Tribal Children's Portraits
1 Apr 2012
When I am a visitor in another country and do not share the same language, customs or even skin tone, photographing the local folks can be a small problem. Children can be especially shy or initially afraid of me and I don't want that! Adults are sometimes very curious. Every year, I visit tribal villages in India, some have been so remote it is the first time many of the tribe have seen a westerner with pale skin. The reactions are sometimes hilarious like when babies first spot me and start to wail and cling to mom or larger curious children follow me everywhere as if I were the Pied Piper.
This is all interesting behavior but it does not pan out for my aim - good portraiture. Children either need to be doing something, like playing or the photographer needs to put them at ease. The best thing I have found is to start with a big fat smile. I'm really happy to see them and I show it. I never let my smile fade. And we all know how intuitive children are, they know I'm happy to be with them. There are several other things that can relax the shy ones and I employ the entire array! I speak softly to my subjects and I often get on my knees or sit down so that I am the same height as small children. And, I admit it, I pass out small hard candies and sometimes 1 rupee coins. I also bring soap for their mothers. At one village, we paid for a water pump parts so the village could have water without walking miles. Wow, does that get a big grin from my subjects. So now you know why kids follow me!
The longer I can stay in a tribal village the more used to me the children will become. When the newness wears off some, I can usually capture the kind of portraits I'm looking for. But unfortunately, I can rarely stay more than two days. Because there is a language barrier anything I say must be done using gestures or pantomime. You might be surprised at the complexity which can be conveyed by gestures alone. For instance, once I told one old woman I thought she was special and beautiful by encircling my face with my hand and then hers, smiled and held my hands upward! She understood, giving me a wry smile, which I captured. Children are much more difficult. But I can usually communicate with them through their mothers. Of course, the absolute best scenario is to have an interpreter along.