One of the many things I love about being in Asia, is people’s willingness to be photographed.
Personally, I don’t like having my picture taken. If I’m in the sights of a lens rather than looking through a viewfinder, I get tense and awkward – which results in a bad photograph; only proving, through a sort of circular logic, that I am not photogenic.
Because I don’t like being photographed, I’m very cautious about making pictures of other people. That is “making” – not “taking”. “Making” is a co-operative process; “taking” is intrusive and uncomfortable. I usually make a point of being sure I have implicit permission before pressing the shutter: this might mean fewer “candids”, but at least I feel I have been given the “rights” to the portraits I have.
In Myanmar, as in many parts of Southeast Asia, street portraiture is relatively easy. So much of life is conducted out of doors in public spaces. People generally have little choice about this, as “homes” and “offices” can be small, dark and stifling hot. Because people are used to being in the public eye when conducting personal business, the concept of privacy is different. Being photographed is less of an intrusion than it might be in other places.
Take the following photograph, for example. I don’t know if the man in the maroon longhi and crisp white shirt is a lawyer, an advocate, or a regional head-man, but he was clearly in consultation with the man in the bamboo hat. They were discussing, at length, an issue of much importance to the man in the hat, in the impromptu “office” at the top of the steps.
I waited until they reached a pause in their transaction before moving closer for a portrait, but, with life’s unhurried pace here, I don’t think they would have minded being interrupted. The “respectful distance” I had kept was more about my sensibilities than theirs.
If I carried a reflector and posed people, or moved them into better light, I guess I would spend less time post-processing. I know photographers who do set up their shots – and there is nothing wrong with that – but I am too self-conscious, or too “British” and worried about imposing, or too impatient…
Besides, I like environmental portraits, that tell us a little about people’s lives. So, while my results can be patchy, they are realistic. The beauty of Asia is that the people are very tolerant of outsiders, so there is plenty of opportunity for practice!
And, they are always ready to smile.