Better Travel Photos: Demonstrate Respect

Do your homework. Read up in advance on the places and people you’ll be visiting, including guidance on gestures or actions that are especially welcome or unwelcome in the local culture.

The Ganges River is sacred for Hindus, especially where it passes through holy cities like Varanasi. The reverence with which Hindus approach their “Mother Ganga” can yield beautiful images; be careful to respect that reverence. My image of a sadhu (holy man) was captured along the ghats (flights of stairs) that line the river. Other parts of these ghats are used for cremations, and photography is forbidden there.

Photographing from a boat toward the ghats in the early-morning light, you can capture reverent bathers reveling in the sacred waters. At the same time—even in the same frame—you can see people who are simply washing their clothes, bodies or hair as part of a normal daily routine.

When you’re capturing scenes of another culture, showing your respect for and commitment to understanding that culture will help you be accepted. This is especially important when your subjects use a language you don’t speak or understand. One of the simplest ways to demonstrate respect is to place yourself and the camera at the same level as a portrait subject, versus looking down (in the case of a seated subject or child, for instance).

Learning some key phrases in the local language is ideal, but pointing to your camera in a gestured request for permission to take a photo isn’t complicated and usually works. Sharing example images on your camera with your subjects will usually help build rapport.

Sometimes, a reluctant subject is just shy and can be gently and respectfully cajoled. For instance, you can take a photo of a nearby pet or object and share it, and often that will break the ice. Parents and grandparents are usually eager to offer their children for photos. Sometimes the children are the most interesting photographically; at other times, the adults.

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