Travel Photography: Overcoming my Inner Coward 35

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I am a coward.

Well, perhaps it is cowardice or perhaps a acute fear of rejection or perhaps just being lazy (my personal choice for most likely) or perhaps just simply contentedly solitary, but regardless, I undoubtedly chickened out in the last few days.  And it was far from the first time during my itinerancy of the past few years.

I don’t like to ask people if I can take their picture.

michael hodson photographing on great wall of china

Some blogging friends of mine have written about how rude and insensitive it is to just snap pictures of people furtively, without asking permission, and at the heart of it I do agree.  The proper way to take someone’s picture is clearly to ask. I just fear, somewhat irrationally, of being told no.

It isn’t as if no is a concept that I have not run across frequently in my life.  I was having this discussion with my sailing friend Wiley yesterday afternoon and he equated it to asking a woman out on a date.  As I told him, being that I have been unmarried for my entire lifetime, I actually have absolutely no fear of rejection in that arena at all – in fact, that particular rejection has graced my doorstep so many times that I couldn’t come close to a accurate estimation of its frequency.

It bothers me not at all if a woman I am attracted to doesn’t want to have dinner or drinks with me, and oddly in that all too-common situation, I’d just as soon have the straight “not interested” rejection much more than the more typical beating around the bush of excuse making, which just goes to prolong the annoyance for both parties for a few more invitations, until I reach the normally accepted mark of three and quit. Just bang out “no” and we can move along nicely.

asking kids for photos is easy

There is something distinctly unique, for me at least, about asking someone if I may take their picture and have the answer be “no.”  Don’t get me wrong, I don’t always just sneak photos (though I do continue to do that and likely will for the foreseeable future).  I got much better on my RTW trip about asking people much more frequently than ever before, though the butterfly sensation I get before asking has yet to diminish in any appreciable way.  This is that case, except for children, who always seem to want to have their pictures taken.

As is my wont, and is quite poor form I have learned for proper blogging, I have managed to go this far without getting to the point I was going to make with this post.

This week, I chickened out again on the photography front.

As you know, I have been staying on one of the charter sailboats that my friend Wiley oversees down here on the island of Grenada for the past few weeks. So, I have basically been living in St. George’s main marina, and it is a very nice one. It is one of the few anchorages that is rated resistant up to a category 2 hurricane, because it is so sheltered. It is the southernmost stop on the typical Caribbean cruise and the marina can handle some massive boats.

One of them showed up late last week, Party Girl. It is 146 feet long, which is far from the top of the line of superyachts, but still pretty massive in my book. Here is the write up in Power and Motor Yacht Magazine when it was launched.

click through here, if interested

I sat at the marina bar for a couple afternoons and told Wiley that I needed to just walk up and see if I could get aboard and take photos. Perhaps talk to some of the crew and make a post out of it. “Backpacker gets a glimpse of the high life” type material.

The weekly base rate for a charter is $185,000, with a maximum of 12 guests (and 10 crew to cater to your needs). Six staterooms. A wall that comes down with the push of a button so you can see your chef cook the food for you. Multiple interior and exterior areas to party, as the name of the boat indicates. Hot tub. You get the point.

$185,000 a week. Who the hell has that kind of money? In any case, it seemed like a good opportunity for photos and a post for little ‘ole me.

The talk never made it to action. I had geared myself up to walk over Sunday morning to see if I could take some pictures and as I walked over for my morning coffee, I noticed that the lines were being cast off and it was leaving. Once again, my photography cowardice got the best of me.

So here are a couple photos that I took from the magazine article. It is the closest I got to getting aboard my first megayacht. Damn it.

the "Party Girl"

the top deck, built for parties

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About Michael Hodson

I’m an attorney that took off on my birthday in December of 2008 to circumnavigate the globe without ever getting on an airplane. After 16 months, 6 continents and 44 countries, I made it all the way back home. Right now, I am back on the road writing about it all.

