Wednesday, September 22, 2010

May I Take Your Picture?

I love my new Canon G11 so much that I find myself spending a good amount of time playing around with it on land. I've never really been much of a photographer at all, but now, after venturing into underwater photography and having this great little camera on my hands, I feel inspired.

Maybe it's sort of a natural transition from liking to take macro close ups of fish and such, but I'm starting to get into portraits. There were two events on our recent trip to Bali that set me on this path. The first was one early morning on Nusa Lembongan when Jackie and I went for a walk along the beach. We headed off with the intention of taking some pictures of the Agung volcano looming in the distance but we soon found ourselves talking to two friendly little girls who were making mini Agung volcanos in the sand. We chatted with them in very basic Indonesian and I took several photos. After each photo, I would show them my LCD screen and they would shout, "Lagi, lagi!" (Again, again!). And then I'd take another photo. This one of 7 year-old Dila was my favorite one of the series:

When I showed the picture on my camera to Megan, Noreen and Michaela later they all commented on what a nice shot it was. But I still didn't think too much of it. When we got to Ubud, our next destination, I strolled down Monkey Forest Rd taking pictures of statues and flowers and other non-human things. Looking through the photos later I felt like something was missing but I couldn't figure out what. Then the second big event happened. One day later I wondered into a bookstore and bought a Lonely Planet guide to travel photography. As it happened to be raining that afternoon, I took the book back to the hotel and basically read it cover to cover. I found myself drawn to the chapters about portrait photography and realized what I needed to do to make my travel photos really come alive.

I've always thought that local people make very interesting subjects for travel photography but the whole notion of asking a complete stranger for permission to take their picture has always been super intimidating to me. My general approach for most of my life has been to try to sneakily take photos of people when they're not looking or to stand from a safe enough distance away so that if they got suspicious I could always just pretend I was taking a picture of the tree/statue/storefront next to them. However, living as a quasi-celebrity in Gorontalo last year, I got really uncomfortable and annoyed by all the random people constantly taking my picture, sometimes right up in my face, without even so much as a hello or a nod to their camera phone to ask for permission. Asking for permission is definitely the way to go.

This aspect of photography gets especially tricky in developing countries when many of the interesting subjects you want to shoot are living in such poverty that you feel guilty for wanting to take a few pictures of their daily existence only to wander back to your nice hotel later to play with the pics on your fancy laptop. But I guess the bottom line is it doesn't hurt to ask. Sometimes people will say no and they have every right to do so. But for those who say yes, you might be rewarded with some great photos.

The day after reading the chapters on portraits in my book, I headed off to a market in Ubud to challenge myself to interact with people and see if I could get their permission to take a few photos. I felt like I could at least say "Boleh?" (May I?) in Indonesian while holding up my camera. The first woman I encountered was busy sorting chili peppers. Ah ha, I thought. I can practice taking what my book called 'environmental portraits' or, in other words, portraits that make the picture more interesting by placing the subject in a specific context. I held up my camera and asked, "Boleh?" and then took a few snapshots of this woman at work:

At first glance, this photo might not look much different from your typical photo surreptitiously taken in a market, but because I asked for permission first I was able to stand closer than I normally would and take multiple shots. As a side note here, I like how the camera captured the movement in her right hand.

For my next subject, I employed the time honored technique of buying something first and then asking permission to take a photo. This technique works well because you feel you have established some sort of relationship with your subject before you take their picture. It also decreases the likelihood that they will say no to your request. However, the big drawback to this technique is that it can get expensive when you go around buying things you don't need just to get people's pictures.

Finally, one of my favorite shots of the day was of this sweet 90 year-old woman selling woven boxes. I thought her face was very photogenic but when I first asked to take her picture she said I had to buy a box first. Hmm...I thought. She's been around enough tourists to know how to up her sales! So I thanked her, told her that I didn't really need a woven box and started to walk away. But then she called me back, laughed and said it was fine if I took her picture. She kept saying "Tapi saya tua! Saya sudah 90 tahun" (But I'm old! I'm already 90 years old.) To which I responded, "Mungkin Anda sudah tua, tapi Anda masih cantik!" (Maybe you are old, but you are still beautiful!). She laughed again.

These brief exchanges with the women in the Ubud market were rewarding enough to make me think I might be on to something here. Stay tuned for more portrait photos this year!


  1. Wonderful shots, Julianne... I like where you're headed with this (I love portraits)!

  2. Thanks, Michael! I appreciate your encouragement (and your pun)!

  3. Excellent. And your Indonesian has really improved!

  4. Nice, Jules! You're so dedicated...and it's really paying off.