Keeping ethics aside, I think it’s fair to say that many street photographers dream about travelling to some exotic, dusty, third world country, book a room with great views over the “poorness”, and come back home with the perfect shot. In my case, the need to start taking pictures began while travelling around Southeast Asia and after that I just couldn’t stop doing both: travelling and shooting. It’s an amazing and rewarding experience but there are a few things to keep in mind if you’re considering on packing your equipment and getting lost for a while in a developing country. The perfect shot is never going to be there waiting for you to come and take it, otherwise your uncle’s pics taken during that eastern trip to Sri Lanka would be published in Reader’s Digest. You are likely going to be in a country where, sadly, many people work 70 hours a week for 12 dollars, and they know that “NIKON” equals years of work for them. In remote areas the main attraction is going to be you, so you will get lots of unwanted attention. You’ll be far out of your comfort zone, where different rules apply, so here are a few tips you might consider if intending to live (and survive) the dream:
1. Leave your ego at home. Take some tape instead.
You had to save for three years to buy your photography equipment but it should look like you found it in the 5 dollar basket at the flea market. Help locals not to fall into the temptation of stealing your camera (and breaking your heart): hide the model, the brand name on the front of the camera and the one on the lens with tape. Leave the showy branded strap at home, and get a neutral, simple one. You’ll be surprised how cheap your fancy camera looks when “taped” all over; it’s ok, just breath, and keep shooting.
Now that you’ve covered this first painful step, you can also leave any jewellery and the flashy watch you got for christmas at home; those would only get you into trouble.
Oh, and pack light: you are going to walk a lot.
2. Work on your superpowers: become invisible.
No one in your hotel should notice that you carry expensive equipment with you. Keep a low profile. Are you one of the lucky ones that has a cool backup camera? Keep it in your bag. And ALWAYS keep your bag in contact with you, in front of you when in a crowd, hug it if you are sleeping on a bus or train, never leave it unattended, or beside your feet.
Don’t tip. They don’t tip in most of the countries you’ll visit. That and yelling “I AM RICH, ITS OK IF YOU STEAL ALL MY STUFF” would be pretty much the same thing. If you feel grateful for the amazing experience you are having, make a donation to a local NGO.
3. But… where to start?
Internet! First of all, download an offline map of the country on your phone (with GPS). I use maps.me.
Do some research on the tribes or minorities around, check for religious festivals in the region, visit local markets, choose trains and buses over planes, or even better: hitchhike. You may also be invited to some of your driver’s homes, weddings, dinners… And never be afraid to jump out of the car early to get that cool shot you are already framing in your mind from the window. You will always be picked up by another car. You would be surprised how helpful and generous people are in those countries.
No wifi? Rent a motorbike and get lost: in remote areas people are often more friendly and open to foreigners then in big cities or touristy places.
If this doesn’t work:
4. Follow the music, love the noise!
This is one of my favourites. It led me to a Balinese backyard where some little girls were rehearsing traditional dances, in India to a “jumping over fire – getting into a trance” ritual, to a Chinese opera show in a small Bangkok alley…
If none of these work:
5. Above all, love the crowds.
A crowded train station, a strike, a Christmas skating rink. You can get some fascinating street portraits in a crowd. No one will really notice you as lots of things are going on at the same time and it’s easy to get very close to your subject without interfering in the action. I’ve got some of my most natural and intense candids in crowds.
If, like me, you shoot in manual, adjust the settings while pointing at something NEAR or UNDER your subject, never straight at your subject. Otherwise they will notice you preparing the shot and all spontaneity will be gone for good.
6. Already figured out a sweet spot to go shoot? Go ahead… without your camera.
I have to say that this may or may not be a good idea. Sometimes it seems more dangerous to leave my equipment at the hostel where I am staying unless they have a safety box there or I completely trust my hosts. It could be safer to explore a bit the place ahead before venturing there with your camera (and yes, we all hide things under the hostel bed, so choose a different spot if doing so).
And how to know if an area is safe or not? I strongly recommend to type on the internet: “scams in…” or “dangers in…”. Read it all, you will find the scammers one after another, and they are easy (and fun) to avoid if you know what´s going on.
