Travel Tip/Photo Tip – Photographing The Soul of Botswana – the People

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.

This game turned out to be quite an education for me.

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.

This young man gives a thumbs up to our article on capturing the soul of Botswana

Photography Etiquette

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.

Straw harvesting along the side of the road. A few pula were needed to 'relax the workers'. Money well spent.

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

Lady coming from market - A clear story of the basic chores and how they are executed with a unique carrying style.

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.

I am no portrait expert, but used my basic landscape skills to capture this young boy with good light and strong composition.

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.

B&W of Child in Gabarone orphanage © Emily Chastain

Per Emily, this picture was taken in a section of Gaborone called Old Naledi, the poorest township in the area. The HIV/AIDS rate in Botswana is about 24%, a significant decrease from recent years. The poverty I witnessed was eye-opening, although the government is making many efforts to improve conditions. Despite the poor living conditions, the people seemed genuinely happy and extremely friendly. It was a pleasure to visit them, but it made me realize how incredibly spoiled I am to be living in a privileged first world country. ©Emily Chastain

Emily noted that despite the poor living conditions, the people seemed genuinely happy and extremely friendly. It was a pleasure to visit them, but it made me realize how incredibly spoiled I am to be living in a privileged first world country. Image ©Emily Chastain

Emily's final photos from Africa! This lady was one of the workers at the day care for the orphan children. ©Emily Chastain

13 comments for “Travel Tip/Photo Tip – Photographing The Soul of Botswana – the People

  1. March 22, 2010 at 3:39 am

    Great article on photography Etiquette…

    I am a local Motswana and i have realized that people in the rural areas don’t mind you taking pictures of them, however in the more developed areas Batswana find it offensive to just take pictures without asking for permission.

    I have discovered however that after asking for permission and also telling them what the photos are for , they will have no problem at all with you taking pics.

    For example if you have a website , you could tell them its for a website that lets the world know more about Botswana…etc…

    Another thing to keep in mind is that it is prohibited to take photos of government buildings without prior authorization.

    Permission can usually be granted by police officer or a senior officer within the building.

    Again, all you need to do is simply tell them why you are taking the pictures, what they are gonna be used for …etc More often than not, the people will be more than delighted to help you.

    Thanks again for the informative article,

    zina

  2. P. B. Eleazer
    March 22, 2010 at 1:33 pm

    Zina,

    Thanks so much for your contribution. First hand knowledge like yours is very valuable to help photographers show the proper respect, yet to get the photos desired. As you think of any other tips on this subject, we would love to hear more from you.

    Regards,
    Admin – Buddy

  3. P. B. Eleazer
    March 22, 2010 at 1:33 pm

    Zina,

    Thanks so much for your contribution. First hand knowledge like yours is very valuable to help photographers show the proper respect, yet to get the photos desired. As you think of any other tips on this subject, we would love to hear more from you.

    Regards,
    Admin – Buddy

  4. March 22, 2010 at 7:14 pm

    You are welcome Buddy,

    Another thing might help ease up any possible tension is a greeting in Setswana, the local language.

    Here is how to greet in Setswana…

    – Hello = Dumelang
    – Hello Sir = Dumelang Rra
    – Hello Gentlemen = Dumelang Borra
    – Hello Madam is = Dumelang Mma
    – Hello Ladies is = Dumelang Bomma

    Hope that helps,

    zina

  5. March 22, 2010 at 7:14 pm

    You are welcome Buddy,

    Another thing might help ease up any possible tension is a greeting in Setswana, the local language.

    Here is how to greet in Setswana…

    – Hello = Dumelang
    – Hello Sir = Dumelang Rra
    – Hello Gentlemen = Dumelang Borra
    – Hello Madam is = Dumelang Mma
    – Hello Ladies is = Dumelang Bomma

    Hope that helps,

    zina

  6. May 13, 2010 at 1:29 pm

    Those are some extraordinary photographs, wish mine were that competent!

  7. May 13, 2010 at 1:29 pm

    Those are some extraordinary photographs, wish mine were that competent!

  8. August 16, 2010 at 4:56 am

    Photo Etiquette is very important cause I know first hand that I hate having my picture taken with out my knowledge irritates the hell out of me, so I always make sure that before I just randomly take pictures of people that I have asked them if its OK to do so. It just the right thing to do at the end of the day.

    I have to say that you captured some amazing photo’s here I just love the ones of the the little kids the innocents in their eyes really make the whole photo come alive.

    Great article yet again

    Regards
    Cyndi

  9. August 16, 2010 at 4:56 am

    Photo Etiquette is very important cause I know first hand that I hate having my picture taken with out my knowledge irritates the hell out of me, so I always make sure that before I just randomly take pictures of people that I have asked them if its OK to do so. It just the right thing to do at the end of the day.

    I have to say that you captured some amazing photo’s here I just love the ones of the the little kids the innocents in their eyes really make the whole photo come alive.

    Great article yet again

    Regards
    Cyndi

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