Karl works magic with kids, while an artist friend draws a crowd in the background.
Karl and I have been very successful as a team working stills and video on the street locally and when we travel. A major part of our vision has to do with how we work with and relate to each other on the street (with locals watching our every move) and how we prepare for and reach out to the subjects we encounter.
Here’s the back story:
I found photography as a calling in Germany when studying for my Master’s Degree in theatre and the literature of plays. Isolated due to my age – there was no one of my generation in that discipline in the school in Heidelberg at the time – I took to walking in the neighborhoods. I wanted to meet people, and find out what they were interested in, what they thought of current events. I’ve always argued politics and sociology and was eager to engage locals. Didn’t work. That is it didn’t work until I brought out the little Rollei35 camera my Dad had given me as a going away present. Once I brought out the camera, told people I was a student visitor, and showed interest in their businesses or city, people warmed up! This part of my trip was a much better education than the school itself, and I came home knowing I wanted to be a photographer.
My first professional job offer years ago came from the National Geographic, before there were any women staff photographers. While I chose not to joint the organization, there were many things I learned in the vetting process and seminars that I still use today.
Karl’s natural talent came late to videography, but he has absorbed my decades experience easily. He studies every day at least two or three hours, reading articles, experimenting and editing. He just plain works great with people. He’s always interested in their stories, and somehow they sense this immediately. He’s often better than I am at relating on the street.
Here’s what we do:
You’ve probably guessed by now that the typical man-sitting-on-the-street picture, no matter how colorful or nicely composed, is useless to us. We want to know, “What is happening, what is this person’s story?” We are looking for action, reaction, something that tells us about the personality and life of the people we’re visiting. To us this is what photojournalism means. Incidentally that’s why our corporate PR photography is so well received. We’re always telling the story.
Introductions and Groups
Certainly the best way to ensure first class images is to be introduced into a community. You want people to know what you are doing, interested in telling their stories, rather than being curious outsiders, poking noses into people’s lives and moving on without feeling. This of course is the Geographic way. Many basic things like timing, guides and introductions are set up in advance. But without an organization behind you, you have to spend much more preparatory time to discover the places, times, directions and events where good pictures will probably be made. Keep asking questions, and you will often stumble on juicy information.
Karl gets a hand shake of welcome after just meeting a festival organizer.
We find that in many foreign countries, artists are well respected and even draw a crowd. Traveling in a little group of artists is a great “in”. A brief explanation of what you are doing in local language helps a lot. If you cannot speak the language, you can demonstrate and show the results on your viewscreen. Have a native write down on a card something about you and your interests that you can show to a person you’d like to photograph. To our surprise we’ve often been treated like VIPs, and people become eager to be in our pictures.
Being part of an art group or insider tour is often much more effective than traveling alone. I can personally recommend www.flyingcolorsart.com, www.traditionsmexico.com and www.friendshipforce.org. Please comment about groups you’ve found to be valuable.
Another great way to insure success is to travel to a festival or local event. Interesting action, color and real life will be abundant. Yes this means crowds, and your equipment may be more at risk from petty thievery. But the secret is that this is the digital age and every body has cell phones, even in the most unexpected areas. You will attract less notice at an event, because the locals will be taking pictures too! Offer to help, set up groups, compare images. And if you encounter resistance to your big camera, get out your own cell phone, or one of those fabulous minis like the Canon G12. It’s all good, so long as you get the story. It’s no fun to come home empty handed.
In many cultures exchanging gifts is an important ritual. The Japanese are masters of this art. I always have little gifts and American candies in my pocket for children. This is especially fun in countries where the Day of the Dead festival is celebrated. Inevitably this festival has gotten mixed up with Halloween and religious customs, and kids ask for treats. Often I will ask parents if I may give their kids a little souvenir or candy. Dads particularly seem to like attention given their children; rarely have I gotten resistance after gifting. Commemorative US stamp sets are a great gift. Comment about inventive gifts you may have thought up.
Markets are always fun to photograph, and I keep treats in my pocket to occupy youngsters.
Paying for Photos
Sometimes locals dress in ethnic costume and ask for money to be photographed. This is not necessarily a bad deal, especially if you can get some natural candids after they strike a pose. These people are often making a living being photogenic. I like buying handcrafts or presenting little gifts of my own making, and then asking permission to photograph an artisan or shop. The same thing happens every day in front of the Chinese Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard, where impersonators dress up as stars, and you tip them for being photographed.
“Why do you want to take my picture?”
This question is meant as a challenge, but also as an opening. It can mean that the person wants to invite further conversation, to see if you can make a snappy response. I shoot back immediately with something like, “Your dress is so exquisitely embroidered, I want to remember it.” “Your family is so beautiful I want to show your faces to my family back home.” Big men and little boys alike will melt if I laugh and roll my eyes and say it’s because they are so handsome. It’s a great ploy to have pictures of your own kids and family to share with your intended subjects. Of course it doesn’t work all the time, but I have often gotten a “Thank you for taking our picture.”
“Why?” They asked, and were totally pleased to be called “los guapos” (the handsome dudes).
Our Dress and Manner
No I don’t don a burka in the middle east, but a head scarf does me a world of good. Remember as a women not to shake the hand of males or religious leaders in conservative Jewish communities, as well as other cultures. Observe and follow what you see happening around you. In southern Chiapas, Mexico I did dress in local Zinacantan jacket and belt to photograph a local festival where outsiders were not really invited. We were traveling with a Jesuit priest well known in the community, and he asked permission for me in advance. The point is to look at least a bit like you fit in. Karl and I allow our natural husband-wife talk and fun to be openly visible to locals who are undoubtedly watching closely and with as much curiosity as we have for them. We compare imagery, point out beautiful scenes, interesting items in a bazzar, generally have a good time. Constant reference to each other makes it easy to be security for each other; you don’t leave your wingman. And yes, I’ve been know to walk six paces behind…