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A carny in Whitesburg, Kentucky. Shot on assignment for "Radio Days" in the Feb/March 2013 issue of Traveler. (Photograph by Dan Westergren)

How to Photograph Strangers

As a photographer and photo editor for National Geographic Traveler, people often ask me how I approach strangers when I want to take their picture — especially when there’s a language barrier. Here are my thoughts:

Taking a photograph of someone you don’t know is one of the most difficult things to do for many beginning photographers. Although many people think of the National Geographic Society as being home to wonderful pictures of wildlife, in truth most of the photos are of what we refer to as pictures of the human condition. Photography is a powerful tool for showing what the world is like on a human level.

So, how do you get comfortable taking pictures of people? The first step is to realize that most people don’t mind being photographed. The simplest thing to do is make up your mind that you are interested in showing people in your photographs and force yourself to go out and meet people with your camera.

Give yourself an assignment — a story that you would like to cover. This story idea will go a long way toward making people feel comfortable with you photographing them, providing an answer to the inevitable question they will ask when you make the request: why?

It’s very important to force yourself to interact with people when you want to take their picture. Some people are naturally friendly and enjoy walking up to strangers and introducing themselves. The camera gives you an excuse to become one of those people.

If you see something interesting happening that might change if you stop to introduce yourself, feel free to snap a few frames. Soon, the subject will figure out what’s going on. At that point you’ll want to tell them who you are, what you’re doing and ask them if it’s okay to hang around a bit.

The hanging around part is important because it can take awhile for the situation to return to normal once you’ve had “the conversation.” In fact, sometimes you’ll need to tell people to try and ignore you. The other reason hanging around is important is because you don’t want to have the attitude of being a “taker.” You have entered into a social contract with your subject and you owe them the courtesy of spending some time with them.

I admit that the language barrier can be a problem in the field, but it always helps to practice in a place where you share a common language, so it at least becomes easier to make acquaintances at the drop of a hat. Sometimes in a foreign country the only friendly interaction needed for a successful photograph is a well-timed smile.

Also don’t forget that since you are getting something from this social contract you should try to give something back. For example, that beautiful girl selling lavender at the seaside in Croatia? Buy some of her lavender then stick around a little and get a great photo. Crazy street musician in Rome? Throw a little something in his hat. Amazing-looking barber in Beijing? Maybe it’s time for you to get a haircut. Might not be the best haircut you’ve ever had, but you will get much better photos — and one really great story to tell.

Dan Westergren is director of photography for National Geographic Traveler magazine. Follow him on Twitter @dwestergren and on Instagram @danwestergren.

Do you have something you want to ask Dan about travel photography? He’ll be answering reader questions periodically on the blog, so be sure to leave a comment.