Notes from a Travel Photographer

Stu Shapiro

“My fascination with the human psyche; why people do the things they do, how we think, what we think, moments and memories and how our journeys shape who we are, have always been the strong driving force behind my photography and my desire to travel and experience different people. It’s like I was born to do this.I love interacting with people, seeing even just a glimpse of another person’s life and hearing their stories. The camera has always allowed me to embrace this fascination; it’s given me the opportunity to take on the role of the explorer, adventurer, journalist, artist and curious kid.

For me, it’s important that my personality, charisma and energy helps my subject feel relaxed and open to being photographed by me because it’s that “relaxed” state-of-mind that finally gives me a photo that tells a story.

People of different cultures and places have very different ideas about being photographed and I am always careful not to offend people. A good system before going to a new location is to learn about the place that you are visiting, I do this simply by asking a local or a fellow photographer who has shot in that region, questions about the area and culture. Just a little knowledge offers me the ability to approach the people respectfully, and rules out the possibility of hostility. Those un-posed moments of reality and emotion are generally the keepers!

Travel Photography involves a lot more than good composition, post production, lighting knowledge and the ability to click a button of a pretty landscape. It’s about the people you meet...

In India I got to experience the utter excitement of the local children at the prospect of being photographed — some of whom had never had their picture taken before. The kids crowded around, squeezing their faces together, shouting, pushing and smiling. In a similar situation in South America some of the children stuck out their hands to demand payment after I had taken their picture. And in Bolivia the traditional folk believe that you take a piece of their soul each time you take a photo of them.

The highlight of my photography career is the Afrika Burn Festival in the Karoo. This year I created a steel rig with all my gear strapped to my back, enticing my subjects into my make-shift ‘mobile studio’. The idea behind my portable studio was one which contradicts my normal form of festival photography — a style I call ‘Ninja Photography’, where I run between the masses, constantly on the lookout to capture moments. However the concept of Afrika Burns, a space where people are free to express themselves any way they want, suggested that a voyeuristic lens in the distance would be disrespectful. With that in mind I felt I needed to be an installation or art piece myself. So, add to my rig, a pair of sand-proof steam-punk goggles, black leather jacket and I fitted right in, looking like a mad-max inspired robot-warrior from a science fiction space film. This allowed me to capture the eccentric nature of the people, as their alter egos broke free in front of the lens. This coupled with the beauty of the desert — an extravagant landscape in itself — made for the perfect backdrop to magical images.

My advice to aspiring photographers is: don’t be shy. Be polite. Be open and approachable. And when you see a shot, go for shot because there may not be another opportunity to capture that moment.”