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I'm a Cairns, far north Queensland, Australia professional photographer specialising in travel, editorial and environmental portraiture.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

How can you show your subject respect?

A lot of travel photography is shot in an editorial, documentary style. We travel to places both near and far and attempt to capture with our cameras what it is we experienced. But just showing what we saw isn't enough to move our viewers. We need show what it is we felt, or what we thought about our experiences. And we owe it to our subjects to do it truthfully.

When I say truthfully however, I don't mean truthfully according to other people's opinions. I mean how you as the photographer truthfully felt. Which is always going to be subjective. No matter what you think of how an individual's opinions shouldn't shape a documentary image, the truth of the matter is that in travel photography our opinions will always shape our images.

Firstly we decide where to travel to. That's a subjective decision based on where we think looks interesting. Travel photography by its very nature tends to be of places that the photographer has travelled to because they wanted to. So our subjectivity leads to our first showing of our respect for our subject - we're interested enough in it to shell out dollars to visit. The second way we show respect is by finding out as much about our subject in advance so that we can capture it in the best possible light.

Let's say you'd always wanted to visit the Taj Mahal - a lifelong dream. You get there and discover that it is just as beautiful as you'd ever imagined. To truly respect not only the Taj but your own feelings about it you're not going to photograph it in the middle of the day with its harsh light, millions of tourists and a total lack of emotion. That would be showing a lack of respect for not only your subject but your feelings about it. So you'd come at sunrise or sunset when there are hardly any people around and the light is beautiful. You'd look for different angles to show the beauty that captivated you. You would treat it with as much photographic reverence as the architect who built it. To do anything less would be disrespectful.

But let's say you had the opposite reaction. You were annoyed at all the millions of other tourists, the fact you had to leave your tripod outside. You were disappointed by the greying marble caused by the smog of India's notorious traffic. Basically it wasn't anything like you expected. Whether these opinions could be called petty or not they are yours. Own them. Be true to yourself. In this case I would argue that it would be more respectful to show all the things about the Taj Mahal that annoyed you. Just because you started off with the intention of showing the beautiful doesn't mean you have to let it cloud your photographic judgement. If you chose to ignore what you were feeling you might still come away with 'beautiful' pictures but they wouldn't be yours - they would be facsimiles of other people's cliched expectations.

Who knows, by the time you've photographically worked your annoyances out of your system you might be able to finally appreciate the beauty and think about coming back at sunrise. Or you might not. Either which way both photographic interpretations would be correct because they're both being true to yourself.

The same goes for people as well. I often think that photographers are nervous about approaching strangers to photograph because they're not treating it as a way of showing respect. Sure you might not know anything about the individual you'd like to photograph, but if you've shown respect then you'll know something about their culture. You'll have learnt a couple of greetings in the local language. You'll be able to show that you're interested in them as something more than just a pretty picture, and that you respect them.

Not only that but you'll see the portrait as a gift from them to you (by posing for you) and as a gift from you to them (by capturing the best possible portrait of them). So you won't photograph them in harsh light but will move them into the shade to avoid creating harsh shadows and emphasising wrinkles. You'll attempt to make some sort of human connection so that you can capture an image that captures their spirit. You won't snap and run but will take them time to have some sort of limited interaction - no matter how short or limited. The more you get to know them the more respectful and insightful your portrait will be and the more respectful the interaction will be.

In other words, as a travel photographer to differentiate yourself from the millions of tourist photographers you need to show respect. For not only your subjects, but for yourself and your individual feelings about what it is you've chosen to photograph from the millions of subjects around the globe. The more opinionated you are the more those opinions will shine through in your images and the more they will resonate with others. Don't be afraid to be yourself.

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