35 thoughts on “Travel Photography: Overcoming my Inner Coward

  • Bethany

    You still did a good job! It’s really hard getting over that hump. I guess the one thing I’ve learned is that worse than the rejection, I hate the feeling in the pit of my stomach that arrives because I regretted not saying anything at all. Seriously I could carry that feeling for days, thinking of the great shots that I must’ve missed. I’ve learned over time that dealing with rejection is easier than dealing with that. Plus from my experience people usually love to have their pictures taken and it can open up a really friendly conversation just by asking. I’ve even made new friends that way. On the other hand, I completely agree w/ NOT asking all the time. Sometimes if you ask you ruin your chance at a natural photo. Most people tighten up (including myself) if they know someone is taking their photo. There is definitely a fine line that you need to walk and it really depends on each situation. Two choices:

    1. Think of yourself as a journalist – they don’t ask permission and get great shots.

    2. Get good as asking permission (and figure it out in multiple languages & have a good joke to tell to loosen them up and make them laugh – this is very imp)

    • Michael Hodson Post author

      ahhhh, and this leads into another one of my big travel faults, crappy language skills. Damn, I am just awash with confidence today 😉

      thanks for the thoughtful reply. I agree with all of it. I know I need to get better on asking, but I also agree with you that asking isn’t necessary in every instance. Sometimes, you just take the shot and move on.

  • Giulia

    I hate asking for permission too! And at the same time I feel guilty when I take pics furtively :/
    So in the end I always end up taking much less pics than I wanted.
    Another factor is that we are usually in under developed and/or poor areas and even if they are often the more interesting and colorful, I don’t want those people to see me as the curious tourist that takes pictures of everything different from what they have at home.
    Maybe I’m a little too paranoid but in the end I don’t want to force myself so I just take as many pics I want to landscapes etc as they can’t complain 🙂

  • Joel

    A skill I have not been able to master. Or even attempt, for the most part. I am way too shy to ask random people for photos and I don’t like the intrusion of taking them without permission.

    So, I generally have lots of shots of buildings. And trees. Lots of trees.

  • Ayngelina

    I would say it’s definitely easy being female. Women are less threatened by you as they don’t think you are a creep and you can flash men a smile.

    That said, there are times when I really hate making people feel like they are a tourist attraction, particularly women, so if they are wearing something nice I’ll often say I like their dress and then ask if I can take their picture. It brings a sense of pride to the photo and all women bond over pretty clothing.

  • Adam

    I am the exact same way. I don’t know why, but I just get all nervous. And it doesn’t end with asking for permission. In fact, I sometimes still get nervous to take out my camera and start snapping away. I feel like such a tourist and feel as though I really stand out, which I typically do, camera or not. It’s totally juvenile and ridiculous, and when I get home and lament the shots I could have gotten, I get pissed at myself. I’ve gotten better, for sure, but I still have a long ways to go.

  • my.

    Haha, this story is great … something most travelers can relate to I’m sure. I’ve gotten better at asking after realizing that most people don’t mind having their photos taken. On one of my recent trips, I did the ol’ shoot from the hip deal, and the subject noticed me. She came and asked whether I got any good ones. She even posed for me to get an even better shot.

    Glad I stumbled upon your blog. I enjoyed reading it.

    • Michael Hodson Post author

      I have SOOOO shot from the hip. I need to do an entire shoot-from-the-hip photo album.

  • Dustin Main | Skinny Backpacker

    I agree and feel 100% the same as Joel, and I miss fantastic shots ALL THE TIME 🙁

  • Jen Bianco

    I learned from a National Geographic photographer to learn creative ways of photographing people without showing their faces. Sometimes I’ll photograph them from behind or an angle where they remain anonymous. But there are still many cultures where it’s an honor to be photographed. The problem with asking is you lose the moment, and people get cheesy for the camera. I’ve found it’s best not to have a hard and fast rule and let your gut be the guide.

