Travel Photography: The Key to Photographing People

Jeff Pflueger: Are you making photographs of people or taking them?

02.22.10 | 11:59 AM ET


Our translator subtly gestured behind us with his head. “Mukhabarat,” he said in Arabic—secret police. We were wandering the streets of a Syrian refugee camp while I was striving to create images of some of the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who had fled the war.

Working with a population as vulnerable as war refugees was difficult enough, and now we were being tailed by a man in a suit, like something out of a bad spy novel. But we only improve our craft through challenge, I thought.

Like so much of photojournalism, this was a personal project—fueled by passion and funded on a shoestring.

Photographing people is the most challenging thing to do well when we travel, and perhaps the most compelling. Images like Steve McCurry’s iconic picture of the green-eyed Afghan girl, or Irving Penn’s carefully choreographed portraits of people around the world, transport us and connect us intimately with a person. As far as I can discern, the art is more magic than mechanics.

You must begin with a crystal clear understanding of the most basic thing involved in making a photograph of another person: the agreement between you and your subject.

Sometimes agreements are spoken, but more often they are communicated more subtly, without words. Only if you are aware of the agreement—both your expectations and your subject’s—can you be a trustworthy photographer. And only when you are trustworthy will people invite you to work with them to make great photos.

The agreements that I made while photographing the refugees were not always easy to reach. They had been witness to and subjects of unimaginable traumas of war. Many fled Iraq after receiving direct threats of death. They were hiding in a country that didn’t entirely welcome them. Their tenuous hold on security was under constant threat.

Three Iraqi brothers had a heated debate when I asked to photograph them. Then they slung their arms around one another to pose for a photo. They said very little, but this I understood: They had been soldiers. Not long before, other Americans had been pointing something more lethal than a camera their way. The photos represented a brave act of defiance for them. I made the photos after agreeing to email the pictures to them. While the brothers had allowed me to publish their images, and even their names, doing so would be doing far more harm than good, I decided. This was a dangerous game they were playing. That evening I emailed the photos to them and then promptly deleted the images.

Another refugee was persistent in asking questions. “Can you photograph me? How can the photo help me?” he asked repeatedly in Arabic. To him, my camera might be a lifeline. I could only tell the truth. I explained that I wanted to tell visual stories of the refugees. Perhaps the stories could help build sympathy for their situation. Given the scale of the desperation I had seen, this was a weak promise at best. He paused, and I watched as he made the calculation of risk versus benefit. After some time, like many I wanted to photograph, he said that he didn’t want to be photographed.

I photographed a young Iraqi doctor caring for sick and wounded refugees. He was highly educated and angry about what had become of his country. He said he was never going to return. He understood the reason for the photographs, and despite the death threats that chased him from Iraq, he was eager to be photographed, and to even provide his full name for the captions. The photos were his way of bravely fighting. I made his patients anonymous, excluding their faces from the compositions. I was proud of the resulting images.

The Mukhabarat never gave us problems, and I was happy about some of the images I was capturing, but weeks of this type of intensity left me exhausted.

So I headed into the busy old Damascus souq, a maze of alleyways between closet-sized shops filled with spices, candy and just about anything else you want. The intensity was wondrous. In the middle of it I set up my tripod and the flowing crowd parted around it. Standing beside the camera, I fired off dozens of images with a cable release, and later built them into a 360-degree panorama. Here in the souq I was taking photographs—stealing them—and somehow amidst all the anonymous commotion it felt just fine.

A few days later, two young Iraqi refugee friends and I were blazing through the Syrian desert in a small car, heading to the ancient ruins of Palmyra. Omar had his hands on the wheel, and his younger brother Ahmed was in back handing us cups of soda and fistfuls of chips.

Omar had recently called the parents of three of his best friends to tell them they had been killed. One of his friends was a Sunni, one a Shia, the other a Kurd. They had perished in a cafe bombing days before their college graduation. Omar, Ahmed and his family fled Iraq soon after. At 17 and just over 20 years of age, the two had seen far worse than my family had in two generations combined. But here was Omar singing and dancing to Arabic music as he drove while Ahmed told me about his secret girlfriend. “This is my first road trip!” Omar announced.

