They’re people, not props: Photographing across cultures

A favorite image from my travels in Africa: A candid moment of a photojournalist Noor Khamis interviewing and interacting with a resident of the Kibera slum. [Photo by Ron Reason]

Following is an adaptation of presentations given during my professorship at the University of Montana, and a variation on earlier talks for the National Press Photographers AssociationPoynter, SND, and my ongoing work with the photojournalists of Standard Media Group of East Africa. For more in words and visuals about my life and work in Africa and elsewhere in the world, visit this link. 

By Ron Reason 

What distinguishes an ordinary photo from an impactful photo? One that might have potential to give viewers pause, to be seen as a call to action, to generate engagement?

Particularly when depicting cultures outside your own, it’s important to consider the question from a variety of angles, through different lenses, as it were. Let’s consider the patience, empathy and awareness that experience brings to the photojournalist, particularly when making pictures under challenging conditions.

Does your image evoke a press release, or a documentary? 

We’ve all seen, and perhaps even produced, the static image of subjects staring directly at the camera, such as these from a quick Google image search:

Sometimes called “grip and grins,” these shots can be adequate in some instances – the church newsletter or company magazine where you just want the record to show who got an award or received a cash donation. (I’ve worked with photojournalists who call them “hit and runs,” when they have no more than a few minutes to snap a routine photo in a day packed with assignments.) Particularly for community news organizations, these photos can fill space, and often generate affinity from local citizens and businesses who like to see themselves in photos.

But in instances where you have a larger story to tell – something that may have an element of the human condition, interaction or revelation – it’s important to aim for more. Extra time is often required, of course (though I’ve seen some fabulous “hit and runs” that caught real emotion), but also, awareness of your own presence on the scene.

Is the image purely a “photo op,” or does it depict a slice of life? 

Sometimes the photo op (“smile for the camera!”) can have its place. Over a period of about four years I visited Nairobi’s Kibera slum, first as, more or less, a photo tourist, curious about this community very different from any I’d visited before. Later, I partnered with the local Nicofeli Youth Club to establish a community library and other initiatives, which gave me some level of acquaintance, and inside access, that I felt made my photos more rich.

After each shipment of books was received, I was able to return and spend time in youth programs and classrooms and observe how they were being put to use. Some images were, essentially, “photo ops”:

Not bad, necessarily, but the direct eye contact makes it looks staged – not much more than a family snapshot. Even with a head-on portrait such as this, however, I aim to depict a bit of life. Out of several frames available, I chose the one with the blurred onlooker in the lower left (sort of a photo-bomb, I guess, that I may or may not have even taken note of at the time). To me, a secondary element like this makes a routine photo just a bit more interesting.

Other photos in my archives provide a more clear example of waiting for the right moment, taking time to quietly observe, and allowing group dynamics to take place. This slideshow includes a variety of those moments where I intended to “take the viewer there” and establish a more powerful emotional connection:


Notice the blurred image of books being grabbed off a table, depicting action. Notice the eye contact, from subjects within an image to one another, not to the photographer. Suddenly you start to see the impact of a more documentary style of imagery.

What was my goal as a photographer here? At the time, I was still engaged in raising awareness to provide more books, and funds to aid with the costs of shipping, and I knew that the more evocative the imagery, the more I might connect with donors. Turns out, I was right. Along the way, my photos caught the attention of allies including American Friends of Kenya, who found me via a Google search and invited me to piggyback a shipment of 24 boxes of books on a cargo container they were shipping to Kibera; Chicago design firm Good Night TV, who illustrated a fearsome logo and printed 100 t-shirts for the Nicofeli Tigers, the soccer team of the youth group sponsoring the library; and Rebound Sports Project, which reached out to donate sports equipment.)

Does the subject want to be photographed? Is she at ease? 

In certain instances, or cultures in particular, respect that some people do not want to be photographed. Some may wish for a cash handout from the tourist who is “taking” something from them. Knowing when to ask can be tough: If you’ve already gained some inside access to a scene, trust your gut on whether you can quietly keep shooting as your subjects interact. (Pro tip: Turn off the flash and deactivate the shutter noise if you can!) But be mindful that even in these instances, someone may avert her eyes to indicate: sorry, no photos today.

This was the case with Auma, a woman who carefully studied me from the shadows as I interacted with, and photographed, members of her community in Kibera, while visiting churches, schools, art studios and private homes. When I saw her in a certain light that I thought could make for an evocative portrait, she turned away before I could make the picture. I respected her privacy and held that thought. A few moments later, I got her to open up in chatting with other local women about concerns they have for their families and children (clean water, education, safety from street violence). She asked, why was I taking pictures? What story did I hope to tell? (Great question!) We got to know each other a bit better, and I broached the idea of another photo. This time she acquiesced:

From that point onward, I moved toward more interactive moments, or “environmental portraits,” as depicted in this collection:

My advice to photographers, especially students, wanting to treat subjects as people, versus props:

Crawl around your environment. Look down from above, look up from below. Look through cracks in walls, open windows and doors. Observe quietly. Start conversations. Get inside the dark room and look out toward the light.

It’s all about finding – and sharing – challenging perspectives.

Of related interest: 

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