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.