How does one develop rapport with strangers when traveling?

June 1, 2012 at 3:59 pm  •  Posted in Q&A by

When travelling, I like to take photos of the local people especially when they’re wearing colourful and exotic clothing. Problem is, I’m not comfortable about asking them if it’s OK to take photos and in some countries, I can’t even speak their language. What’s the best way to solve this type of problem?
—Jan Z.

I can certainly understand why you want to take photos of the people, especially in far off destinations, Jan. The vast majority of photo enthusiasts typically stick to getting shots of castles, monuments and panoramic scenes. That’s fine but Bob Krist provides an interesting perspective about that issue in his book, Spirit of Place – The Art of the Traveling Photographer: “If your friends are all architects and landscapers, they’ll love your building and scenic photos. Otherwise, they want to see pictures of people,” he insists.

Especially when travelling in distant countries, or in areas with unique cultures, it's great to come home with photos of the local people. After all the residents are the essence of any location so they're an important part of travel photography. © Peter K. Burian

Especially when travelling in distant countries, or in areas with unique cultures, it's great to come home with photos of the local people. After all the residents are the essence of any location so they're an important part of travel photography. © Peter K. Burian

Most everyone finds it awkward to approach strangers. That can lead to a temptation to sneak a grab shot with a telephoto zoom lens, a tactic considered rude (or worse) in most cultures. Frankly, basic courtesy demands that we get consent to take photos of strangers. Of course, the permission need not be verbal. In fact where there’s a language barrier, that won’t be possible. In that case, rely on the universal signal: a genuine smile and a raised camera. Often, a busy person will express agreement with a nod of the head as he continues working. After taking some photos, express appreciation with a nod and a smile.

All of this does require a bit of self-confidence, as well as charm or humour in some cases. If you just can’t get over a hesitance to engage the local residents, perhaps one of your travel companions—or a tour guide—will be willing to help. Or look for situations where there’s really no need to ask for permission: when taking photos of performers during street festivals and other events, for example. The participants are like actors who generally love to show off for the cameras.

Some travellers are simply less hesitant than others to engage the people they meet. If someone in your group is as comfortable with strangers as my wife is, take advantage of their skills in engaging people for your photography, as I did with these ladies in India. © Peter K. Burian

Some travellers are simply less hesitant than others to engage the people they meet. If someone in your group is as comfortable with strangers as my wife is, take advantage of their skills in engaging people for your photography, as I did with these ladies in India. © Peter K. Burian

While advanced photographic techniques are certainly useful, rapport-building is even more important, according to professional photographer Rick Sammon. “Whenever you take a picture, you’re also taking a picture of your relationship with the subject,” Sammon explains. “How you feel and act—the image that you project—will make them feel and act and respond in a certain way. These projected and received feelings are the key to good travel pictures of people.”

Tags: