As you prepare for a safari, most of us think a lot about the animals, the equipment, the accommodations and travel details. If you are going to Chobe, these are important things; however, it is also important for you to remember that you will be a visitor in this country and this is your chance to learn about the people, the lifestyle and the culture of the country.
I was pleasantly surprised on my first trip at how approachable and friendly the people of Kasane are. During my trip, I was able to photograph soccer (football) games, children, workers gathering the straw for housing and many people carrying goods from the grocery. I did a passable job, but not a great job. On my next trip I hope to do better.
With this article, we can prepare you to also do a good job, but it should be noted that there is a bit of controversy in shooting people and street scenes. Hopefully we will be able to lay out some of the do’s and don’t of this interesting and important photographic element of your trip.
We will guide this article toward experiences in Botswana, but most of what is discussed applies anywhere around the world. Taking snapshots of every local in a colorful costume may be the best way for a hurried tourist to take pictures, but it leaves a bad impression. In many countries taking pictures of people without asking them first is offensive, and travelers should be respectful of local customs.
Short story number 1: A few years ago on my first trip to Botswana, my son and I saw a group of locals playing soccer. It was mid-day, which was a bad time to shoot in the bush, so we thought we would take in the game and also capture some of the action. We shot for about a half hour when suddenly we were approached by a police officer. It turned out that the game we were shooting adjacent to the local prison and locals rules is that the this premises should not be photographed. All turned out okay, as the local warden agreed to review the images on the camera’s LCD screen and let us keep all of the images that excluded the prison buildings. Recommendation # 1 – learn the local laws regarding public photography.
Short story number 2: While driving from Nata to Kasane in July, we saw ladies working along the sides of the road harvesting the wild straw. This was quite a scene and really an important aspect of the culture, so we stopped to shoot a few photographs. I meant no disrespect but quickly I realized that the indigenous people did not want to be photographed, at least not without some form of remuneration. We were clearly not the first to take the photos of the setting and the locals have learned to take advantage of our obsession with taking pictures. I gladly donated the equivalent of $5 and was free to move among the works and take any and all of the shots I needed.
Later at dinner with my South African travel companions, I heard that some of them had taken similar shots but refused to give any money to the workers. They cited that they were not in favor of setting this precedent which over time could lead the country to be beggars for tourism. While I understand my friends point, I also feel the workers were acting as models and model talent deserves to be paid. Recommendation #2 – Decide whether you are willing to pay local models for their time and effort before you are in the situation where you must make that call.
Although I do not mind asking to take a picture or paying a small fee, I generally prefer taking candid shots. Most people assume an unnatural pose when they know they are being photographed, so the photographs usually do not turn out very good. Simply, respecting your subject doesn’t necessarily require asking their permission. Respecting one’s subject may mean taking the best possible picture you can in the least intrusive way possible. Figure out what works for you and your particular situation then get it done. Quickly. I have tried several different approaches to taking candid shots, but taking pictures of people without them knowing about it is not easy, so this leads to another great question: Permission, yes or no? Recommenation #3 – Decide up front whether you are going to ask permission to take their picture before you pull out the camera.
Once more, there is no right or wrong. While in Kasane, I rarely ask permission. The locals are used to visitors and understand the importance of visitors to their economy. In other parts of Botswana, away from the frequent tourist trade, locals seem much more uncomfortable with strangers taking their pictures. I try to ‘read’ the discomfort and adjust to the setting. My first position is to talk to the potential subject. I let them know that I am a visitor and would like to share more about their country with my friends at home. Using my camera’s LCD screen, I share with them the shots I have recently taken and offer to let them see the shots I take which include them. I find that showing the images that I take which includes the subject really helps. I learned this trick on an episode of Art Wolfe’s travels to the Edge. As an added step, I also ask if they have internet access and share the link to my photos, letting them know I plan to post their images on my return home. The internet is becoming more available within Botswana and I have found that many would love to be able to download or get a copy of the photographs. Recommendation #4 – if you are going to get your subject involved in your shooting, the more you share, the more you are likely to get.
Many photographers do an incredible job of capturing people in the street, and they’ve asked permission. Asking permission is respectful; it opens-up a dialogue, and ultimately engages you on a societal level more than refraining. But it’s not everyone’s style. I have had mixed results and continue to be concerned with losing the naturalness of the situation. I must say that I like my photos better when I the shots are candid, but I am more limited by composition, position relative to background and time with the subject..
It should also be noted that if you’re going to ask, expect to be rejected. More often than not, you’ll be treated with curiosity. Who are you what are you doing why do you want to take my picture? Of course by asking, you have also opened that door again related to compensation for the giving of permission. When I ask, it’s usually because that the situation is so extraordinary that I can’t let the opportunity to photograph them walk away. Recommendation #5 – don’t let a once in a lifetime scene get away because you were too shy to ask about shooting the scene and subjects. Since you don’t frequent these locations often, they really are once in a lifetime opportunities.
What’s the message: Let Your Photographs Tell a Story
In a prior article on wildlife photography, we noted the importance of your images conveying your message. Great photographs tell a story about the place and the people they show without the need for captions or lengthy explanations. Great photographs have intent behind them – an underlying script or story. They are never just snapshots of random people or scenes. In order to take great pictures of people a photographer needs to be able to understand the scene. You need to watch the background. You need to consider the lighting.
If you’re going to spend time considering someone as a subject, you should spend an equal amount of time considering how you can show your subject some respect. If you’re going to take a picture of someone, you better not waste anyone’s time, and you better do a damn good job. So, if you’re walking around wondering what to shoot, take your lens cap off. Pre-focus your camera. Decide what kind of depth-of-field you want. Consider the light. Get everything set-up so that you’ll be able to react quickly, efficiently, and perfectly, should the right situation present itself (regardless of whether or not you ask permission). Recommendation #6 – it’s photography, so back to the basics, consider lighting, consider background, consider DOF … you know, the basics just like landscape and wildlife.
As a general rule, People ‘doing things’ make the best candid photos: sports players, trades people, farmers and marketplace workers are all excellent examples of subjects with things to do. In Kasane, there are a number of local stores and street venders in the center of town. Recommendation #7 – Find locations where locals frequent and/or work and shoot workers at their work.
A final comment:
You may think that this type of photogography is intimidating and too intrusive. Get over it. Stop thinking about how to approach taking pictures of people and just start doing it. There are many ways to begin, but first, free yourself from your own (psychological/ethical/moral) constraints. You’re not considering taking a picture to sell to the National Inquirer. It’s no big deal. You are visiting a new culture you may never get a chance to document again. It’s rare to get a second chance with candid photography. When you see an opportunity, grab it!
While researching for this article, I met (via email), Emily Chastain. She visited Botswana and while there, met children as well as some workers at an orphanage near Gaberone. One way to really get candid shots is to immerse into the culture through involvement in a business or charity. Obviously, this is a real win-win way to get shots. Emily is a photographer and you can learn more about her work here. She has been generous enough to allow me to share some of her images of the wonderful people of Botswana. Please enjoy these wonderful images, all ©Emily Chastain.