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Photographing Africa's people - a guide by Ariadne Van Zandbergen

Photographing Africa's people - a guide by Ariadne Van Zandbergen - 
Ariadne Van Zandbergen, a leading wildlife and travel photographer, shares a collection of tips to help you phoptograph people of Africa.

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Category : Landscape and Travel
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By Ariadne Van Zandbergen

I have something of a love-hate relationship with photographing the wonderfully colourful variety of people that live across Africa. Cross-cultural interactions are always open to misunderstandings, and as a photographer one is at greater risk of causing offence - it only takes one person to make a fuss (mostly not the person you're photographing) to create an awkward situation. On the other hand, when the atmosphere is good, it comes through in the photos, and I find capturing something of the essence of people to be one of the most rewarding aspect of travel photography. What follows will concentrate not on universal techniques of portraiture, but more on the human factor of photographing African people.

Photographing Africa's people - a guide by Ariadne Van Zandbergen
Samburu Village, Amboseli
One of the easiest places to photograph local people is in so-called cultural villages, which formally accept tourists for a set fee. These are generally genuine villages which happen to lie on a tourist circuit and are organised to accommodate tourist visits. The Samburu village where I took this photograph lies on the outskirts of a game reserve, and is visited a few times a week by tourists from the surrounding game lodges. In most respects, the people dress and the society functions much as it might have 100 years ago. We were taken around by a formal guide, and because the community benefits collectively from tourism, individuals were comfortable with being photographed. While some people look down at this sort of thing as 'touristy', I personally feel it is an important component in the ecotourism ethic, as it allows local people to stake a financial claim in an industry which might otherwise pass them by.

Photographing Africa's people - a guide by Ariadne Van Zandbergen
Zulu woman in Shakaland (South Africa)
A step further from the organic cultural village described above is one custom-built for tourists. Some Zulu cultural villages in South Africa are like this, the best known being Shakaland, where I photographed this Zulu woman in the attire reserved for a married lady. While this sort of village is in one sense artificial, the people are real, and the social structures a valid expression of a traditional society to which many tourists to South Africa are never exposed. It also makes for great photo opportunities.

Photographing Africa's people - a guide by Ariadne Van Zandbergen
Girl selling eggs at Bahir Dar market (Ethiopia)
The 'cultural village' set up is the exception; more often, one will deal with people who are not employed in the tourist industry and have no reason to allow tourists to photograph them. In such circumstances, one should generally ask permission before photographing anybody, and if the person agrees regard it is a privilege, not a right. A bit of subtlety often helps in places such as this market in Bahir Dar. If you storm in pushing your camera in people's faces you might encounter hostility - and once the atmosphere is negative, you may as well pack up and leave so far as photography is concerned. A better approach is to walk around the market with a camera visibly hanging around your neck, chatting to people and showing an interest in their wares. Do this, and sooner or later somebody will ask you to take his or her photo. Very often, somebody else will see this and follow suit - once you have been accepted, you will probably be allowed to take most of the photos you want. Note, however, that some markets in Africa are haunted by petty thieves, so take local advice - or a reliable local guide - before heading in with expensive camera equipment.

Photographing Africa's people - a guide by Ariadne Van Zandbergen
Woman with baby ( Senegal )
In an ideal world, it is great to talk to people and get to know them before you photograph them, but this is not always realistic (for starters a lot of rural people in Africa speak no European language). As in most places, people may find it odd for a stranger to want to take their photo. Often. it helps to explain why you want to photograph a person. In this case, I was looking for something specific tied to a particular culture - a woman with a porcupine quill through her nose in a small village in Senegal - so I explained using pidgin French and sign language that I found the woman's nose decoration interesting. In other circumstances, I might single somebody out for their hairstyle or jewellery, or just because they are remarkably beautiful, and explain to them what it is that interests me.
When somebody agrees to be photographed, they generally take an unnatural pose. I start taking photos anyway - making a fuss before you take your first photo makes people uncomfortable - but try to relax the pose by joking and talking (even if the person doesn't understand my language). If you are travelling with somebody, let your companion do the talking. That way your model will look away from the camera and might even forget your presence for a second or two.

Photographing Africa's people - a guide by Ariadne Van Zandbergen
Tingatinga painter, Zanzibar
Craftsmen mostly are very happy to be photographed on the job. As ever, you should ask before snapping, but once the craftsman has agreed try to persuade them to carry on what they are doing rather than looking stiffly at the camera. Then frame the photograph, and wait until their head tilts in such a way that part of the face catches the light.

Photographing Africa's people - a guide by Ariadne Van Zandbergen
Woman with pipe, Rwanda
Often it is easiest to get a natural pose with a prop. I'd taken a few photos of this woman in Rwanda, and felt she had potential as a model, but she was too nervous to pose naturally. I had seen other local woman with pipes a couple of times, and when I asked her if she had one, her face lit up. With the pipe she was a perfect model. It gave her something to focus on and also something to do with her hands. For me, the pride and good humour radiated by the model makes for a very special picture.

