Nevada Wier - chop

Dance of the Close-Up
The Delicate Art of Cross-Cultural Photography

Reprinted from Escape Magazine

By Nevada Wier


Buddist Monk, Angkor, Cambodia

Although I take many kinds of photos while traveling, my lenses seem to be drawn most to the people in the places I visit. Through their portraits I learn more about other cultures and get a new snapshot of myself in the process. Photography allows me to meet people I might otherwise feel too shy or reluctant to approach. Often, the joy I get from working with a subject is more important than the actual image I take back home.

But getting good pictures of people isn't easy. It's not like shooting a cooperative landscape or skyline Besides light and color, there stranger intruding into another person's space, you have to approach subjects with sensitivity and diplomacy. You need to have an awareness of the local culture, use verbal and non-verbal communication skills, and rely on visual intuition to break down barriers.

I was initially hesitant about getting too close to my subjects, afraid of invading their privacy. But I've found over the years that most people like to have their pictures taken-if they: feel they are being admired, respected, and treated like a person, not a trophy. Before I travel, I always try to learn as much as I can about the customs, mores and even gestures of the host country. A few words or phrases in the local language are always appreciated and can really help to open doors.

All photographers have their own style. Some are pushy, some silent and some are flamboyant and loud. All kinds of approaches work. I prefer a direct, personable exchange. No matter what your style is, you need to make it clear to the person what you want to shoot-an over all shot or just their face, hands or dress. And then you need to make sure you fill the frame with only that. Most photographers don't get close enough to their subjects. Before you zoom in close, though, I advise doing some tactful overall shots to get the person comfortable. My motto is: move in slowly and work quickly.

To get good candid shots, you need to be ready to snap in a hurry to capture just the right moment of light and emotion. I usually keep one camera around my neck and the rest of my gear at the ready in a camera bag. Ifs essential to know your camera so well that if s simply an extension of your hand and eye. You don't want to be fumbling with f-stops and shutter speeds when your camera is six inches from someone's face. I know where all the lenses are in my camera bag. I can reach in, pick one, and set an exposure in a matter of seconds. Often, I will preset the exposure on my camera before I even approach someone.

I don't like to advertise that I'm a photographer. It invites theft and draws unnecessary attention. If I am taking a candid shot, I stand out of the way unobtrusively and wait for my intuitive sense to click the shutter at the best moment. If the person senses I'm photographing him, which often happens, I immediately put down the camera, wave or approach him. I have seen photographers at that moment of discovery look guilty and panicked, and then flee-conveying the message that they've done something wrong. If you lose the opportunity of a candid shot, you now have a reason to go up and meet the person, and maybe take some close-up shots.

Morning Smoke, Sichuan, China

In a market in Kashgar, China I was photographing a rug merchant with a 180mm lens while I was leaning against a wall about six feet away. A man in the neighboring stall noticed me. I smiled and walked over to greet both of them. I didn't speak any Uighur, but they motioned me to sit down and have some teas which I did. After a while, customers began to examine some carpets. I quietly took out my camera and began to photograph the interaction. They glanced over at me; I smiled and gestured for them to continue their business. After that transaction was complete, I motioned the rug merchant to sit in a pile of his rugs, lean against the wall and cross his arms. I arranged the rugs around him and took a roll of portraits. His neighbor gestured for me to come over and take his picture, too. I wound up spending almost two hours shooting different merchants in their stalls. It was great fun for me and the rug merchants-and I got some splendid photographs, both candid and posed.

The longer you stay in one place and get to know people, the better chance you have of experiencing special and unexpected moments. If I'm going to be in a place for more than a few days, I don't take my camera out immediately and start shooting. I spend the first day walking around, getting familiar with the area, noting people and their habits, and checking out places I may want to photograph later.

Sometimes, though, I have to parachute into a location and establish immediate contact, which can be very difficult. Recently, I was shooting a Lisu hilltribe village in northwest Thailand for  A Day in the Life of Thailand. I had driven in the night before, spent the night at the house of the headman and woke up early to photograph the early morning activities. Each time I approached someone and raised my camera with a questioning look, I immediately got a definite "no." My philosophy is, if someone doesn't want his photograph taken, I respect that and move on. There is always another photographic opportunity. No picture is worth irritating someone. However, this time I had only 24 hours to get my shots.

My solution was to find the local schoolteacher and use him as an intermediary. He was agreeable and helped explain to the villagers who I was and why I wanted to take their pictures. As a result, I was able to get the relaxed photographs I needed. In addition, since I had a link into the village, I was invited into homes and made to feel welcome and part of the community.

The point is that stealth and long lenses are not always the path to candid shots. And sometimes being a friendly, sincere person doesn't work, either. You need to be inventive and patient and find a link to connect yourself to the place and its inhabitants.

Photographing people isn't for wallflowers. You need a certain amount of boldness and panache to break through to strangers. But, in the end, I've found that people are usually as curious about you as you are about them.

Nevada Wier is author of Adventure Travel Photography.

© 1996 Nevada Wier and Escape Magazine