Taking Portraits the Photo Journey Way

Posted August 22, 2019

The power of connection and the story behind the shot. The story of this particular shot follows later in the article

Focus on the process and the outcome will take care of itself

The image of droves of camera-wielding Westerners focussing their photographic attention on unwilling Nepali folk is an ugly one. For us at Photo Journey it epitomises poor judgement and a lack of humility. And it is something we strive ardently to avoid.

We understand that Nepal offers an incredibly rich array of compelling photographic subjects, but that doesn’t mean it is open season and every shot is viable.

Where landscape photography goes, it is pretty hard to cause offence! The mountains that are icons of Nepal care not whether they are photographed. The people, on the hand, are a different matter.

That Nepali people are well-known for their friendly demeanour and ready smile is no reason to assume they are fair game as subjects for our photographic whims. Indeed, some of my most compelling shots are the ones I never took.

This is part of the game; part of the art of humility.

By way of example: I once came across this scene:

Whilst walking a trail in a remote district of Nepal I rounded a corner to see a frail old lady, sat in a forlorn heap in the middle of the track, her son bending over her with evident concern.

My camera was on my hip, a powerful image was in front of me but my judgement ruled out taking the shot. Instead, I offered help and gave what little assistance I could. The old lady was a widower of an Indian Army Gurkha and had been told that in order to receive her pension, she would have to present herself in person at the district headquarters. I never found out how that particular story ended though I feared this harsh demand might be the end of her.

So when do we take the shot?

And how do we recognise what ‘right’ looks like?

To help guide Photo Journey guests in this respect, Johnny and I draw not only on our years of experience but we employ Nepali friends and colleagues to help guide us. For all our knowledge of Nepali language and culture, ultimately, we remain foreigners.

In practice, this means that when Photo Journey is out on the ground, we always have with us a Nepali and a British team member, partnered up. Wherever possible, our Nepali team are true locals who speak not only Nepali but the local tribe or jaat language.

It is amazing how many doors such deeper levels of linguistic connection can open – into people’s trust and into their hearts. In this way, the ice is broken, traces of scepticism or shyness melt away and an openness and warmth shine through.

This is our method and these are the moments whereby a potential subject becomes an actual one, whilst all the while we stay on the right side of good judgement and humility.

For all this, some people simply do not want to be photographed. And when the answer remains “No” we exercise humility, respect the decision and move on.

For us, style matters. Ultimately, how you got the shot: the story behind it, the connection that you made, the thing you shared, felt, experienced – these things matter every bit as much as what you got.

Focus on the process and the outcome will take care of itself

This is a fairly typical portrait of a Nepali hill boy, insofar as he wears a beaming smile. But compare it to the shot at the head of the article, taken moments earlier.
I met Hari in 2015. His frown tells of the recent earthquake and the trauma of witnessing a force of nature that shakes apart buildings, like his school, now a pile of rubble in the background of the shot.
I couldn’t do a lot for Hari. I couldn’t undo what he’d experienced. But I could connect to him in his own language and make him laugh.





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