lf you shy away from photographing people in your own home town but jump at the chance to take portraits of strangers abroad, then you're not alone in suffering this dilemma. Mike Marlowe is the first to admit guilt...
Standing before the elderly chief in a remote village in Mali, I asked the interpreter to check with the dignified gent if it would be okay for me to take a few pictures of him. He was more than happy to be photographed, and even obligingly stepped out into the softer light of the early morning. Fast-forward a few weeks, and a similar opportunity cropped up, but this time in a Sussex seaside town. A wise-looking man, probably in his 80s, was sitting on a bench looking out to sea, and he was the perfect subject for an intriguing shot. This time, however, I baulked. Better not disturb him, I thought. He probably wouldn't want his photo taken anyway. Sound familiar? Why is it that as soon as we touch down on foreign land we seem to gain more confidence and creative spirit than we can muster in our own home towns?
I've often pondered this phenomenon, which I've been aware of ever since I started taking photos, and I know I'm not alone. There is a kind of liberating courage we acquire when we clear our minds of all our day-to-day troubles and venture out into new places. Or is it just because we know that no-one will recognise us? Or, perhaps more likely, it's because we know we won't see again those we have encountered! As a friend of mine succinctly put it once, 'I'm a fantastic dancer when I go overseas.'
I see another variation of this scenario when people are in groups. If I’m leading a walking tour, for example, most people in the group will tend to be a bit more brazen than they would be otherwise. As soon as one person has started getting shots of people then the floodgates open, with no potential human subjects escaping without hearing; 'can I take your picture? A case of safety in numbers, perhaps?
Of course, with the old guy on the bench, there was no way of knowing if he was up for having his picture taken or not, because I didn't ask. For me, it's not that I lack the nerve to engage with strangers, but there is no doubt that in my home town I am a little more reticent It didn't occur to me that the chief in the Mali village might not want me to take his photo; I just asked.
There is a good reason why children, either at home or abroad, often make such ideal subjects for our photography; they are so naturally inquisitive that this quickly overcomes any reluctance harboured by the photographer. Okay, children aren't always easy to direct but they usually have that refreshing energy that is perfect for portrait photography. It makes it quite easy to transform a quick shoot into a bit of fun, and to capture some good, strong images in the process.
Of course, in these times, we cannot simply go around scouting kids for photo shoots, but adults are a different matter. The opportunities for making people portraits are everywhere, from the local pub, cafe or coffee shop, to parks, stations and shops. A businessman on his way to work can be just as interesting a subject to capture as a market trader in Mali. Perhaps it doesn't always seem this way because travel and particularly expedition-type travel, is more enticing in our minds?
I have seen countless image collections from travel photographers that include engaging portraits, such as a Greek fisherman or a smiling woman leaning against her garden fence in rural Tuscany. Very rarely do those photographers have a similar collection of images from their own home town, and I'm probably one of the worst offenders. Every town, city and village in the world has numerous ideal portrait subjects, from farmers with decades of the elements etched in lines on their face, to the nurse having a cup of coffee and a bit of fresh air outside the clinic. Of course, practising your 'travel’ portraiture is not limited to far-flung destinations; if you take the local bus into town you are travelling!
So, if you are considering a sojourn to faraway lands to unleash your creative skills, then some pre-trip practice at home would be beneficial!