  • Nancie

    Like you said, kid shots are easy. I get around the adult shots by taking them at festivals when they are in costume. Generally the shots are much more interesting. Great post! I want one of those yachts!

  • Erin

    Glad I’m not the only one with this problem. The women of the Andes in traditional dress are really photogenic but they hate having their photo taken. Amazing travel photographers like Uncornered Market seem to get past this but I just feel really bad asking people. I did ask a market stall owner once (after buying something from her) and she turned her nose up and begrudgingly said yes. I felt awful that she was so reluctant and haven’t asked anyone since. I need to get braver!

  • Neale

    Your so right I have sneaked in a few people photos, with out asking… I need to start just asking as you say whats the worst they say no LOL

  • Mika

    this is one of the things that I have to work on daily. I not only do I do my own travel photography but I also give photo safaris where I live (central Turkey) and we go often into small rural villages and markets and I’m the one who has to ask for the photographer and also for myself and translate.

    I find two tricks work best for me: 1. when shooting on my own anywhere I’m traveling, I give myself an assignment – I pretend I’m on an actual assignment for a magazine and I must get at least 20 images to present to the photo editor at the end of that day. That usually gets me out of my torpor and fear of rejection; and 2. if I see an interesting area with good light/subjects, I spend a little time in that area – for instance at the market. I’ll talk with the locals, buy some fruits, etc all the while keeping my camera down and making eye contact and smiling. Then I slowly pick up the camera and take shots around the area…and then if I want a portrait I go (with my camera down) and making eye contact I point to my camera and say “Ok?” and then take the image if they’re ok with it. I’ve found this to be the best approach – I’m not a fan of taking photos of people without their consent…unless it’s a group or distant shot. I detest having my photo taken (99.99% of the time) and I dont want any photos of someone who didnt want their photo taken…bad energy for me.

    • Michael Hodson Post author

      really great tips. I agree on both and one other skill I need to really work on for my photography relates to your second point – I need a lot more patience.

  • Vibeke

    This is a really interesting post. From a photographer’s point of view I feel that the best thing is ALWAYS to talk to your ‘models’ before photographing them. Not only because it is the polite way to do it, but also because they will look so much more confident in the photo once you’ve established contact.

    Having said this, I also feel hesitant about approaching people every now and again. But I have found that the weirdest and most colorful people I meet, are always the ones who don’t mind being photographed!
    I have actually dedicated a whole post about this in my series on how to become a travel journalist. Feel free to have a look here

    • Michael Hodson Post author

      thanks for the thoughtful comment. I agree that one should ask as often as possible and I am doing better on trying to do that.

  • Christine

    I love Ayngelina’s comment on this. I get shy too Michael and more often than not take the shots when they’re not paying attention. Then I feel a bit guilty for being sneaky. Guess we just have to suck it up and go for it.

  • Jade

    I’m with you- I’m not over the hump yet. I really want to be, but I’m still kind of scared. Good luck coming out- so to speak!!

  • Chris @CAroundTheWorld

    I have to admit that I don’t always ask. A lot of my photos are street scenes and people can’t readily be identified. At least that’s my excuse. If I do want to shoot an up close portrait, I do what Mika does – shoot around the area, then hold up the camera and ask.

    My husband is much more outgoing with it. He talks to people, gets their info and becomes their buddy – even with the language barrier.

    I think that for me, part of the problem is that I’m always writing in my head, especially when I shoot photos because I’m thinking of what kind of story it will work for. And it’s difficult to talk to me when I’m in that mode. 🙂

    • Michael Hodson Post author

      I’m semi-good about asking, but have resolved to be a lot better about asking on this trip.

  • Andrea

    I’m getting some great tips from the comments here – great post! I haven’t travelled to many places where I want to take people’s pictures this year, but as we move into the areas where people dress more traditionally, I know I’m going to want one. If I’m already in a conversation with someone I don’t feel shy at all asking to take their photo – luckily I don’t often want to take a photo of someone unless I know a bit about them anyway.

