chat to someone for a few minutes – are both simply ploys to take better people photos. rather it’s about respect for a two-way exchange between travellers and the people living in the places we visit.
When a person sees that you appreciate their time and want to make sure they too have something to show for the experience you’ve had together, they are far more willing to open up, share their time, their stories and their lives. And your photos will generally reflect that.
Take Brenda Pilly. I met Brenda on a visit to remote Mono Island, which sits close to the Solomons’ border with Papua new Guinea. As I sat down with the softly spoken Brenda, I began to learn of her extraordinary life story. Brenda was 10 years old in September 1943, when World War II arrived on her remote island home, with Japanese troops taking control of the island to launch a further push south towards Australia. American and new Zealand troops soon followed to fight the Japanese, and the Battle of Mono began. Brenda had spent her entire childhood on an island of less than 1000 people, yet was suddenly surrounded by bombings and trench warfare.
Together with her family, Brenda escaped to the opposite side of Mono, where she lived in caves for nearly six months as her island became a warzone. If I hadn’t stopped, put the camera down and sat down with Brenda one afternoon, I would never have learned her incredible story.
The photography skill we all have
“The single best photographic skill when making portraits has nothing to do with your camera,” says DuChemin, in his book Forget Mugshots: 10 steps to better portraits. “The way you connect with your subjects can improve your portraits more than anything else.”
Yet regardless of whether we notice much of an improvement in our photos, getting to know the people we photograph will make the travelling experience more enjoyable anyway. Because looking back at photos from our holiday and seeing an image we are proud of is a nice feeling, but that moment of pure happiness when someone that you’ve built a bond with has, in their hands, a printed photo of themselves for the first time in years is even more satisfying.
Tom Perry recently published his first book, 'SOLO: life in the Solomon Islands'.