Photographing Strangers When There Is a Language Barrier

Arles, France, July 2017

Arles, France, July 2017

Story and photos by Amy Touchette

“Amy Touchette is a master of street photography in the busiest of all concrete jungles, New York City.”—BuzzFeed

New York City street photographer Amy Touchette’s workshop, “Photographing People & Life in Oaxaca, Mexico,” takes place March 11-16, 2018.

Last July, I had the pleasure of attending Les Rencontres d’Arles, a photography festival held annually in Arles, France. While attending the festival, I took over LensCulture’s Instagram feed, posting candid pictures of people I encountered on the streets of Arles in between portfolio review meetings. 

As was the case when I photographed in Vietnam, Macao, Japan, Malaysia, Italy, Portugal, and Spain, I was not fluent in the country’s language (in this case, French). And as was also the case when I travelled to the aforementioned countries, I learned that photographing in a foreign land is no more difficult than photographing in a setting in which you do know the language. 

Arles, France, July 2017 -- This was the first photo I made when I arrived in Arles, an exceptionally warm, spirited town in the south of France. I fell in love with it almost immediately. Landing during magic hour certainly didn’t hurt!

Arles, France, July 2017 -- This was the first photo I made when I arrived in Arles, an exceptionally warm, spirited town in the south of France. I fell in love with it almost immediately. Landing during magic hour certainly didn’t hurt!

The facts are, people assess you firstly and primarily on nonverbal cues anyway. People make what social psychologists call “spontaneous trait inferences” within less than a second based on your facial features, revealing language to be a comparatively minor means of communication. 

For a street photographer, then, it’s of the utmost concern to project physically, emotionally, in your stance, and in the tone of your voice, a way of being that shows you are trustworthy to people who have never met you before, so that you gain as much access as possible to street life. And the only way to really do that successfully is to actually be a trustworthy person. The main rule is to respect the space of others on the street by being gentle and communicative when interactions arise. 

Sometimes you have to ask permission to photograph beforehand; other times you can make photographs without having to be formally involved. Every situation is unique and it’s up to you to suss it out. The key is not to deny your own presence on the street, but to embrace it, to really know you belong there, too—even with your camera—because the only way to melt into the background of the street is to feel you are a genuine part of it. 

 

The Atitlan Experience, Part 3 - Lancha Life

Photos and story by Eric Mencher

Yes, the lanchas (boats) that cross Lake Atitlán exist to transport the 100,000 or so people who live in the twelve towns and villages on the water’s edge. No, the lanchas’ purpose is not to provide adventure or photo opps. But yes, when I take a lancha, not only do I (eventually) get to where I need to go, I usually end up with a picture and a story or two to tell.

On the lancha, I see life intimately from a front row seat, sitting shoulder to shoulder with locals and tourists alike, witnessing the lake’s beauty or its afternoon fury (strong winds called the Xocomil blow in around noon every day, whipping up both white caps and unease among the passengers).

I love catching the first boat of the day and watching the light of dawn playfully dance on the water. Those early morning boats seem to fly across the waveless waters, only to be slowed as students board, or the captain waits endlessly for that one extra passenger. But as we wait stories unfold, and we might see the dock boys hustling for a couple quetzales. Or a Mayan man laughing as he loses his balance and slides into the bow of the boat. Or a woman gingerly and gracefully stepping aboard with a wide-eyed baby lovingly wrapped in colorful traje. Or the captain—who is treated with reverence like the stage coaches drivers of the Old West—putting his narrow-toed boot atop the spare gasoline container. The boat becomes a multi-colored rainbow of tradition, full of people from different places speaking different languages.

But beware! When the Xocomil begins to blow, best to take a back seat near the captain or risk a soaking from the wind and waves. The boat rocks furiously and as you see the lake in all its beauty and intensity, it’s only natural to wonder, is this (as Aldous Huxley put it when writing about Lake Atitlán) too much of a good thing? Yes and no, I believe!

Everyday Astonishing: On Street Photography’s Relationship to Chance

Flushing Ave, Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, 2016. By Amy Touchette

Flushing Ave, Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, 2016. By Amy Touchette

Story and photo by Amy Touchette

New York City street photographer Amy Touchette discusses the role that chance plays in photographing real life, including why certain photographers seem to be in the right place at the right time and how to persuade chance to be on your side.

Amy’s workshop, “Photographing People & Life in Oaxaca, Mexico,” takes place March 11-16, 2018.

The subject of real life is inherently unpredictable. So when photographers consistently make compelling pictures of a subject they can’t predict, was it luck or was it skill?

