What One Photographer Learned When She Took Portraits of People Around the World
It was as if joy had somehow managed to come full circle. I was sitting in my New York apartment, smiling at photos of a family smiling at photos I had taken of them outside their home in Maputo, Mozambique, two months earlier.
Like all of my most treasured travel images, the picture was born out of a chance encounter. I had asked my guide for the day, Miguel, to show me where he’d grown up, and he’d graciously taken me to see Maputo’s sprawling bairros, or slums. We had just entered Bairro de Laulane, high above the city, when a young girl caught my eye. She was dressed in yellow and sitting in front of a bright blue door, and she appeared to be crying.
Miguel assured me she wasn’t hurt or in danger, just upset about a missing toy. I offered to cheer her up by taking her picture, but her family was suspicious. Why would an outsider want to photograph a total stranger? Miguel explained that recording new people and places was a hobby of mine — adding, at my suggestion, that I would be happy to shoot a family portrait and give them a copy.
That changed everything. Like most residents of Maputo’s “poverty belt,” the family lives in a makeshift home with very few material possessions, and had never had their picture taken together. It was clear that, for them, the prospect of owning a portrait was a big deal. So they posed for me and then, together, we came up with a plan to get them a copy. When I got home to the U.S., I would send the images to their local check-cashing store, which had a tenuous Internet connection and a general e-mail address. Having extracted Miguel’s solemn promise to help make it all happen, I left him with a thumb drive to transfer the files to a photo-printing store, and money for the prints.
So it was that, a couple months later, a small envelope showed up in the mail. Inside were Miguel’s pictures of the family holding the photos I’d taken, all of them beaming with pride. Our plan had worked: the family had their first portrait, and they, Miguel, and I remain friends to this day.
In my opinion, people are the truest expression of a place. When somebody shares a piece of themselves on camera, they are not only sharing their own energy and personality, they are telling the story of the life they lead and the place they live — all in a single moment.
I’m a passionate traveler and amateur photographer and have been to nearly 90 countries, including places as far-flung as Chad, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Moldova. Traveling with a camera is my superpower. It’s my license to engage with strangers, to make them laugh, to show them a side of themselves they may never have seen before, or even knew existed. I have lost count of the times I’ve shot the first photo someone has ever seen of themselves, and on several occasions I’ve had the privilege of printing someone’s first portrait on an instant camera.
Whether it’s a soldier in the Demilitarized Zone in North Korea or a housewife washing clothes in a stream in rural Slovakia, the surprise and unmitigated delight that breaks across a person’s face as they watch their image materialize on a blank piece of film is pretty spectacular to witness. From the Atacama Desert in Bolivia to the middle of the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda, I’ve found that taking a photo has the power to instantly span the many divides that separate us.
But as more people like me set out to record their adventures around the world, the act of taking a portrait has become increasingly complicated. Today, consumers worldwide take an estimated 1.2 trillion digital photos a year, and Instagram tops 700 million users — 400 million of whom use the platform every single day. Combine that with the fact that more travelers than ever are exploring the farthest corners of the world, and you have a recipe for encounters that can be rife with moral uncertainty.
Not long ago, I took a three-week road trip across southern Ethiopia to meet members of the eight indigenous communities of the Omo Valley — some of the oldest tribal civilizations on the planet, many of which remain largely unchanged by modern influences. I was excited at the prospect of capturing images of the people I met. What I hadn’t bargained for was the fact that taking photos in the Omo Valley is a highly commercialized process.
During a visit to one particularly hard-to-reach tribe, the Nyangatom, the village elder instructed all of the women to form a half circle around me, then told me to pick the one I wanted to photograph. The women, knowing being picked meant being paid, jockeyed for my attention, pleading to be chosen over their neighbors and relatives. The experience was deeply jarring, and I was left questioning whether my visit had really helped create understanding between cultures.
Is it wrong to pay someone to take his or her photo? By doing so, am I helping create revenue where none existed, or am I upending cultures and creating conflict? Am I helping preserve traditions, or objectifying them? Reconciling my passion for photography with its potential consequences can be tricky, and over the years I’ve had to accept that there is no right answer. The best I can do is to treat each exchange as an experience, not a transaction. Rather than viewing the camera as a means to an end — a way to get the shot — I try to see it as an opportunity to learn about other people and their culture. As someone once said, it’s not the picture you take that matters, it’s what you do with it.
Villagers on the route from Shashemene to Soddo, in Aje.
School girls at the Taedong River, in Pyongyang.