    • Michael Hodson Post author

      Yea, the comments are fantastic on this thread. Really appreciating everyone’s feedback.

  • Sophie

    I find it uncomfortable as well, but the results are always better when I man up and ask. “Stolen” photos often look just that.

    Also, when you enter into a conversation with the ‘subject’, you’ll have a story along with the photo.

    • Michael Hodson Post author

      I am going to try to do a heck of a lot better this time out on the road, especially since I want a lot more close-ups this time.

  • Jim

    Always a problem, taking shots of people. In a market in Ethiopia, I really wanted a shot of the drug area, where the illegal stuff is sold, so started taking general street scenes, swinging around snapping casually away, then managed one of the chat/drug market…up went arms and loud shouts, and the guide takes us outa there quick smart.
    In the knife/sword area just the sight of a camera set the sellers off. Didn’t want to argue there about that either.
    So I have the answer…sunglasses with built in spy video. Just wander casually around, filming away then photo capture on computer. And who is going to be upset because they will never know they have been filmed.
    Haven’t tried them out yet, but my friend has given me a pair to try out. Cool fun.
    Yeah I know- ethics. So what does everyone think?

  • Brooke vs. the World

    I’m a total wuss when it comes to this topic. Sometimes I surprise myself, others, I regret it completely. Maybe I should make next year’s daily photo about going out and finding someone random 😉

    • Michael Hodson Post author

      I read somewhere that someone was doing a Stranger Photo everyday on their blog. I’m headed out to the MIddle East in a few days and resolve to be a lot better about asking people for portrait shots, since I want some close-ups.

  • Candice

    Hahaha, I have the same problem most times. And I hate walking around town with a big camera around my neck, I feel like it screams “tourist” even if I’m not.

    • Michael Hodson Post author

      Ahhh, I think I give away the tourist vibe with my shorts, runners, and black socks 😉

  • Nicole @ Living In London Guide

    Great article, I too suffer from photography stage fright when travelling – but if you dont ask, you dont get, I guess! Better than the whole ‘Im not taking a picture of you, Im taking one of the boring landscape behind you’ farce!!

  • guy

    You should go with your gut, consider your intentions and what your subject’s feelings might be on the matter. If it feels forced or awkward, then don’t do it*. If it makes sense to ask, ask.

    I can’t imagine shooting someone’s portrait without their cooperation, for example.

    For candids, if a stranger is obviously the subject of your shooting, then ask. Nobody wants to feel like they are being paparazzi’d.

    People who are ancillary to the scene or who are wondering in and out of the frame, do not need to be asked if you’re shooting in public where there is no expectation of privacy** (i.e. on a street in the United States). There are places with a cultural prohibition on photography (Amsterdam’s red light district, Mayan villages in Chiapas, Buddhist temples in Thailand) in which case you should be respectful.

    I wouldn’t worry about hurting a boat’s feelings so I probably would have just walked up and started shooting 🙂

    * exceptions can be made for exigent circumstances, i.e. investigative journalism or meaningful art

    ** public or not, I think it is uncool to shoot people who are in a miserable state just to get your photographic kicks, as many travel photogs do in a pathetic attempt to seem edgy

  • Jeff at Planet Bell

    Taking photos of people can be sensitive, but it totally depends on the situation. In a crowded city like Delhi, for example, I will stand on the street and blend in with the surroundings and try and get candid photos of people. 90% of the time they don’t see me. If they do, I smile and offer to show them the shot on the camera. This is the best way for me to get candid action shots.

    But in an area with fewer people I will hold up the camera and point at it or ask in advance. I am sometimes surprised by the people who say no, but it is part of getting those memorable shots. We forget those who say no, but we have photos of those who say yes to keep forever. Besides, I’ve had my photo taken about 1000 times in India and China so it is only fair I get thiers, right?

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