All images by Ian Robert Knight. Used with permission.
Photographer Ian Knight has travelled around to many places in Asia and as a trained portraitist, combined photographing people with the art of documenting the everyday occurrences around us. While street photography isn’t tough enough for many, it becomes even tougher when you put language barriers on you and not always knowing what areas you should be in. But Ian adapts, and shares with us some of his best advice when it comes to shooting street images internationally.
One of his best points: zoom with your feet.
Phoblographer: Talk to us about how you got into street and travel photography.
Ian: Travel has been a passion for me since I was a teen. Seeing something new would energize my creativity, and allow me to explore new ideas. I was seldom interested in taking photos of my own hometown, as it just seemed too normal to me. When I was financially able to, I would get away, camera in hand, to as many new places as I could.
It didn’t matter where I went when I travelled – there would always be fascinating people to photograph. Sometimes the scenery would be disappointing, or there would not be enough interesting buildings or locations to photograph. But the local people never let me down. I always came home with photos of people that I am proud of.
As a trained portraitist, I’ve developed an eye for capturing the right look in people’s faces. Sometimes I would have to coax it out of them, but most of the time it would just appear naturally, and I was connected to them, allowing me to get the photo.
Phoblographer: You’ve traveled to many places in Asia, do you feel that people react differently towards you as you take pictures based on the area? How so?
Ian: This is certainly the case, and I think it depends on how developed the region is. In many Asian countries, tourists with cameras are commonplace, and locals are quite familiar with the situation. People that live in those regions are generally much less interested in being photographed. Or at least, they would request to be paid to be photographed.
But in some less heavily touristed areas, like Bhutan – which restricts how many tourists can enter per year – people are genuinely keen to be photographed. In some small Bhutan towns, I’ve had mothers come to me and invite me to photograph their children.
I don’t assume though. It’s always worth asking to take a photograph, even if I am in an area that I know to be less receptive. If I greet someone with a smile, it will break down the barriers and get me the pictures.
I can’t count how many times the reverse has happened to me, too. Especially in China, I’ve been asked many times to be photographed with others. Perhaps my whiter skin and blonde hair is still a novelty in some parts of the world. I always happily oblige them. Fair is fair.
Phoblographer: How do you often go about finding things and people to photograph?
Ian: One of the first things I like to do when I get to a destination, is to roam the streets around my residence. I like to get to know my neighbourhood, and explore things like I was a local. I generally try to walk the neighbourhood when I know there will be people around, to get a feel for the area.
Knowing what to photograph, and where, is the simple part. Doing research in advance will help me with that. I usually know ahead of time what the most interesting things will be to photograph before I reach my destination. But knowing when the right time of day to find the people to photograph takes a bit more effort.
Markets and temples often provide ample opportunities to photograph local people in every part of the world. I always look for the most lively of each, wherever I go. I can spend hours in a market, any time of the year. There’s just something about them that brings endless inspiration.
Phoblographer: What do you feel attracts you to the scenes that you photograph?
Ian: I look for stories, wherever I go. To me, I don’t think it’s easy to know a place with just one photograph. I get lucky sometimes, but I think to truly know a place, it needs to be told in a series of photographs. And I think every person or location I photograph has a story, and it’s my job to find it and tell it.
I am also attracted to chaos and large amounts of detail. I love photographs that make me look at them for a long time, seeing many different stories all happening at once. Some photographers have had very successful careers recreating chaotic street scenes, but I know that those scenes exist in daily life, and I aim to find them.
Phoblographer: What do you think defines street photography?
Ian: To me, street photography is the type of photograph that explores the everyday existence of the people around us. It doesn’t try to look for the best light or the more beautiful colours. It captures the raw innocence of the people in front of us, with all their blemishes and vulnerability for the world to see.
Phoblographer: What do you think makes for an excellent street photo?
Ian: I think the best street photograph is when the image is compelling enough, that the viewer gets to know the scene as if they were with you when you took the photograph. It’s often candid, but sometimes intentionally posed, but there should be a connection between the viewer and the street scene.
Phoblographer: As you travel, language can always be a barrier. So with that in mind, how do you react to people who may have a problem with you taking their picture?
Ian: This doesn’t really seem to be an issue, because it’s usually pretty clear when someone doesn’t want to be photographed. People can communicate with gestures and body language pretty easily. Some people just don’t like to be photographed, and that’s fine. I won’t try to persuade them otherwise. If they value their privacy, I respect that.
Phoblographer: What piece of advice (that someone wouldn’t normally think of) would you give to photographers who want to travel and shoot street images?
Ian: Zoom with your legs. Although it may make you feel more comfortable using a long telephoto zoom lens to capture photographs of people on the streets, you’ll get much better photos if you move in closer. Long lens images look voyeuristic, and is not easy for the viewer to connect with the subject matter.
Resist the temptation of staying in your comfort zone and shooting images of people without them knowing. Get in close, speak with the people you’re photographing. They are people just like you, and if you interact with them before you photograph them, they will be more relaxed and much more willing to be photographed. Don’t let the camera get between you and the subject.
I also carry little Canadian flag pins with me, and give them to kids in foreign countries. It really brings out their smiles. Small gestures can go a long way.