Learn a Few Complimentary Words
Catherine Karnow is a San Francisco-based photographer whose work has appeared in National Geographic, National Geographic Traveler, and other publications. She has been teaching photography workshops since 1995.
Photographing people in a foreign country presents a specific set of challenges, among them increased anxiety, language barriers, and unfamiliar customs. But when you’re abroad, as at home, it’s most important that you gain the trust of your subjects. This is what will allow you to photograph people as they are in their shops, their favorite cafés, and even their homes. Always emit a positive vibe and approach your subjects not as a camera but as a person—let your smiling face be the first thing they see. And ask permission to shoot when you feel it’s appropriate.
Before I travel to a foreign country, I always learn a handful of complimentary words like "beautiful" and "wonderful." Even if they’ve agreed to be photographed, many people are uncomfortable in front of a camera and uncertain of what they should be doing, so it’s essential to be encouraging by repeating positive words. While in France, I came across a farmer and his wife heading home for lunch in their classic Citröen. They were confused about why I wanted to photograph them, so I explained that it was because they were a handsome couple and the car was wonderful. Simply conveying that I saw something beautiful in photographing them was reason enough, and they gave me time to make this gentle portrait.