It’s difficult to take pictures of a stranger without first establishing a relationship. When traveling on a photographic tour abroad, necessity will teach you to manage with sign language and to create silent relationship codes.

Asking a stranger for permission to take their photo can be a daunting task. Especially if there are language and cultural barriers between you. Traveling around the world, giving workshops with Travel Photography with Nomad Photo Expeditions, have taught me a few tips that can be helpful when photographing a stranger on a photographic tour.

harry Fisch with Nomad Photo Expeditions

Two Mursi girls posing for Harry Fisch in Ethiopia

7 Tips to Approaching a Stranger on a Photographic Tour

1. Have Some Tea – if possible, at a place without tourists. Get away from your usual level of comfort.

I remember an episode in an appalling slum in Kawda, Gujarat. In less than ten minutes, you can go from a “No camera, no photo,” to real camaraderie with the locals. Tea, in almost all cultures is the first thing that is offered to an outsider to establish a relationship. The less predictable your presence is, the more attention it will get, along with the curiosity of the members of the gathering. If you do it the right way, it also is the perfect bait to catch the interest of people for those things least known by them.

Sadhu posing for Harry Fisch
Sadhu posing for Harry Fisch

2 . A Little Magic: an extraordinary diplomatic instrument to break cultural barriers.

It’s 5 a.m. in Yangon, Myanmar. By pure chance, I stroll along the front of a Buddhist monastery. A huge dark gate is in front of me. As I glance inside, I exchange looks with a Buddhist nun, her skull completely shaved, and it comes as a surprise when she asks me to come inside. Following her wordlessly through endless corridors, I come to an immense room in which a monk, sitting scowling on a small stone bench, is preparing breakfast. I have made myself present in the middle of the room, uninvited. I’ve never been in such an awkward situation before. We look at each other, the three of us, in midst of a tense silence. The other two exchange a couple of words. I don’t speak Burmese, and they don’t speak English. Without a word, I hand over my camera to the nun to approach the monk with my right hand, extended and open, showing the coin in it. A long pause follows, both of them looking expectantly at each other. With a theatrical gesture, I put the coin in my mouth, and pretend to swallow it. I show them my open mouth, proving that the coin is not there, and … I take it out of my nose! The scowling monk’s expression changes, he slaps his forehead with his right hand and breaks out laughing loudly. In a surprising change of atmosphere, the monk drags me through the different rooms of the monastery while waking up the other monks to be photographed by the photographer-wizard!

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3. Look Into the Eyes – In a fixed and quiet manner

It is something that we Westerners are not used to doing. For us, a direct look may mean a challenge, a provocation. In India, especially in rural areas, a look is actually “read” by the person in front of you. So that sometimes, when you don’t speak the language or any lingua franca, everything you have to say is conveyed by a look.

4. Take the Hand of a Stranger – don’t be scared

A British travel photographer, with whom I made friends in midst of a desert commented – upon seeing my photographs – that taking them as I did, at close range with a 24 mm camera, seemed to be a bit dangerous. I replied that I was willing to take the risk.

In rural areas in India, it very often happens that when you are alone, somebody approaches you at a distance,  holds out his hand suddenly and unexpectedly, while yelling at the same time “How are you? Where are you from?”  The startled Westerner usually recoils in a scared manner. The trick is just to accept the stranger’s hand. It’s the basics, what they have been taught at school, to make contact with foreigners. It is often the beginning of a conversation, something a bit abrupt certainly, and an inexpensive way for most of them to learn English, the language that opens the doors of financial and social advancement.

[REWIND: How to Utilize Light in Travel Photography]

5. Smile – it usually helps in most countries

In India, smiling and looking into the eyes of the person in front of you, opens many doors. This is especially valid when something and everything seems to go wrong: your seat booking does not appear, you have been dumped in the middle of nowhere or someone is angry because of a misunderstanding. Shouting is considered impolite and evident anger coupled with shouts will only increase the confusion of the other party. Many problems are solved with a smile and polite wording in difficult circumstances. When things get complicated, and you are having trouble with a lesser authority, a small financial suggestion is sometimes the perfect companion for that smile.

Harry Fisch in Ethiopia
Harry Fisch on a Photo tour, in Ethiopia, drinking with locals

6. Cross Over to the Other Side – if the other side is difficult to access or uphill, even better.

Tourists usually go the way of convenience and comfort. Everything that is most common and everyday is going to be found there. Agencies organize everything at the shortest distance possible and with the best access: it is much cheaper and less troublesome… for the Agency. The more you move away from accessibility and comfort, the greater your chances are of running into something authentic. Always cross over to the other side.

7. Learn a Few Words of the Gujarati Dialect.

A first greeting in the local dialect and a “tag line” like “Abayoo,” (out there) or “Seedah, seedah,” (straight ahead, straight ahead) make real wonders. If the first impression is important, few things cause more empathy than the interest shown by a foreigner for the local culture. Clothing and gestures come first. Language, only later on. The truth is that if clothing reveals our origin, language offers guidance about our first intentions.

I am always exploring new exciting destinations. If you would like to learn more about photo tours in Kathmandu or come with me to other exotic destinations be sure to check out my workshops and photo tours  in www.nomadxphotoexpeditions.com