To Photograph a Stranger

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To Photograph a Stranger

The visual arts remain illusive, mysterious, and fascinating to me. I am now armed with my new camera and ready to learn. I’m reading Within the Frame: the journey of photographic vision by David duChemin and he talks about the vision of the artist. He also talks about the things that capture him. So I thought about the things that capture me about Djibouti.

  • Faces
  • Expressions of faith
  • traditional ways of life
  • the contrast of old and new (i.e. a donkey cart blocking a Land Cruiser)
  • scenes of daily life (i.e. women beating laxoox, the bread man, children going to school, construction workers)

You won’t see much incredible photography on Djibouti Jones, my reasons for taking pictures aren’t really for the art. My reasons for wanting to take photos is because I find the images beautiful, stunning even. I love the colors here, in contrast to the desert. I love the vibrancy of human life in contrast to the lack of agricultural life produced by the hard earth. I love the way the modern and the traditional interact and intersect. I love the seeking of God. I won’t be here forever and I want to remember it well.

I had this boy's eager permission.

I had this boy’s eager permission.

However, these things that capture me also seem to be the hardest for me to photograph because they feel invasive. And because I’m cowardly and timid.

How do you take pictures of strangers? I ask this on a very practical level.

On a more ethical level, what are some of the issues involved in taking photos of strangers?

Djiboutians, I especially would love to hear your thoughts on this. What do you think of a foreign woman photographing your country and people? Is there a way to do it respectfully?

By |February 6th, 2013|Categories: Expat Thoughts|Tags: |6 Comments


  1. Norma February 6, 2013 at 5:27 pm - Reply

    Are you familiar with Humans of New York? (HONY)

    • Rachel Pieh Jones February 6, 2013 at 6:14 pm - Reply

      Nope. Off to Google.

  2. Norma February 6, 2013 at 6:43 pm - Reply
    • Rachel Pieh Jones February 7, 2013 at 4:54 am - Reply

      Great, thanks!

  3. Peter Anderson February 8, 2013 at 12:58 am - Reply

    Hi again! Some additional thoughts in continuation from my response on DL Mayfield’s blog because, well, I seem to like talking.

    Focus on photographing who and what you have a relationship with; they know you and are more likely to be comfortable with you, and can then be a gateway to photographing strangers within their community.

    Ask permission, like you did when your container arrived, and just be comfortable with them saying no.

    Be able to tell them why you’re photographing. This is really easy if you’re shooting for a project or a non-profit that they recognize, and can understand what the purpose is.

    Be able to explain why you’re interested in them. If you can point out something interesting or beautiful or special about them that caught your eye, people may be more likely to oblige. Be willing to offer to give them a copy, if you think it would help.

    Be discreet and shoot from a distance; this especially works if you have a small camera with a long zoom. This isn’t ideal, since it isn’t particularly respectful toward the stranger, and may get really awkward if they notice what you’re doing. But it’s always an option if the shot is important!

    You can usually take scenic shots of an area with people in it without getting more than a look or two. If you’re closer to people, you can also use a really wide angle and make it look like you aren’t aiming at them, but still have them in the side of the shot. If your images are high enough resolution, you can usually even crop a lot to focus on the person and still have a usable photo for the web or small prints. Just hope your subject doesn’t read your blog…

    • Rachel Pieh Jones February 8, 2013 at 5:06 am - Reply

      These are wonderful, thank you so much for stopping by! I have a lot to learn, and I think so much of this comes down to courage and simply being bold. It feels different when I live in a place than when I’m visiting, because these are people I see everyday. But I especially like what you said about explaining what it was that caught my eye, why I want to photograph them. And of course, building a relationship.

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