Originally commissioned by World Nomads
Photographer Craig Boehman shares his tips for photographing people in the megacities of India.
Street photography can be nerve-racking at times, even in familiar places. But what about when you’re traveling abroad to countries in the Global South, where city populations routinely surpass 10 million?
What are the ethics of street photography when you don’t speak the language?
The ethics of street photography is an in-depth subject worthy of study. But for practical considerations, it often boils down to how comfortable you are photographing people balanced with the legality of public photography in any given destination.
Safety is a third factor. No photography adventure should be planned without first carefully researching any new locale to determine any risks and necessary precautions.
In any locale where it’s legal and safe to photograph people in public or private venues, it’s relatively easy to ask permission to photograph someone who doesn’t speak your language.
1) Simply make eye contact and mime taking your subject’s picture with your camera. 2) Ask “Photo?” 3) Smiling goes a long way in transcending language. Simply taking someone’s picture with acknowledgement and a smile is generally acceptable in places like India.
4) When someone declines, or if something is said and you’re unsure of consensus, smile and walk away. If they really want you to take their picture, they’d likely respond then.
How to blend in to get your shots
It’s a daunting task to blend in when you’re the foreigner. In some instances, it may even be impossible. Here are a few tricks I’ve learned practicing street photography on the busy streets of Mumbai and Kolkata.
1) Don’t hesitate. Once you determine who your subject is, immediately frame-up and take the picture. 2) Immerse yourself. The opposite to the tip above is to spend as much time at the scene as possible to capture shots of your subject once he or she loses interest in you. 3) Don’t make eye contact. If your subject is looking at you and you still want that frame, look above or to the side of your subject and click the shutter button. More often than not you’ll see them turn to figure out what you were photographing behind/beside them.
Must you understand the locale prior to shooting? Destination research is generally a good policy, especially when traveling to Third World countries where safety could be a primary concern.
For instance, in Mumbai I’ll walk into most slums and take pictures without much concern for my safety. But I would never take it upon myself to walk into such places like the barrios in the hills of Rio de Janeiro or the slums in Cape Town. These places would be well outside of my comfort zone. Therefore, I would either seek out a guide or read up extensively before setting foot in a place where I may not be safe or where photography by foreigners is generally frowned upon.
Best kit for street photography
I’d recommend a full frame or APS-C mirrorless system with a 35mm prime lens or equivalent for street photography. Telephoto lenses like the 16-35mm or 24-70mm would also suffice.
Mirrorless systems are generally easier to safeguard against theft in crowded areas due to their compact size. Keeping them close to your body, in-hand or around your neck, is recommended.
Other advantages over DSLRs:
1) Being able to see the exposure in real time before you click the shutter 2) The ability to use live view versus having to put the camera up to your eye 3) Generally more technology inside to allow for greater photographic freedom
Storytelling through street photography
Routines are the most obvious and sometimes overlooked elements which serve as storytelling devices for photo essays. Look for people doing activities, repeating actions, etc.
1) Capture the beginning, middle, and end of any scene or cycle. Every good story has these three elements. 2) Get in close. Make sure to capture facial expressions, hands, feet – elements which help to add emotion or expression. This could include objects which have special meaning for your subjects.
3) Find and shoot a header image, one frame which would represent your entire photo essay.
4) Imagine you are shooting for your favorite publication. What kind of shots would editors be looking for? Determine what those shots would be and make it happen.
5) Look for strong foreground-background relationships. Image stories with actual depth will help keep your audience interested.