The twelve-step process has been adopted as a panacea for accomplishing almost anything. For travel photographers, how about twelve steps to great people pictures? Especially portraits where the subject has accepted us and is cooperating with our creative orchestrations.

While not impossible, I knew getting hands-on photos of Guatemala's Mayan Indians takes some social doing. DUring the sensational Semana Santa or Easter Holy Week, I was shooting the Friday market at Solola, a rural village above Lake Atitlan where traditional, rainbow colored, native dress remains the fashion to great photographic effect. I was met with a mixed reaction; some of the Indians rejected my photographic advances. Others, like my radish vendor, were welcoming and fully cooperative with my twelve step, hands-on approach. Here's how it went.


Be there.

I love Annie Dillard's line from her Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek: "The least you can do is be there." To me, being there implies the personal readiness to take on the heightened social and creative challenges of people photography.

Accept Rejection Gracefully.

Having traveled in Guatemala before, I knew not everyone was going to say "queso" for my camera. Although Mayan culture is a fundamentally gentle one, the Indians are individuals, just like any ethnic group worldwide. Having photographed in over forty countries, I've learned to respect individuality. And not to take photographic rejection personally. Some do, some don't want to play with me and my camera. When I'm brushed off, I simply smile and move on.

Make Eye Contact.

Eye contact is a more comfortable practise in many cultures than in our own. It's key to gaining acceptance and cooperation for people pictures. Seeing eye-to-eye is the thread that keeps our subjects connected to us—optical intimacy piercing straight through the lens, as well. I made eye contact with my radish man several times as I grabbed ease-into-it overall shots of him standing over his produce.

Ask Permission.

The man did not seem to object to the overall shots, so I went up to him. Kneeling to admire his radishes, I then gestered my photographic interest in taking his portrait. Sitting down, he smiled his assent.

Honor Your Subject.

Even when I know I want a final shot of only a section of a person's body—hands, clothing, jewlery—I always honor my subject by taking a preliminary head shot. This is what poeple expect. While the radish man was charming, I knew he wouldn't make a great portrait.

Listen for Clues.

While taking the head shot, I was listening for clues as to how to maximize the photo ops considering the fact the man was enjoying having his picture taken. I was right in there—capable of hands-on experience. I "heard" the creative clue that it was really his kaleidescopic clothing I was drawn to. How was I to reflect this attraction photographically?

Looking down, I saw his hands folded over his knees, surrounded by local color and texture.

Touching is OK

Hands-on people photography engenders the license to touch subjects when the language barrier creates insurmountable communication gaps. With my radish man, I touched his hands to get the angle of the dangle just right. I flicked flies from within my composition. Rather than offending him, he was amused and understood the creative motive behind my seeming effrontery. My manipulations were conducted with a light, playful approach while maintaining eye-to-eye contact to judge whether I had crossed any boundaries.

Don't Give Up.

I took the hands shot—horizontals and verticals. However, as I looked through the viewfinder during exposure, I knew the hands weren't so hot; something was missing. I was tempted to bow out gracefully, but something told me "don't quit now". I listened.

Make It Happen.

I realized the hands overwhelmed the textiles; they did not compliment the background. "Try the radishes," I heard. Reaching for a bunch, I placed the radishes in the man's hands and looked through the viewfinder again. Finally, here's the shot of my "rad" man.

Express Gratitude.

Don't shoot and run. How often do I see this rude scenario on the foreign photo tours I lead. Photographers are pretty smooth going into a hands-on photo encounter. The shot in the can, they bolt off with nary a thank you, leaving their subject bewildered or worse. I shook my "rad" man's hand, expressing as much non-verbal enthusiasm as I could. And no, tipping was not part of the picture.

Include Onlookers.

As I stood up to depart, I smiled and waved at the onlookers—neighboring vendors and others who had gathered to watch the event. This gesture made me feel at-one with the culture—not just with the friendly individual who had gifted me with images.

Acknowledge Yourself.

Finally, I checked in with myself to see if I could have handled any aspect of the hands-on encounter better. I felt free and clear—accepted by my subject with neither reason for guilt nor for that sense of imposition that often plagues travel photographers of social conscience.

Actually, I felt really good. Truth is, just moments before I began working with my "rad" man, a chicken vendor had chucked bird "yuk" at me. As I was photographing the roosters, she assumed I was including her in the shot. I wasn't but she tarred and feathered me anyway—so to speak. I had to clean myself off, emotionally as well as physically. My positive "rad" man experience was a comeback from filth and public humiliation.

Having neutralized any bad photo-karma incurred in Solola, the balance of my Guatemalan experience was one of harmonious people encounters on every front, and exceptional people pictures taboot. Thus endeth the twelve-step program to hands-on people pictures that leave you and your subjects feeling great about plunging into people photography in any culture.

Address: 122 Camino Santiago- Santa Fe, NM 87501 Phone: (505) 986-1106
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Address: 122 Camino Santiago- Santa Fe, NM 87501 Phone: (505) 986-1106
email: or
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