How I Photographed a Stranger for the First Time

This is part one of a 2-part series. Check out part two for practical travel photography tips to help you get started!


 

As the streets began filling with life, I dodged the motorcycles and tuk-tuk taxis that weaved and bounced their way over Antigua’s jagged roads. I walked slowly and observed in the quiet way that I do. The tourists, the shop owners. Young Mayan girls standing in small groups looking for the next customer to purchase their jewelry, and occasionally practicing the English phrases they had learned. “Something beautiful for your wife!”

I walked along several streets, observing and experiencing the moment. And then I saw a man, crouched on the sidewalk, quietly and patiently painting. Next to him sat dozens of paintings he had created–beautiful scenes from all over Guatemala. I so very much wanted to take his photograph, but I kept walking. I walked a block or two, and then I pretended to stop and look at something in a store window while I argued with myself about whether I would be brave.

I had been to Antigua before. I had taken photos there before. But this was the first time I was intentionally seeking to capture my trip and tell a story through my photographs. I had so much built up in my mind about how I would do this, but when it came to it, I just wanted to retreat into my introverted self, resorting to photographing buildings or street scenes instead of intimate portraits.

I didn’t want to be a drive-by tourist flashing my camera around. Thinking about that reminded me of a past experience that involved a group of Americans, a big school bus, and cameras out the window as we passed the Guatemala City dump. It was an experience that made me incredibly uncomfortable, and I knew I wanted to take a different approach.

Was there a way to capture these places and people authentically, and still respect the dignity of those I photographed?

 

I finally convinced myself to turn back down that cobblestone street and walk towards this stranger. I stopped and perused his artwork and chatted with him for a minute or two. Miguel Angel, he said his name was. We chatted for a few minutes. He told me he lived nearby and a little about his family, and I told him about the project I was working on. I purchased some note cards, and then I finally worked up the courage to tell him I was a photographer…and…would it be okay if I took his photograph?

He kindly obliged, and I nervously snapped a few frames, rushing myself so as not to take up too much of his time. He smiled shyly, probably wondering why this crazy girl wanted to take his photo, but he was kind enough to say yes.

Throughout my week’s stay in Antigua, I ran into Miguel Angel several other times, and we chatted each time for a few minutes. I asked him how business was going, and he asked me about how my project was going. I looked for him when I returned the following year–I had photographs to give him–but I didn’t find him. But I know I’ll be back, and I’ll walk down the street with the arch and look for my friend once again.

Do you struggle with photographing strangers when you’re traveling? #travelphotography Click To Tweet

 

I’ve since photographed other strangers-turned-friends, and it’s still a nervous rush each time. I haven’t always been brave. When I was in Cuba, I desperately wanted to photograph some men playing dominoes. It was on my list because it’s so very Cuban and gives a sense of the laid-back and communal culture.

Finally, I saw a group of young guys playing a game across the street from the center where I was staying. Instead of asking them myself in my intermediate-Spanish-with-a-gringa-accent-on-top, I asked another group member whose first language was Spanish if he would talk to them for me. I chickened out on trying to establish that connection with them. I got some amazing photographs, but it would have been a much richer experience if I had talked with them myself.

Friends, it’s very much a learning process.

In the next post, I’ll be sharing some practical tips on how to get over your fear and get started with street photography and travel portraits.

I’d love to hear your thoughts! Do you struggle with photographing strangers when you’re traveling? Have you ever done anything like this? Let me know in the comments!

Is there a way to capture places and people authentically, and still respect the dignity of those you photograph? A behind-the-scenes look at what was going on in my mind when I conquered my introvert fears and asked a stranger if I could photograph him. Part 1 of a 2-part series on travel portraits and street photography. @roamtheamericas

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  • Theresa Bailey

    Very cool article. I agree that the interaction itself is important because it lingers in the photos when you look at them later 🙂

  • I love portrait photography (in fact, I’m a huge fan of Humans of New York and The Atlas of Beauty), but I’m very shy when it comes to asking people if I could take their photo. I look forward to reading your next blog post! Oh, and I love your writing style.

    • Hi Daniela! Thanks so much–glad you enjoyed the article and appreciate the feedback. I can totally relate about shyness. 🙂 And I hadn’t heard of Atlas of Beauty–just followed them!

  • Tamara Gerber

    Oh, I hear you! I usually feel like a creeper when I sneak around with my camera!
    You ARE taking gorgeous shots, though!
    And I think you totally got rewarded for chatting up the artist!
    Did you know that Starbucks sources coffee from Anitigua? ☕️

    • Thank you so much, Tamara! No, I didn’t realize that. It’s a pretty big coffee growing region so I’m not surprised. Would be interested to see some of those coffee farms! 🙂 Have you ever been to Antigua?
      I’ve also heard about an org called De La Gente Coffee that has a coffee co-op to help support growers and get their products to the market, and they also do tours as a way of generating revenue. A pretty cool way of using tourism and keeping the money local.

  • Pingback: 11 Travel Photography Tips: How to Get Over Your Fear » Roaming the Americas()

  • Maria Berneiser Haase

    Oh, this might sound silly, but I always thought I was the only one with this problem! I took up photography to be more behind the camera, because I don’t like having my picture taken. I find it intrusive and voyeuristic. Yet I am fascinated by portrait photography and it really moves me, when I can see the personality of the person through the photo. I have a big trip coming up and I will make a pledge to try harder to take some beautiful shots!

    • You’re definitely not the only one, Maria! Even having had some experience with it, I still get nervous and second guess myself. Good luck with your trip and all your photos! Where are you headed?

      • Maria Berneiser Haase

        Yes, I think you are right that it is all practice. I am heading on a pretty exciting trip soon: I’ll be going from Texas to Iceland, then Germany (visiting my family back home), then to Shanghai for a day and then the Philippines for 4 weeks and finally San Francisco for an Indian/American wedding. I am soooo excited and I will definitely have a lot of opportunity to practice 😉

        • That sounds amazing, Maria! You must be so excited. I just got back from a 4-week trip in New England and it was incredible. All the best & safe travels!

          • Maria Berneiser Haase

            Oh wow! I have never been to New England, but this is one of the places in the US that I am absolutely fascinated about. The houses, the four seasons, the lobster rolls. I think I have a secret crush on that place 😉

          • I have a crush on it, too @mariaberneiserhaase:disqus! Haha. Hope you get to go one day! I’ll be writing some articles about Maine in the coming months, so maybe it will inspire a trip. 😉

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