A Camera Will Open the World

Summer is a time for taking time off, for breaking up from usual routines, for travel, for relaxation, for exploring waters or mountains, for good food, for spending time with friends and families. The last two weeks I have enjoyed all this. And off course photographed all while enjoying my summer holidays. The camera is always with me, even when I take time off from working as a photographer.

Summer is high season for photography for most people. It’s also a time when we photograph more freely and use the camera not only to record our dear ones but the world around us as we go travelling to new places. The camera becomes a tool to connect to the world. And it becomes a tool to connect with people. If we only dare.

Photographing people we meet on the street takes courage, persistence and not the least being willing to face a no when people don’t want to be photographed by strangers. However, the reward when we dare take that step will make it all worthwhile. We learn about the life of others, we learn about their culture, we learn about their country in a different way than just reading about it in a travel guide and not the least, we make new friends.

If we only dare.

When my interest for photography aroused many years ago, it was mainly routed in nature and landscape photography, mostly because I have always been an outdoor junkie, but maybe also because it was the easier way around when it comes to subject matter. I simple did not have to relate with or take into consideration anybody else. After some time I started to develop an interest in street photography, though, probably as a natural extension of my passion for travelling. But back then I was pretty shy, and I approached street photography with a 200 millimetre lens – from far away. The result was equally remote and uninteresting.

I remember I read articles and interviews with famous photographers stating that photographing had enhanced their own experiences on many levels not the least in getting in touch with people from all corners of the world and of any and every kind. They talked about how the camera was a way to get into people’s lives. Back then I had a hard time grasping this, not the least seeing myself approaching people on the street. Why would anyone let a complete stranger take a photograph of them? I simply didn’t have the courage to get into their faces. But slowly and over time, my lenses became shorter and my courage increased in reverse proportion. I started to interact with people around me wherever I went and I started to photograph them. In the beginning only a single snap or two and then back up and out again, but eventually I started to relate with people I wanted to photograph on a more profound level. Suddenly I found myself in the same place as those famous photographs I had read about. And at some point my 200 mm was replace by a 17 mm (which I later on mostly have abandoned again because it tends to distort people too much when you shoot a meter or yard away from their faces).

For a long time it still drained me to shoot on the street, and after a day of shooting I could be completely exhausted. I remember quite some time ago; I had been travelling in South East Asia for half a year, and on my way back I had a stop-over in Karachi in Pakistan for 36 hours or something like that. On any given day I would use such an opportunity to go out and shoot for most of the time available. But after having pushed myself onto the street for the most part of half a year, I couldn’t face it one more time. I was too exhausted and I stayed in my hotel all those hours without venturing out even once.

Today I mostly don’t feel uncomfortable approaching strangest on the street or in ghettoes or in camps or wherever my photography or travels take me. Mostly, because some days are still set to be my introvert days, but I find that quite OK. Nevertheless by using the camera and being willing to go out of my comfort zone, I have been able extend my photographic experience and open up myself to the world. The camera has brought the world to me.

(Part of this post is an excerpt from a post I published in May 2012).

53 thoughts on “A Camera Will Open the World

  1. Hmmm… As an introvert myself I tend to hide behind my camera, but perhaps I should start to use it more as a bridge rather than for keeping a self-imposed barrier between me and the world? 🙂

    1. The camera is a perfect bridge out into the world. The camera gives you a reason to connect with others. I am not exactly an extrovert myself, but I have learned to appreciate the exchange when meeting strangers.

  2. I think it ends up usually being a great conversation starter and have only 2 people tell me politely no. 🙂 What a wonderful post!! I think you’re right that the camera does bring the world to us!

    1. I have gotten more than two no’s, but that’s just fine anyway. We may still have a lovely conversation. As you say the camera is a great way to start it – one way or another.

  3. I understand, it can be scary, in the sense you do not want to upset people, but..I now just do it and smile and say thank you cause if you ask , I always get ‘posed’ photos. If folk object, I tell them I will delete the photo. So far so good, but I do not dare go out at night alone..you just never know. Excellent article, Otto, as per usual.

    1. Of course there is always a risk in approaching strangers on the street. Thus being street wise is part of the game; sometimes you just don’t approach people when it doesn’t feel right or safe.

  4. This is great inspiration and encouragement. And yes, the camera can help me overcome my shyness. Thanks, Otto for this post.

  5. “.. We learn about the life of others, we learn about their culture, we learn about their country in a different way than just reading about it in a travel guide and not the least, we make new friends. —-
    If we only dare….”

    I find that the locals are equally interested in the foreigners…Before they ask my name, they usually ask, ‘Where are you from?” I often say, “Yo soy Manaba,’ which means I’m from Manabi Province, and that makes them burst out laughing and then they say, “Seriously.. Where are you from?” and I state, “Jama de Pedernales,” which shocks them. It’s not a place most foreigners would chose to live. Then they ask about the local foods, and I name other foods not often at the top of the foodie list.. and they realize that I really do know their province…. All of these experiences make it so much stronger- forming a bond between the locals and the photographer… A photo session after an interaction like that is always fun.

    In Cayambe a group of teens started the conversation, and ten years ago I might have played deaf – fearing being too friendly in a city.. but now it is so easy…

    Welcome back!

    1. As someone else wrote here; the camera is a great tool to start conversations, as you so clearly describe through your own experience. And I bet your answer creates quite a bit of amusement. Thank you for sharing, Lisa.