The answer is both—but mostly skill. There are three important ways to take action toward making good pictures more often: (1) learn to recognize opportunities when they arise, (2) cultivate sensitivity to your surroundings, and (3) make use of the law of attraction.

Learn to Recognize Opportunities

Getting lucky has to do with identifying opportunity when it comes your way, but because each sighting is unique, it requires complete, utter open-mindedness to how luck might look at any given time. When photographers do this well, it’s because they’ve learned to go with the flow, to accept what is laid before them, and to take advantage of the gifts life offers—and there are always gifts.

Cultivate Sensitivity

But there are also practical ways to get at luck. To accrue hints about how real life might unfold in the coming moments, photographers learn to be extra sensitive to and aware of their surroundings, with the intention of gleaning general patterns via time of day, weather, local habits, individual characters, and more. Having this reconnaissance in the back of their mind feeds their intuition as they photograph, instinctively compelling them to photograph in decisive moments.

Make Use of the Law of Attraction

While staying open to the many forms that luck takes is key, and watching the flow of a place is essential to help us get oriented and aware, what also unlocks our availability to make great pictures is understanding that we can achieve effects based on causes we put into place.

One way we can do that is by encouraging people to trust us by acting genuinely when we photograph. We can wordlessly put people at ease by taking fluid actions, and we can prevent ourselves from causing effects we don’t want—suspicion and apprehension—by not taking jarring, inconsistent, or skittish movements.

Maybe most importantly, if we want to gain more control of the wild west that is real life (i.e.: increase our chances of making a compelling picture), we have to be what it is we are looking for, and not be what it is we despise so much. 

Causes that, we, ourselves put into motion may not directly or quickly result in the effect we desire, and they likewise may not give the exact effect we want. But like reins on a horse, riding without them relinquishes any possibility of control and acuity.

Read Amy’s article about this topic on Envato Tuts+, which goes into further detail about chance’s role in photography.

And listen to Amy and street photographer Gus Powell discuss the role chance plays in photography in B&H Photography’s podcast “Collaborating With Chance and the Essence of Street Photography.”

Embracing the Role of Fear in Street Photography

“Elks Lodge, Dothan, Alabama, 2005” Not long after I made this photo, I got kicked out of Elks Lodge. I wanted to get used to feeling courageous enough to photograph where I wasn’t necessarily invited to, so I snuck in through the front door of this members-only establishment and started interacting with people. Once staff realized I just came in off the street, they escorted me out, but I didn’t really care. My mission to test my nerves was accomplished.

“Elks Lodge, Dothan, Alabama, 2005”

Not long after I made this photo, I got kicked out of Elks Lodge. I wanted to get used to feeling courageous enough to photograph where I wasn’t necessarily invited to, so I snuck in through the front door of this members-only establishment and started interacting with people. Once staff realized I just came in off the street, they escorted me out, but I didn’t really care. My mission to test my nerves was accomplished.

New York City street photographer Amy Touchette shares an excerpt from her article in tutsplus.com about that ever-pesky emotion: fear. In it, she discusses not only how to deal with fear, but how to use it to your advantage as you photograph. Photo and text by Amy Touchette.

Amy’s workshop, “Photographing Strangers: Candid & Posed,” takes place March 11-16, 2018, in Oaxaca, Mexico. For details, visit the workshop page.

Embracing the Role of Fear in Street Photography

Fear is an indispensible tool that teaches us important lessons about who we are and what our photography is all about.

When you think about making street photography, what fears arise in you? We all have them—even seasoned photographers. Answering this question is one of the quickest ways to get to the heart of your photography, because it highlights what you care about deep down inside.

However, fear is often viewed as a weakness, so it’s not always easy to admit to yourself or to others, and it can be confusing figuring out what’s behind it. Fear is an effect after all—a reaction—so when it arises, what was the cause?

By analyzing what your fears indicate and how they might creep into your process as a street photographer, you can surmount them and use them to your advantage, not by eviscerating your fears—just the opposite: by acknowledging and embracing their essential role in your process. 

Fear is an emotional reaction that’s conceived in the mind. In street photography, fear can be a sign of insecurity, inspiration, or imminent danger. By embracing fear instead of denying it or misinterpreting it, a weak, ignorant position can be transformed into a stronger, smarter one.

Read the rest of Amy’s article, which goes on to discuss these topics:

  • What Is Fear?
  • When Fear Causes Failure
  • Fear as a Sign of Inspiration
  • Fear as a Sign of Danger
  • What to Do When Fear Sticks: Using the Body to Challenge the Mind