An extract from Photography Australia: The Ultimate Travel Guide
My connection with photographing people in streets, towns, and rural settings goes back to my years spent wandering Asia in the early 1960s while serving in the Royal Australian Navy. We had a darkroom in the photography department onboard, so cruising the street markets, waterfront, and the backstreets of Tokyo, Hong Kong, Singapore and Manilla – and later down the east coast of the US – provided me with considerable pleasure. Later, back in Australia, photographing people at work and play became an early focus for my regional publishing.
Photographing people, especially if you intend to publicly display the images, will entail navigation of the laws of privacy, security, and property, but it’s not as daunting as you might think! In Australia, by law, any photographic images taken of people and property visible within or from public places are legal. However, there remain boundaries, especially when it comes to the use of unapproved images sold for use by third parties, especially for advertising products. After forty years of publishing images taken in public places, I have had only a few issues, and none amounted to anything. These days, there are so many images in existence for services like Google Street View, recording public space on a massive scale, that the law has a real challenge on its hands.
The One Dollar House
In 1984 I was commissioned to photograph Aussie characters of the Australian Outback. I had recently left the Franklin Dam protest in Tasmania and was sporting a NO DAMS sticker when I pulled into Oodnadatta in northern central South Australia. While parked roadside in this tiny town, Richard Lodge approached me, who was curious about why I had the sticker. You see, he took it personally because, by trade, he was a dam builder; dams for cattle stations were his trade. After explaining, we chatted a while, and as the day was closing, he invited me back to his home to camp and watch the sunset over the dunes with his partner Christine Jones. His house took my fancy, so I asked him how much it cost to build. In a broad Australian accent, he replied, ‘Well, the house was built from remnants from the Old Ghan Railway and in the end only cost one dollar, and that was for the nails that held it all together!’
Genres of People Photography
There is much conversation among photographers as to what constitutes a candid photo as opposed to a street photo. Some argue that candid images are those made when the subjects are aware of the camera and that street photography applies when subjects are unaware; still others argue that candid and street are the same. Most agree that unlike posed portrait photography, which is generally carefully orchestrated, candid/street shots are more spontaneous and, therefore, more genuine. However, some world-famous portrait photographers might see that as an insult. While studying the history of specific art genres can open fantastic new worlds for photographers, especially when manipulative post-production techniques are applied, I have approached this space in my work by focusing on techniques and ideas for content that apply to a travelling photographer.
My approach is to make photographs that can be widely used for the type of work that I do, which is of either a philosophical, creative-life teaching nature or of an illustrative natural or social history nature. For example, the photos above fall into the category “people at their places of work”.
Body Language, Gesture & Expression
Body language is made up of the signals communicated by a combination of posture and gestures. For example, when people are uncomfortable, they tend to cross their arms; therefore, if you see someone with their arms crossed, you can safely predict that they feel uncomfortable. Basically, body language includes anything you can tell about a person (or their mood, thoughts, intentions, etc.) from how they move or the way their body parts are positioned.
A “gesture” is the purposeful movement of a body part (such as a hand, arm, or head) used to signal something to other people. The four images above illustrate expressions that demonstrate the two main groups of street photography: camera-aware and camera-unaware. The top left is with approval of my taking a picture. There was no conversation. I gestured to ask, “May I?” The image at the bottom left involved an established relationship. It was taken with permission after a ten-minute, laidback chat and resulted in me buying the performer’s CD and sending her a series of images. The street performer’s kiss being blown to a child was a passing shot with no interaction. In short, exchanges can be brief or extended. The portrait of Kevin in Oodnadatta was taken during a roadside chat. On one occasion, in the outback rail town of Reid, a roadside photograph resulted in an invitation to stay overnight – the latter has actually occurred on several occasions.
While this roughly assembled theme of outback character portraits seems to follow a “hat” theme, this is entirely a result of the editing process. As you collect and catalogue your work, you may choose to add certain keywords like “hat” or “hair” or “wool” or “sheep” (see below). The key wording process achieved in post-production not only helps the creation of themes for possible later posts, blogs, or even books, but also helps focus attention on the many aspects that will confront you while wandering the streets and country byways in search of images.
Creating a storyline in your mind’s eye is a skillset you hone over time. These images, which collectively paint a picture of the process from mustering, yard working, shearing, and relaxing (the sleeping “gun shearer” ) are of higher value as a complete photographic story.
Top Ten Phototips
- If you are working on a project, go without your cameras and talk to people about what you would like to do. This strategy works well in small communities: a cattle camp, a homestead, an Indigenous community. To make excellent pictures of people, you need to connect, maybe not with the individual but certainly with their culture and traditions.
- Be very selective. Look for interesting faces and people who look as if they belong to the place you are in. Unguarded, unposed expressions usually work best, although people aware can also be fun.
- Trust your instincts. If something looks and feels good, shoot it and think later. Spontaneity is crucial! I have a memory full of missed prize-winners!
- I don’t usually ask permission when I’m in a very public place. I try to blend in by being casual and not dressing like a professional photographer. In those instances, I certainly don’t carry three cameras!
- Don’t move on from a shoot until you have tried every possible angle. If you began taking shots of people unaware, talk to your subject to make them aware of the camera and keep shooting.
- If you make a shot and your subject gets hostile, turn your camera away and keep shooting something else. This can quickly defuse the situation.
- Watch the body language of your subject. It is far more important than the surroundings.
- If someone looks daggers at you even before you take a picture, put your camera aside and introduce yourself and your mission. Alternatively, walk away. It is legal to photograph people for non-commercial purposes in Australia in public spaces, but courtesy is the key. Read up on your rights at Arts Law: a must-read.
- If you are on foot and feel your subject may be resistant, try shooting without breaking stride or apply zone focusing techniques. Photographing from a car with a long lens can produce great results. After all, the car can be a mobile hide.
- Keep your cameras and kit simple, for example, an SLR/M with a zoom lens but without a motor drive. Even better is a simple rangefinder camera.
Photographing Bush Kids
While I have worked with children in both environments, the kids of the bush appeal to me as subjects for photography. The appeal lies in their astounding sense of connection with where they live. With Indigenous kids, this undoubtedly stems from their culture, but all country kids seem to have the ability to accept whatever they have and make the most of it. While the outback adults know how to work hard and play hard, the kids certainly know how to play hard too. They have a lively curiosity about anything new, and they react to art, animals, outings, and so on, with an innocent pleasure that affords splendid opportunities for making photographs. With little work on the photographer’s part, these shots can have a dazzling spontaneity.
Some Tips For Photographing Bush Kids
- It is always essential to get approval from parents or carers before taking photographs, especially where you need to be close to, or converse with, children. While you know your intentions are honourable, a caregiver does not. If you don’t respect this rule, you may well find yourself on the receiving end of some direct language.
- Never publish the names of children in print or on the internet and try not to include any signs that might reveal a child’s exact location. It is unfortunate to have to consider these matters, but children’s security is always paramount. When possible, send copies of shots to the parents/carers.
- To get candid shots of children, simply spend time with them. Children, with their short attention spans, will soon find something else to interest them, so it is up to you to hold their attention.
- Try lowering your viewpoint. If you shoot from your height, all you will see is the top of a child’s head. Squat, or sit on the ground.
Click on the link and view images that are a small part of my collection from 1981 – 1986, wandering Australia’s outback bush camps, cattle and sheep stations and remote towns and community centres for book projects. I discuss the ethics and etiquette of photographing people in both urban and especially bush settings in my Photography Australia Travel Guide