  6. I applaud anyone who can take photos of strangers. I am so uncomfortable with street photography. I do like looking at others photos though.

    1. Not everybody have to take street photos. However, I would add that most street photographers start out with feeling uncomfortable when photographing strangers on the street. 🙂

  7. I am still struggling to have any courage in approach someone on a street. My only experience taking a person from a public place was the opposite. A lady who tended a kiosk saw me with a camera, approached me instead. She let me take a few shots she posed for me. That was a sweet memory.

    1. Your experience is often what happens when you dare take that step and photograph someone on the street. Maybe you experience may encourage you to do some more street photography?…

  8. There are definitely ethics involved in photographing people. I mostly ask permission unless its a wider street scene involving lots of people. And sometimes I just don’t take a picture because it would feel too intrusive and violating. For ex., on a trip to Bali, I saw a gorgeous scene with two naked children splashing each other by a river. I just didn’t have the nerve to stop and take a picture. Another time, I was at a cremation ceremony – I took pics of the actual cremation but did not want to intrude on the grieving relatives.

    1. You are right, there is always an ethical side to the act of street photography. However, it’s not black and white; what feels right for one person, might feel wrong for another. In the end we all have to go with our own judgement of a given situation.

  9. I don’t dare anymore… once i was standing out in front of a starbucks and wanted to take a picture of the starbucks sign above people’s head that were drinking coffee on the patio… people started screaming obscenities at me and giving me the middle finger… that was it for me and street photography! it’s no problem for me, being a bad photographer extraordinaire, to not take pictures of people on the street lol so they can keep themselves to themselves lol

    1. You have found you way, and it’s not so that everyone needs to take street photos. Your experience is unfortunate, and sometimes what happens when photographing on the street. In most cases, though, it turns out to be a good experience.

      1. yeah they made me feel real sad, i tried to explain, over their yelling that i was taking a picture of the SIGN, but it didn’t get heard.

  10. What an amazing photo you’ve featured and it perfectly illustrates your point since it would have been so much poorer without the woman peering from her home. So glad you took the chance! When I travelled for an NGO to some remote areas I took an instamatic camera too – that way I could leave people with their own photo which made asking easier.

  11. I love your street photography, Otto, and have realised how much I now enjoy taking photos of people. I might even send you one of mine next time you do your great critique! Keep up the good work!

  12. This has always been the most difficult thing for me. It truly makes me uncomfortable. I have always felt that I was intruding and never quite got the confidence. 40+ years later and I still struggle with it but I still try.

    1. I think struggling will always be a part of photographing on the street. Just keep trying and if you do it enough times, it will eventually become easier. Some at least…

  13. As you know, I admire your “people” photography very much! Sometimes I see someone I’d like to photograph, but I’m uncomfortable trying to “sneak” a shot and even more uncomfortable with the idea of asking for permission. I know you are right…but I just can’t do it. So I stick with my landscapes. Trees and flowers never mind being photographed.

    1. As I wrote somewhere else; it’s not like we all have to shoot on the street. What is important is that we follow our hearts, whether it’s photographing landscape, architecture or people on the street. 🙂

  14. I can truly identify with the exhaustion at the end of a day of street photography. It took me a VERY long time to feel comfortable with photographing random (and not so random) street scenes, but after many, many times of forcing myself, AND actually engaging with many of my subjects, I have very few reservations about it now.

    As always, a wonderful post, Otto. Thank you.

    1. Thank you for the lovely words, Lisa. And I think your experience is how everybody who have learned to enjoy shooting in the street have developed from shyness to being more comfortable with it all. 🙂

  15. Aside from your perceptive remarks about photographing people and what it has meant for you, even your introduction shows your understanding – the idea of summer being a time when we use the camera more freely, etc. These insights, I think, come only after some (long!) years of living, and thinking about your experiences. That’s one of the things I appreciate about your take on the world – it’s thoughtful and seasoned.

  16. Hello Otto,
    What an awesome post. Thank you for your perspective and insights. I love to think of my camera as a tool to the world. As my hubby and I are just about to leave for a period of time in London for his work, this genre had begun to enter my mind as a means of chatting with strangers, which I just love.
    Food for thought indeed. Thank you for a great post, Otto 💐

  17. As usual Otto this is an interesting and challenging post. I would wish to add an additional thought. The photographs we take reflect both our interests and our personality. I’m not convinced that moving outside our comfort zone is necessarily conducive to producing our most fulfilling work.

  18. Of course, a camera also can open the natural world, too. After years of working in fields which demanded constant and sometimes intense interaction with people, and years of ignoring the natural world, it’s the camera that’s opened up the landscapes to me. And, in its own way, moving into nature photography was moving out of my comfort zone, which had been oriented toward the urban world and human interaction.

    It’s interesting, really, that the thoughts you’ve expressed here — obviously true — can be applied to a variety of situations.

  19. Again, I can relate. Inspired by NG and Canadian Geographic I too originally set out to engage in landscape and wildlife photography, mainly to bolster my landscape and wildlife art. My deeply personal interest in people and the human experience, also being inspired by Time, Life and Mclean’s; however, inevitably pushed me toward portrait and street photography.

    The more I delved into street photography, the better my portrait photography became; I think, because these genres pushed me to engage with my fellow human being more. It’s an incredible connection. An incredible journey.

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