The Human Connection

I didn’t set out to become a portrait photographer with an international focus. No, most of my work came from the most ordinary sources—requests to shoot local events at my children’s schools, your everyday, ordinary family portraiture and the occasional shoot of friends newly engaged, married or having a first baby.

All that changed, however, when an African friend asked me to visit her children who were living with her mother back home in Rwanda. My photography took on a whole new dimension. These would be the first images my friend would see of her children after a nearly two-year separation. I needed to capture these girls in their very essence. These weren’t just images to grab off a shot list—this was a history to document with the hope for a reunion in the distant future.

I rented lenses, packed my gear and made the 18-hour plane ride, not sure what to expect. My bags were packed with all kinds of clothing and much-needed supplies for the girls, but when I arrived, I was surprised to learn my camera was truly the only thing that mattered. Every single person I met, including the girls, wanted their picture taken. Strangers, relatives, neighbors—it didn’t matter. The camera was the thing, and there was no point in trying to maintain professional distance. Over and over again, I met people who were eager to be seen. I soon realized it was my job to bear witness, and not only to the images and scenes that were meaningful to me. My subjects had their own agenda, and when I was willing to follow, I was rewarded with images and emotions my lens had never seen.

The images from this trip became the cornerstone of my fledgling portfolio, and a year later, these same photos granted me the right to travel further and farther when I won an online photo contest with photographer-friend Stephanie Roberts. I was back on a plane, only this time, I knew what to expect. Whether I was in a makeshift kitchen in Rwanda or the mountain villages of Nepal, my subjects wanted their stories to be told, especially when I turned the camera around and showed them what was possible to see through the viewfinder. Little girls slid into their fathers’ arms. Mothers tilted their newborn babies to the best available light. Old men who couldn’t read or write gave me their whole histories in a glance. It was transformative.

Whether you’re a professional photographer or a hobbyist eager to capture the essence of local life while on vacation, I know now that the key is one part human connection and one part filling the frame with someone who would like to be more fully seen. This is no small feat, but it’s possible when we let go a little of getting what we want in the lens and make room for the heart and vision of someone else. Our willingness to go beyond our own agenda not only will improve the quality of our work, but it will deepen our experience of our art. And it’s when we approach our work with a new measure of heart and soul—combined with our technical expertise—that our images truly shine.

HOW TO TAKE RESPECTFUL PHOTOGRAPHS OF STRANGERS AND OTHER FRIENDS YOU HAVEN’T MET YET

1. Be Friendly. Do you see a particular angle or unique point of view that you often use in your work? How do you most commonly see and capture your subject?

2. Ask before you shoot. Most documentary photographers I know don’t do this, and for good reason. They know that most of the time their would-be subjects will say no, and they don’t want to miss the shot. But when you ask and receive an honest yes, chances are, you’ll get a much different image. Your subject will "give it up" in all the best ways, and you’ll be allowed to see a part of that person’s soul that they otherwise might keep buttoned up.

3. Show your shot. I’ve found that most subjects really care about how they look in a photo—no matter where you’re shooting. You can argue with this, but you’ll do better to say, "Let’s try again." This allows you to collaborate with your subject and go deeper into their comfort zone. Your subject will begin to understand that they need to reveal something of themselves for the shot to work, and as a result, you’ll more than likely capture something with more texture and meaning. You may still choose as a favorite something with more edge, but you’ll also discover something really worthwhile in your subject’s preference.

4. Share the shot. If your subject has email, send one of the more personal images along. You’ll be surprised how the value of communication isn’t lost on people in the most primitive of conditions. Facebook is often the easiest way to stay in touch, and even the simplest exchanges can turn into kind friendships. Most people you shoot in the developing world will have only a handful of photos of themselves, if any at all, and your photo will be a lifelong treasure.

5. Be mindful of how you use these images. Whether you intend to or not, the images you share become part of how we collectively see the world. Your interpretation of the places you’ve been is powerful. That’s why it’s always enlightening to ask lots of questions as you travel and to find out what your images mean to the people you meet. Take time to ask your driver or that friendly guide to go through your photographs with you. You’ll be surprised by the story your photos are telling, and your shooting will improve in the process.

SHUTTER SISTERS is a collaborative photo blog (www.shuttersisters.com) and a thriving community of women, passionate about photography. Jen Lemen is a partner in Shutter Sisters and the founder of www.hopefulworld.org, a digital publishing collaborative designed to fund and fuel global leaders with a passion for brilliant ideas, new economic models and wisdom for the world at large.

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