How To

Tribal Children's Portraits

Chenchu Tribe, Small Girl
Mother & Daughter II
Bhil Tribal Girl
Bhil Tribal Boy
Mother & Daughter
Banjara Tribe, Youth
Banjara Mother & Daughter
Market Day
Sunflower Field, India
Kalbelya Tribal Woman

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.

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28 responses

  • Tusar Ray

    Tusar Ray gave props (2 Apr 2012):

    good story for the tribal children of orissa. Saroj has told about you....

  • Paperini Renato

    Paperini Renato said (5 Apr 2012):

    I believe that children are a subject very attractive and easy for a photographer. Already the features are attractive in nature, are always more relaxed and easy smile always very nice, very large eyes in proportion with the body and great expression. Set your very nice, however also try to photograph them secretly during their games or any activity taken from them, will be amazing.

  • Saroj Swain

    Saroj Swain gave props (16 Apr 2012):

    OUTSTANDING!!!! nice

  • Anika Pilnei

    Anika Pilnei gave props (3 May 2012):

    Beautiful. Love children! Voted.

  • Davide Simone

    Davide Simone (Deleted) said (4 May 2012):

    OUTSTANDING!!!! nice

  • Carol Arntsen Masiak

    Carol Arntsen Masiak gave props (7 May 2012):

    congrats on story of the week - my vote!

  • JPG

    JPG gave props (7 May 2012):

    Story of the Week!

  • Davide Simone

    Davide Simone (Deleted) said (7 May 2012):


  • Michele Wambaugh

    Michele Wambaugh   said (7 May 2012):

    Thank you JPG, thank you my dear Friends! I'm so happy!

  • Ann Reece

    Ann Reece   gave props (7 May 2012):

    A huge CONGRATULATIONS MICHELE on this wonderful story winning Story of the Week!!! I am so happy for you : )

  • Krishna Dronamraju

    Krishna Dronamraju gave props (7 May 2012):

    Bestever Michele, Congrats, Krishna

  • Krishna Dronamraju

    Krishna Dronamraju said (7 May 2012):

    Michele's work is the best. Congrats!

  • Andrea Petersen

    Andrea Petersen gave props (7 May 2012):

    Congratulations, Michele...I know how excited you are to have your photo essay chosen for story of the week and it is a well deserved honor...Your work is exceptional!

  • Susan Littlefield

    Susan Littlefield   gave props (8 May 2012):

    Incredible story, amazing photos. Congratulations on receiving Story of the Week!!!!

  • Donna Mullins

    Donna Mullins   gave props (8 May 2012):

    congrats Michele! Love the essay and the awesome photos!

  • Ann Reece

    Ann Reece   gave props (8 May 2012):

    Excellent story. I found myself smiling when you talked about smiling to the children. The photos that you got of the tribal children are wonderful!!! Voted for sure!

  • John Linton

    John Linton gave props (10 May 2012):

    Hell YEAH! Rad!

  • John Linton

    John Linton gave props (10 May 2012):

    Congrats on making Story of the Week!

  • Sonia Adam Murray

    Sonia Adam Murray   gave props (10 May 2012):

    Bravo, congratulations on making Story of the Week. My vote too!!!

  • Saroj Swain

    Saroj Swain gave props (10 May 2012):


  • Nadeem Shafi

    Nadeem Shafi   gave props (11 May 2012):

    Michele, an outstanding photo story! Worthy recognition... congrats! :-)

  • Krishna Dronamraju

    Krishna Dronamraju gave props (7 Aug 2012):

    Lovely presentation of a difficult subject.

  • Donald Garrett

    Donald Garrett   gave props (9 Aug 2012):

    VOTED~ Well done, Michele

  • Carlo Pagan

    Carlo Pagan gave props (9 Aug 2012):

    Fantastic!! VOTED!!

  • Deborah Downes

    Deborah Downes   gave props (14 Aug 2012):

    A belated congratulations, Michele. Outstanding work. Can so relate to your experiences. Had similar ones in Thailand and China.

  • Natarajan

    Natarajan said (29 Aug 2012):

    Smile is gate to the heart!
    wider you smile easy to get in to their hearts.
    you did it successfully, great faces great pictures, great story !

  • Etan Doronne

    Etan Doronne said (30 Aug 2012):

    Love and share your insights of being a Videshi amond Desis (foreigner among locals...) only differ about staying longer.. as you mentioned language isn't a limiting factor and the longer the more relaxed all become.

  • vinod velayudhan

    vinod velayudhan said (23 Sep 2012):

    You are one lucky lady, for that matter any foreigner. Indian people welcome a foreigner with an open heart, there is no such feeling as fear. When an Indian photographer ventures out, usually it is tough times. A long explanations with why, what for etc. Usually a foreigner escapes from these situations, as you said language is a problem.

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