5 Steps for Creating Connections in Your Travel Portraits
Why are millions of people mesmerized by the Humans of New York project? For me, it’s the connection photographer Brandon Stanton quickly makes with his subjects to enable a life story to be told in a single portrait. Photographer and subject are both participants, resulting in a different kind of “decisive moment” than the classic street photography of a photographer like Henri Cartier-Bresson, whose subjects often aren’t aware that their moment has been captured. Viewed together, the HONY portraits tell the story of a city, revealing a true sense of place through its inhabitants. Street portraits are my favorite type of travel photographs, my favorite way to tell the story of the places I visit. They are also the most challenging for me to capture.
Landscapes, architecture, details, abstracts, crowded street scenes—creating these types of travel photographs requires attention to light and composition, creativity and technical craft. Making authentic travel portraits of people in their environment means you have to tap into an additional, more abstract craft: human connection.
Do you fear asking strangers for their portrait? I do. I still get the jitters and take a few deep breaths every time I approach someone, especially when I don’t speak the same language. If you go through your travels standing back using your 70–200mm zoom lens to “capture” someone doing something interesting without them knowing, you may never get the travel portraits you envisioned.
Throughout my travels to over 40 countries, I have used photography as an excuse to connect with people along the way. It’s how I learn about a culture, by having intimate experiences that I may not have had otherwise. I’ve led groups of photographers through the streets and alleyways of Cuba and Morocco, where language barriers can scare people from interacting with locals. I know how hard it can be, and I know what a rush it can be as well.
This collection of travel portraits was created in Cuba. While I studied Spanish in school way back when, I’m by no means fluent. I know enough to pretend that I know more. So how did I communicate one-on-one with people to create these images? With these five steps.
Step 1. Make eye contact.
As you’re walking slong streets, through a market, in a local shop or a park, go where the locals are gathered. Look for places where people are used to interacting with other people, and then scope out the scene. Before you approach someone, get his or her attention by making eye contact. Give a soft smile, then a nod. It’s kind of like making eye contact with someone across the room at a party or a bar that you want to meet. If someone looks you back in the eye, smile or nod back—you have your first green light. (If they don’t, take that as a polite no-thank-you.) Try to hold the gaze as long as you can. You’re beginning to show your own vulnerability before asking for theirs.
Step 2. Own your body language.
Body language makes or breaks a first impression of you, so be mindful of it. In fact, be more than just mindful of it, own it. Exude a gentle confidence, as your own nervous energy will make another person nervous. Would you rather talk with someone who is grimacing with arms crossed walking toward you at full steam, or someone with an open stance, a confident, solid stride and a calm smile? Whatever feels natural to you, own your attitude and stick with it.
At this point, words matter much less than you think. What matters are the intention, tone and underlying emotion you both are bouncing back and forth. People mirror each other’s body language and emotions. Approach calmly and offer a hand, a bow, a hands-together namaste—whatever the welcome gesture is in that culture. It’s an energetic exchange; what you project, they will reflect.
If you’re approaching a child, crouch down so that you are less intimidating and can engage at their level. More about that in a bit.
Step 3. Pay a compliment.
A sincere and genuine compliment often results in a smile. Some go-to compliment topics include what someone is wearing, selling, making or doing. Pay a compliment followed by a leading question about that thing you complimented. Be in control of the interaction. Guide it.
The goal is to quickly get the other person talking so you can stop talking—it’s not about you. Introduce yourself with your name and where you’re from, and offer a bit of context for why you’re there. Imagine they are clients you’re meeting for the first time. Use the tools you have from all of those exchanges. Find something you have in common as a point of discussion.
Sometimes it’s fun to turn the tables on what a stranger might expect. One of the first things local people might ask is where you’re from. An easy way to get a laugh is to ask where they’re from, when the answer is obvious. Use humor. Laughter is a brilliant icebreaker.
Step 4. Establish trust and be present.
You must be your authentic self if you’re asking people to do the same. We all recognize fake immediately, and turn away from it. One way to establish trust quickly is to be vulnerable. You’re already taking a risk by approaching the person, so acknowledge that. You can say, for example, “I’m a little nervous to come up and talk with you.” (This of course can be said with confidence in step 2.)
Be at ease and talk with your subject as if you’re already friends. Act as if they have already said yes to you creating their portrait. Act as if they want to talk with you. Act as if they are just as interested in you as you are in them. Ask questions about their life, and really listen to people as they answer your questions. Don’t be looking around for the next person you want to photograph. Maintain eye contact and open body language.
Bonus tip: To engage with children, start playing sports or a game with them. Embrace your silliness. Kids connect to adults via smiles, laughter and by your showing genuine interest in what they are doing. Jump into their game of soccer in the streets, and you may just catch them off guard and endear yourself to them.
Step 5. Embrace your Craft
At this point, you’re ready to go in for the ask, whether that’s a verbal “May I?” or a gesture of lifting up your camera and nodding. You want to maintain that energetic connection you just established when you raised your camera to your face. Don’t go silent on them or lose control of the situation. Just like with your clients at home, guide the person into the position that gives you the best light and composition. Find the catchlights and focus on the eyes. Create a composition that establishes the story you want to tell about this person.
If you’ve made a connection and don’t have the right light, you probably won’t end up with the portrait you were hoping for. You have technical skills, so use them. This is where all your hard-won knowledge comes in. The best portrait photographers are fully present and connected in the moment, instinctively embracing their craft.
When your exchange is over, show gratitude and say thank you. If someone asks for you to send their portrait, get their contact information and do it.
Another great way to engage with people is to have an instant camera that allows you to give them a portrait right then and there. I love to travel with my Fuji Instax Mini. I’ve encountered several people who at first gestured that they didn’t want me to photograph them, but changed their mind once I showed them a sample tiny print (especially kids). In these scenarios, I snap a shot of the person holding up the instant print as a memory of the moment. This is a great time for selfies with the person too.
In the end, if someone doesn’t want you to make his or her portrait, don’t then try to get it on the sly. There isn’t going to be a real connection in your image. Respect a no. You aren’t entitled to take someone’s photograph. Say thank you, no problem, and move on. Don’t take it personally or get discouraged. Keep trying.
Before your next adventure, test-drive these five steps. Get out of your comfort zone now. Approach people who seem unapproachable. You just might be pleasantly surprised.