Learning the Universal Language

Sometime back, I shot in Burkina Faso and Ghana in West Africa. In Burkina Faso alone, there are over 82 different people groups and each one has a different language. While French is the official language of the country, not everyone speaks it. So, how do you make photos with a language barrier?

The best way to approach these opportunities in an exotic location is to keep it simple. You want to spend all your time on developing relationships with people — not fidgeting with your equipment. Pre-planning helped me to concentrate on communication and not my equipment once in West Africa.

What are the elements for a good photo? The Washington Post’s photo editors use this hierarchy for picture selection:

  • informational
  • graphically appealing
  • emotional
  • intimate

The photos that simply document the scene and look pleasing like a postcard often lack the last two elements of the hierarchy. These require understanding the universal language: body language.

Body language was all they had during the silent movie days, but it still worked and kept people laughing and crying. Those photographers who shoot award-winning journalistic photos are concentrating on capturing the body language of people.

Smiles mean pretty much the same the world over. However, there is much more than just the obvious in body language. A tilt of the head or someone leaning in versus having hands crossed all are communicating something different. Learning to recognize these subtleties is critical.

But even this is only half the equation. You also need to know what your own body language is communicating.

You may want to spend some time watching your facial expressions in the mirror before you try them on strangers. Knowing how you are being perceived will give you the best possible advantage to put people at ease and get the most cooperation possible.

Before you start snapping photos of people, take the time to communicate with them as much as you can. Photos that meet the highest standards of intimacy require the subject to let you into their world.

If you want to read more on this subject, there are many books available — one I recommend is “How to Read and Use Body Language” by Anna Jaskolka.

Just remember to travel light and put all your emphasis on the really important stuff: body language — the subject’s and yours.

[tags]photography advice, photography tips, body language[/tags]

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