Sunday, February 28, 2010

Photo tip #3: Does your subject threaten you?

Wang Guorong , 58 year-old grape farmer near Taijin, China. She has about 1/2 acre of vineyard, found her husband through the village matchmaker, has three children and a great laugh at the slightest excuse.

I read that some ancient somewhere said that for those who see the world as a threatening place, the world does indeed turn out to be threatening.

Do you get timid or even threatened about photographing people or certain situations?

I did for a long time. Growing up as a shy chubby kid, I was ill at ease with strangers. My head-in-the-turtle-shell feeling extended well into the time I clicked the shutter professionally. I started with safe subjects: landscapes and architecture. Absolutely fun. (Now when I think about it, I wonder why I started out studying architecture at UC Berkely.) And the trees, waterfalls and buildings accepted my shyness.

When I did portraits and weddings, I felt safe behind the invisible-shield camera. Even when I travelled to places like India, Japan and Nepal, I would sneak pictures of people rather than relating.

Then I started going to the most remote tribes in Africa in search of Undiscovered Myths and Archetypal Dreams. There it was all about learning from chiefs, elders, shamans, storytellers, women and kids.

I had to relate to the tribes people. Heck, I was interviewing them.

And, amazingly, they allowed me to photograph them. In fact, they thought it was an honor that this drooling white guy, who knew only 22 words of their language, was learning from them and taking their picture. I wasn't stealing anything. They even squiggled signed something called a model release form, even though they had no concept what that was, didn't have a written language, let alone have a signature.

Now I'm no longer afraid of looking stupid. I learn at least 22 words of the local language to break the sound barrier and relate with the attitude: "What is the worst that can happen?" After I've swallowed my pride, I have nothing to lose but an adventure with another human being.

Can you relate?

I met this lady in the vineyard the first time I visited Chateau Changyu AFIP winery. With my 22 words of Chinese I tried to ask if a pipe from the ground was for water. Misinterpreting my clumsy Chinese, she offered me her water bottle. When my tripod leg slipped into a small hole, she ran to get a rock to act as a foundation. Thank you.

Three weeks later I met the woman again at the Chateau vineyard. Instant recognition and human connection. All with only 22 words of Chinese and no fear of looking stupid.

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