Travel: Duty Free Portrait Shopping

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The sun is beaming down onto the hot tin roof as we walk through the dusty central market in Siem Reap, the yellow dirt staining our clothes as it mixes with the humidity and clings tightly to the threads of our clothes. The camera is at the ready with a fixed 50mm f/1.4 lens protruding from the front. All around us is a hive of activity as store holders balance their wares on the old scales dangling from a chain hanging from the ceiling, light creeping through the gaps in the tin rood creating shafts of light spotlighting the store holders. This is a street and travel photographers dream; the character in the aged faces, the earthy colour and primitive dirt floor. I raise my camera to my eye and this surreal peek into the Cambodian way of life and then it happens….It is instantly ruined with an ear to ear smile and two thumbs up… Whilst I certainly welcome the friend face and the warm inviting nature of the people here I can’t help but feel that this isn’t the scene I was hoping to capture…

This is where many of us travellers hit a dilemma. Do I try and capture a sneaky shot without them knowing or do I have to ask permission?

Well I say it’s actually both, and it’s a whole lot more rewarding. Capturing candid moments is the key to engaging travel photography, people in their real environments with real expressions but unfortunately it’s not exactly possible to ask permission and then in the same breath ask people to act natural… not going to work. So the trick? be sneaky sneaky. Personally when I’m out capturing these moments my best friend is my OM-D E-M1 and it’s flip-down touch screen because it allows me to very subtly shoot my subjects from waist height without them even knowing. I can pop on the 75mm f/1.8 lens and from afar shoot the scenes I want to capture. The key here though to keep it ethical, ask permission afterwards. So where does the shopping component come into it?

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My experience in third world or developing countries is that nothing really comes free in major cities. It’s a dollar for a guide, a dollar for a porter and likewise a dollar for a photograph. You can fight the system as much as you want and quote as many ethics as you please but ultimately my experience has been that the best way to capture compelling travel images? A pocket full of one dollar bills. The technique is a simple one with three key steps:

Three key steps:

1 – Find compelling angles and situations and photograph them either from afar on a zoom lens or covertly

2 – Approach the person asking if you can take their photo

3 – If they say no, delete your previous shots. If yes you can you will likely owe a dollar (or couple) and you then need to take a token smiley pic to satisfy the person that you’ve gotten your end of the bargain

There are a few reasons I like this method, firstly, it gives you confidence to actually approach people because paying a small amount of money gives us a sense of legitimacy. This method also gives us the opportunity to capture what you envisaged without interruption but equally you have ensured that your subject is on board with the idea. The hidden benefit though is that in this process I often find myself collecting scraps of paper with hand written addresses asking me to send copies of the images as well as striking up conversations with the people I’m photographing; creating stories and heart to my travel images. I will never forget the man I met on a train who didn’t speak a word of english but could write. After shooting an image of him I approached and asked him with gestures if I could take a photo? He was delighted! After a token smile photo to compliment my ‘real’ shot we got chatting but not in the same way you might expect. We were writing notes to each other and managed to have a whole written conversation without actually speaking a word, as it turns out he had learn to write english in school but had no idea how to actually speak the language. We both walked away happy people. I had my photo and he shared his story, a win for those of us travelling with a little Duty Free Portrait Shopping on the side.

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