Some people will come straight to you and just say “it’s not safe in here”, but in the end it’s you who needs to judge. In Lima, I literally felt scanned from head to toe in some neighborhoods. They seemed to be evaluating how many expensive things I could be carrying on me. Sometimes you’ll see guys just standing there, looking, and they are usually there up to no good. It doesn’t mean you can’t go work in that area, it just means you have to become as invisible as possible, and don’t follow anyone, don’t listen to anyone. Spontaneous friendliness from guys who are just standing on the street looking at tourists passing by is usually a clear indicator of potential risk. Just ignore charlatans without any hesitation. You will be alright.
7. Be aware of the “just landed fascination”, and the “too long here effect”.
When you land and you get your lovely, first cultural shock, everything seems awesome and you can’t stop clicking. People look different, buildings are different, everybody behaves different, everything is so exotically dusty and rusty. The fact that the new scenario is surprising for you doesn’t mean that any random shot is gonna be great. Don’t forget about your point of view, composition, catching peculiar emotions, textures, lights… Ask yourself if you would find your shot interesting if you were living in that country, and used to seeing those people and streets every day.
The opposite thing happens after a while, and you’ll find yourself thinking: there is nothing here to portrait, only monks and baboons fighting for a coke can during this so normal tropical sunset with its normal thousand colours in the sky. In that moment you know that you have been there too long. It’s time to move to another country. It works for me to choose my favourite pictures once I am back home, or once I have been in a completely different country for a while.
8. Do some research on the culture you are visiting, and their relationship with pictures.
I was surprised how difficult it was to capture Tzotzil people in Chiapas, Mexico. All of them would cover their faces or literally run away at the first sight of my camera. After some research I figured out that they belong to one of the many societies that believe that a picture would somehow allow demons to get inside of their bodies. So do some research, and respect their beliefs.
9. Yes, some locals will ask you for money in return for being there, in front of your camera.
That happens, especially in India. They think you’re going to put their face straight on the cover of next month’s National Geographic, become a billionaire out of that single picture, and buy a mansion in the Alps thanks to them. So they will give it a try. What I usually do is delete the picture in front of them, or just give a friendly laugh, like they would have said a joke, and walk away while waving my hand (I mentioned we will leave ethics aside, right?).
10. But c’mon, be nice…
If they see you taking a picture, smile, show it to them (they will love it!) or offer to email / mail it to them if they seem interested (and then do it).
11. Hey, but what about lenses, tripods, and all that stuff?
This is the most difficult choice to make: what to bring with you. I travel with my Nikon D750 and a 50mm 1.4 because I absolutely love taking portraits and didn’t have money for a quality zoom. But I have to say that I really miss a wide angle when shooting in the street. The choice of a lens is very personal, and keep in mind that you will be in very dusty places so to start switching lenses won’t be the best idea. If I could go back in time I would get a 35mm, and if I could go back in time into a dimension where I might have some relevant cash I will get a (not too heavy) zoom starting at 24mm. I don’t carry tripods, as street photography requires lots of up and down and twisting yourself. A flash will only make you more visible (and you are meant to be working on your superpowers, remember?), so keep it simple.
12. Be ready for the best, be ready for the worst, but don’t be afraid: GO.
Some stuff that you won’t like will happen. Some of the best experiences of your life will happen too. All of that is part of your trip. Keep in mind that everything you carry with you could get lost, broken or stolen. Keep calm, go hippy and embrace it all. In the end your success will depend pretty much on your luck. But believe me: it´s much worse to rot in your comfortable couch where nothing dangerous (and nothing glorious) ever happens.
I have been travelling and shooting in many developing countries for the last three years. I hitchhike as much as possible and I always say yes when someone says something like “Hey, I’m a shaman, would you like to come to my hut in the jungle? There are all sorts of snakes there!!”. But I also follow my instincts: if my stomach says no, it’s a no. I didn’t expect to find so many friendly, really caring people around. So far only amazing things happened. I am exhausted, my clothes are full of holes, my friends wonder if I am still alive, and sometimes I wake up and it takes me ten minutes to remember in which country I am. But I can say that me and my camera have never been happier.