For two days the three of us wandered through the weathered columns and ruins of Palmyra, forgetting the realities of the war. Looking over the hundreds of pictures I have of the trip now, I see just a few photos of my friends. Each is just a silly snapshot of us grinning and monkeying around. Anything more serious would have felt inappropriate—an immediate reminder to the three of us of how desperate their situation was. We wanted a few days free of that.

Instead, I chose as my subject an empty desert, and the ruins that had witnessed perhaps as many as a hundred wars and had no real opinion of them.

Jeff Pflueger

Jeff Pflueger is a San Francisco Bay Area based photographer and web geek. His adventure travel photographs involving all kinds of outdoor lunacy have been published in National Geographic Adventure, the New York Times, Men's Journal, Sunset and other publications.

10 Comments for Travel Photography: The Key to Photographing People

Amy 02.22.10 | 3:30 PM ET

Beautifully written article. Thank you so much for sharing your insight and for being so sensitive to those you have photographed. Too often photographers, whether pro or hobbyist, forget about the etiquette needed when photographing others- particularly those in devastating circumstances.

pam 02.22.10 | 5:01 PM ET

Confession: We’ve taken to walking through crowded spaces just shooting from the hip—literally, camera at hip height, finger on the shutter. While those aren’t great portrait shots, sometimes, they’re super expressive of what it’s like to be in those places—I’m thinking specifically of Vietnam’s crowded markets or the crazy outdoor restaurants in Saigon. Portrait shots are different and it’s good to be respectful and engage, though personally, I find it hard to break the wall. I’m getting better—a few weeks back I ran into some rodeo princesses and they were so gracious about letting me take pics, plus, it gave me a chance to learn about what the hell rodeo princesses are. It’s a start.

Thanks for this. It’s part of a great conversation about photography and travel and people.

Park 02.23.10 | 11:08 AM ET

Fabulous photo,I love it!

Trisha 02.23.10 | 12:36 PM ET

Wonderful story.  Perfectly illustrates the mark of a true professional, both writer and photographer, which is to demonstrate sensitivity and respect for one’s subject, both the the person and the larger picture of the context. Bravo.

Shanny Hill 02.23.10 | 3:14 PM ET

Thanks Jeff, great article. This is the exact issue is was having during my time recently in Sudan (read more on my blog). I didn’t know the proper etiquette (but I did know that you technically need official permission to even have a camera in Sudan) so I chose not to shot anything without a clear consent from people.

Your article reinforces my approach. Thanks

Lone Pix 02.24.10 | 10:50 AM ET

Steve McCurry must have a great hands in capturing moments and knows etiquette in photographing people.
This blog has made me inspired to do travel photography. It reminds me on how one should put themselves in the shoe of other people. Who would have want their face to be posted in large prints and public places at those times that they have nothing to go to and looks so hopeless. Man has a pride and as a photographer, one should be mannered to so such. Great blog indeed.

Kaylene Greane 02.26.10 | 5:38 AM ET

I love the stories behind photographs, because even though you capture the moment or the message you don’t always catch the full story. we can’t imagine what many have gone through in this world. It is awesome to see someone who is willing to go through some difficulty to share their story. Good job.

Anil 03.02.10 | 3:29 AM ET

Beautifully articulated.

It is in faces the feel of a place is captured. The creases, the shadows, the light - all contribute to a portrait that reaches beyond the face to tell the viewer the story of a faraway place.

Worldwide travel recommendations 03.04.10 | 4:53 PM ET

Excellent article! I am often disappointed in how often casual travel photographers don’t show appropriate respect for their subjects (e.g. by simply asking if they can take someone’s photo). It’s clear that you don’t just have respect, but that you have compassion for those in your photographs. You set a great example for the rest of us who tote around a camera!

Larry J. Clark 03.07.10 | 9:13 AM ET

For an interesting take on shooting people, find and read of copy of Dianne Hagaman’s “How I Learned Not To Be A Photojournalist”.

The book explores the cliches and expectations of contemporary photojournalism, and her journey from daily news and feature coverage to something else. 

A lot of photojournalism seems to strive to meet our expectations of imagery.  That goes both for the creation of the image as well as the viewing of it.  On the other hand, if the photograph doesn’t fall into the expected norms, likely it won’t be seen by anyone other than the photographer.

Commenting is not available in this weblog entry.