Street portraits are a wonderful way of connecting with strangers. I cut my teeth in the street portrait world in London, the home of diversity and creativity. Since then, I’ve spent more time outside of the UK than in it and had the pleasure of creating street portraits worldwide. However, not every culture requires the same approach, and initiating and requesting a street portrait requires a different strategy built on empathy and care.
Street Portraits: Don’t Fetishize Suffering
When I see street portraits, one of my biggest bugbears is how much photographers fetishize suffering. Browse a gallery of street portraits in New York and London, and you’ll likely see cool, fashionable, and creative subjects. See something from India, Africa, or Latin America, and you’ll surely see struggle, poverty, and hurt. This frustrates me to no end. Why do photographers want to shock western viewers by only showing overseas subjects in a negative light? Yes, there’s struggle; there’s struggle in every country. So if you do street portraits abroad, don’t be a sheep and instead work to highlight all that’s good in countries you consider less fortunate than your own.
Street Portraits: Learn The Local Langage
For some reason, many photographers believe not knowing a foreign language gives them a pass to walk up to a stranger and start making their portrait without request. It doesn’t. At the very least, learn the basics and how to ask someone if it’s okay to make a portrait of them. Not only does this show respect, it will also help build rapport which results in a much more connected and consensual type of street portrait.
Pro tip: If you’re struggling to grasp any languages, connect with local photographers and ask if they would be happy to help you translate. It’s always good to connect with local photographers, as they can show you around and you can build friendships and shared experiences.
Street Portraits: Understand The Culture
In overseas nations, especially developing countries, you’re more likely to encounter indigenous communities. Sure, “they look cool” to you, but many of them want to get on with life and not be some form of trophy for western folks to gawk at with their curious eyes. If you’re going to a particular town, do some research beforehand and see how specific communities react to being asked to have their portrait taken. Not all will disapprove, but it’s to go in with knowledge instead of bothering them once you arrive.
There are many ways to find out how communities feel regarding the topic. Facebook groups, Reddit, and TripAdvisor are my go-to sources of information.
Accept Requests For Street Portraits
You’ll never have to ask to make a street portrait in some countries. In India, for example, the local people, especially the younger generation, will come up and ask you to make their portrait–they’ll also want to take a selfie with you. Now, I must admit, it can become tiresome, especially in the blistering heat, but it’s hardly the end of the world. If you’re in their country and you know it will make them happy, take a few moments to make their photograph. These young kids are all on Instagram and TikTok, so make sure you swap contact details, and you can send them the image you made; it will give them nothing but joy.
And no matter how frustrated you may feel with constant requests, never be rude. There’s no excuse to be curt with people, especially when you’re a guest in their country.
Know Where The Best Spots Are
Back in my London days, I hung around in SoHo when I wanted to create street portraits. While cool people are everywhere, I knew there’s a higher density of cool, eye-catching subjects in that zone.
It’s very easy to get lost in a different country too, especially in larger cities. Do some research beforehand to find out where the fun and diverse areas are before you step outside to create street portraits.
Celebrate Cultural Diversity
All most every country I have visited has some form of cultural westernization, as we say on the road. But even beyond indigenous communities, there’s plenty of local culture and traditions to focus your lens on. Don’t return home only with a series of street portraits you could take anywhere. Tap into local dress sense and local identity, and celebrate diversity with a series of beautiful street portraits.
Above are some useful do’s and don’ts when making street portraits in different countries. Use them as the bedrock of your approach to making photos of strangers. I’m certain you’ll be pleased with the results.
How do you approach street portraits abroad? What techniques do you swear by in order to get the best shots? Let us know in the comments below. Thanks for reading.