One of the most popular genres in travel photography is the portrait, which we could generically define as the art of representing a person through an image. There are different types of portraits, and there is a lot to study on the subject, theoretically and practically. Today we focus in particular on the ethnic portrait: let’s see what it is about and how to best approach this type of photography.
The ethnic portrait in photography consists of describing, through the use of the image, people belonging to a group living in a specific territory, sharing the same culture, traditions, and language. This type of portrait is part of documentary and travel photography.
What matters most are the people: faces, details of the clothing, objects, the place where they live. All elements that help us to tell the story of a group of humans and their cultures and habits.
How to best approach this kind of photography?
1. Preparation. It is essential to arrive prepared on site. The more we learn about a culture, the easier it will be to photograph it. The research process starts before the trip through books and articles. It continues on the field, with the local people and also afterward, when we go to review and prepare our work for the final draft.
2. Communication. Try to identify yourself with a person who doesn’t know you. It is normal to feel diffident towards the camera. For this reason, the ideal would always be to approach with time and discretion, establish relationships, and create good communication before starting to photograph. This practice could take days, and unfortunately, you don’t always have that much time on travel. If you have little time you will have to try to be convincing and simple in your approach, but always with the necessary care, without offending or invading a person’s personal space.
3. Pay attention to details. A person’s details, objects, and the environment in which they live and work can bring great meaning to the image. Take a good look at what you have around and think in time about what you want to tell about this culture through your photography.
4. Rely on a Fixer. Having an experienced local guide accompany you is a great idea and simplifies the photographer’s work. The guide knows the area, language, and culture in question. Even if it’s not a cheap option, it can dramatically improve your results, approach, and communication. Also, if the guide has experience in photography, he/she can also give you some ideas about the scenarios to use.
It is important to understand that in ethnic photography, these aspects prevail over technique. If you can assimilate them well, you will be better prepared for the journey and live a more conscious experience. Knowing how to master the technique is, however, important to achieve a professional result.
I hope that this article has made clear to you what are the important basis for approaching ethnic portrait in travel photography. If you are interested in this topic, take a look at my work in the galleries or join one of my photography workshops and, if you have any questions, write to me in the comments below.
Looking for more inspiration?
Check out Before They Pass Away, a great project lead by the English photographer Jimmy Nelson. A really inspiring photography work that has the goal of collecting pictures of all the ethnic groups that remain on our planet (before they pass away).