The easiest way to capture great photographs is to understand your subject. That's true in everything from candids to portraits. When you're photographing a subject, the more you know about the subject, the more your photographs are going to capture what is fascinating about it.
Figure 4.2. Kids love to be photographed, and parents are usually obliging. Always ask permission first. (Photo by Reed Hoffmann)
In the previous chapter we talked about trip planning and how vital that is to good travel photography, but there are some aspects of your travel voyage that are more subtle than simply knowing what the local attractions are, and what time the sun sets. Some of these topics can be found in books, but some you might need to feel out as you go. Be aware of and sensitive to the nuances of customs and laws in every region and area as you go.
RELIGION AND POLITICS
There are no thornier topics to discuss than religion and politics. Miss Manners would tell you to avoid them at any fancy dinner party. The photographer, though, needs to be keenly aware of both topics as they form the undercurrent of everything that happens in a country.
Here in the U.S.A., thanks to the right to free speech afforded by the constitution, I can go around willy-nilly taking pictures of things just about anywhere. But I can't invade someone's privacy and I can't break other laws while I'm taking my pictures.
As a citizen of the United States, I have a good instinctive understanding of my photographic boundaries. Standing on the corner and taking a picture of someone walking down the street is allowed, but standing in the bushes outside their house photographing them through their window is not.
These boundaries are different in different parts of the world. Most countries have no right of free speech, meaning that it can be considered impolite or illegal to photograph certain things. In many countries, it is illegal to photograph government buildings, and in some places it is illegal to photograph people without their permission.
Most guidebooks have information on things like this, but you'll want to take cues from your surroundings and from the residents of the areas you're shooting. If you're on a trip with a tour guide, ask about local laws. And you can probably get a lot of help on the subject from a taxi driver; in most countries they're a great source for local information.
Always be alert to the situations you put yourself in. As a former photo-journalist, I have a habit of walking toward any commotion or sirens, just to see what's going on. As a result I've stumbled onto some interesting photographic scenes, but I've also found myself in the middle of riots and protests.
Figure 4.3. Be alert. Photographers sometimes find themselves in the middle of tense situations that can quickly spin out of control. When this picture was taken at a Teaneck, New Jersey protest march, someone in the crowd of bystanders had just shouted a racial slur at the protestors. The police officer is restraining one of the marchers. (Photo by David Schloss)
You might not work for a newspaper, but if you're caught up in a political demonstration with a bag full of camera gear, you're probably going to be treated like a member of the press. Sometimes this will work to your benefit, but often the police will be nicer to people they think are tourists in the country to vacation rather than foreign journalists in the country to stir up trouble.
Find out about any special laws regarding photography in the area you're visiting. Major tourist destinations, such as France, Italy, Spain, and others are very tolerant of travel photographers, but some regions are decidedly less so. The U.S. State Department maintains a list of problem areas, and can provide contact numbers for embassies in foreign countries. All U.S. embassies have their own Web sites. It's a good idea to keep at hand the phone number and address for the embassy in the country you're visiting.
If there's any topic that has the potential to be thornier than politics it's religion, though in many countries the two are so intertwined they should be considered parts of the same issue. As a general rule, taking pictures during any religious service is a no-no, but there are few priests, imams, rabbis, or clerics who would be offended if you respectfully asked them about their customs and requested permission to take photographs. It's unlikely that you'll get permission to photograph a service, but such conversations can be both photographically and spiritually enlightening. And the religious leaders may be willing to put you in touch with parishioners who are happy to share their customs.
In many parts of the world the state religion and the state government are the same thing, and there are strict rules about what can and can't be photographed. There might even be strict rules about who can photograph and when.
Figure 4.4. There's usually no problem shooting photos in a church when no service is taking place. (Photo by Reed Hoffmann)
Figure 4.5. Most churches in Europe are accustomed to having tourists visit and take photos, and are very tolerant of it. In return, be polite, quiet, and respectful of worshippers. (Photo by Reed Hoffmann)