Wendy Gunderson, a freelance travel photographer, has devoted much of her work to the Caribbean, a place that, in her words, has helped her attain a true sense of irie, which in Jamaica means “an overall feeling of well-being.” (Love it, wish I had it). Today, she inaugurates our new One Question segment in which I ask a writer or photographer to reflect on one aspect of her or his writing, life, or photography. As a photographer who still feels incredibly awkward asking people if I can take their photo when I’m traveling, I wanted to know how Wendy deals with the delicate and often difficult task of meeting people and asking to capture them in a moment in time. Enjoy!
As a photographer, how do you best approach people you’d like to take pictures of when you travel? And do you think being a female traveler affects the way you interact with people you’ve never met before, and if so, what advice would you give to budding photographers?
One of the hardest things to do is to approach a stranger to take their photograph. Photography often attracts people who would rather be on the outside observing, rather than actually engaging people, however, I have found that my best images of people are captured by engaging those people in conversation first, and taking photographs later. As a woman, I think it’s easier to start the dialogue. Women are viewed as less threatening, particularly by other women. While a woman may not feel comfortable if a man approaches her to take her image, a woman approached by another woman will feel more at ease.
While being a woman may make engaging strangers easier, it is not always easy to initiate the conversation. I find that people like to talk about their country or their business first, and then they will ease into more personal discussion. While in a restaurant, engage people by remarking on what you love about their country or the area. Once they know you appreciate their place in the world, they are more inclined to talk, and will offer many more things about the area than you may have imagined.
It helps to have done your homework. Before we travel, I like to read not only about the sites to see in a particular place, but also about the history of the region. Find out how the country developed, the people who inhabited it, the dominant religions, the political system, etc. Read the area’s newspaper online to understand what is timely, and what is of concern to the local citizens. It gives you a perspective on how the area developed the way it did, and an insight into what makes people who they are. It also helps you engage in conversation.
Ask questions. Having done your homework and having some background information on the country will make it easier to ask intelligent questions. In addition, people are likely to be more responsive if you ask questions reflective of the fact that you took the time to get to know something about the people and want to know more.
What I have found is that through these conversations, I gain not only a much better appreciation of the country and its people, but I realize how much alike we all are. Many of my conversations while traveling start with questions about the country, and eventually become conversations about family, politics, and religion, where I find we hold many of the same beliefs and concerns. That is what makes a wonderful photograph, understanding the person behind it, not just capturing the superficial image.
Wendy G. Gunderson is an attorney from Pewaukee, Wisconsin and founder of My Irie Time, http://myirietime.com/, a website devoted to travel in the Caribbean. As she plans a November to trip to Eleuthera in the Bahamas, she is reading the book “Eleuthera, The Island Called Freedom,” about the history of the island, the local newspaper, “The Eleutheran,” http://www.eleutheranews.com/, and as much other information as she can gather regarding the island.