Photographing Africa's people - a guide by Ariadne Van Zandbergen
Dancer with feather hat at the Nafac Festival ( Ghana )
Festivals are often a very good place to photograph African people, who are proud of their traditional attire and culture, and enjoy sharing celebrations with visitors. It is not unusual for visitors to get allocated a prime position from where to watch and photograph performances. Local people who come to a festival are mostly dressed in their best traditional clothes and jewellery, and are therefore more relaxed about being photographed. than they would be in scruffier clothing, so I often walk around at the preliminary of the activities looking for possible subjects. At some festivals, photography is not allowed, so it's best to enquire before snapping away.

Photographing Africa's people - a guide by Ariadne Van Zandbergen
Fetish priest ( Ghana )
Some travel photographers are proud to say they've never paid for a photo. Frankly, I feel that if you aren't sometimes willing to give a small tip or a 'present' to a subject, you will become very frustrated, and could arguably be accused of losing sight of the economic environment. In a lot of places, a small tip has become the expectation and you will have to live with it or give up photographing people. Although I obviously have little choice in the matter, I don't have a moral problem with it. On the contrary, I can't think of any good reason why local people shouldn't ask for something small - it is not as if photographic models work for free in our society. But whatever one's moral position, pragmatism dictates that one may as well go with whatever system has developed in any given place. In the case of this fetish priest in Ghana, I gave him the customary libation of a bottle of Schnappes - as would any local visiting such a prestigious figure - and he agreed for me to take a few pictures of him. More generally, where a small donation is expected, avoid over or under tipping (take local advice) and adjust the payment according to social standing (in most cultures it would not do to give as much to a small kid as you would his father).

Photographing Africa's people - a guide by Ariadne Van Zandbergen
Swahili woman, Lamu ( Kenya )
A common Western perception is that Africans object to photography because it takes away their soul. I've never heard anybody in Africa confirm that: people take photographs of each other, and pay photographers to have family portraits taken. It is true, however, that Muslims are in general more reluctant to let tourists photograph them - especially women, who the Koran teaches to be very unassuming and not to draw attention to themselves.
One of the most difficult situations in which I found myself was trying to photograph Swahili women wearing a traditional bui-bui in Lamu. On this small Muslim island, I eventually realised that many woman are happy to be photographed, so long as it is discreetly, and out of sight of people they know. Some asked to go to an alley away from their home, and this woman insisted on wearing her veil to disguise their face (a normal practice anyway), which enhances the mystique of the image.

Photographing Africa's people - a guide by Ariadne Van Zandbergen
Muslims leaving Djenne mosque after prayers ( Mali )
Sometimes, with a long lens, you can photograph people without their knowledge. The advantage of this method is that you can obtain un-posed shots. Candid photography is also useful when you want to include a human element in a larger composition, such as these worshippers leaving Djenne Mosque. This can be tricky, because as a white person you hardly ever go around unnoticed in Africa, and many people find it offensive for a tourist to sneak a photo.
I found Djenne rather unusual in that the people didn't pay much attention to me photographing them, so long as I was discreet, but seemed to regard it as immodest to actually pose for a photo by a stranger. Had I asked any of the men coming out of the mosque for a photo, I am sure the answer would have been no, and it would have been impossible to take the photo unasked afterwards. What I did instead was set my camera on a tripod during the 4 o'clock prayers, frame the picture, and wait for the worshippers to walk out. I wasn't hidden from them, and they were aware of what I was doing, but they could ignore it and were evidently comfortable with it.
The point is not that this is always the way to photograph people coming out of a mosque - very often you wouldn't get away with it, and even in Djenne I was prepared to stop the moment anybody indicated that my behaviour was unacceptable. Rather, it is a good example of how one needs to tailor ones approach to local social mores.

Photographing Africa's people - a guide by Ariadne Van ZandbergenAriadne Van Zandbergen is a freelance wildlife and travel photographer specialised in Africa. Born and raised in Belgium, but based in South Africa, Ariadne spends half of her time travelling around Africa; she is a regular contributor to several magazines, including Africa Environment & Wildlife and Travel Africa, and her work has graced the cover of numerous travel guides. A SATOUR-registered tour guide, with vast experience of travel and photography in African conditions, Ariadne can arrange and lead photographic tours to any part of the continent, with itineraries tailored to meet the special requirements of photographers at all levels of experience- contact philari@hixnet.co.uk.
In December 2001, Ariadne will lead a photographic safari to northern Tanzania, visiting the legendary Serengeti Plains and Ngorongoro Crater, as well as Tarangire and Lake Manyara National Parks. For the full itinerary of this tour, go to www.Rainbowtours.co.uk/tanzania/.
For information about her photographic library covering more than 15 African countries, contact Ariadne philari@hixnet.co.za

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