I love the faces of old people, that I cannot deny. I’m a sucker for the wrinkles that give me some kind of insight into a life so much longer than my own. I will often explore the markets of Korea for hours at a time, taking in the faces of the people I encounter. On occasion I will see a face that touches something deep inside me. I squash down the fear of rejection, and I approach this person. I’ll strike up a conversation, or inquire about their wares. Why? Because something in me was stirred by this person. I want to know them, and moreover, I want to photograph them.
It often strikes me that this is just something to satisfy my own narcissistic desires. I am happy, fulfilled, satisfied. But what about the person on the other end of my lens? Perhaps they enjoyed the process. Perhaps they enjoyed someone taking the time to make them feel beautiful. One can never be sure. Every time I felt like I had stolen a slice of time, and given nothing back for it. Something had to change.
Step back two months.
I was walking through a market street in Seoul, enjoying the sights and sounds, and looking for faces with a story. After a time, I came across a man mending guitars. His weathered hands were scraping the glue from a body where a plectrum holder had once resided. I watched him intently for a while, then struck up the courage to ask to make his portrait. He was shy, and looked back to his work giggling like a teenager who had heard a confession of love. But then he looked back up, and I knew I had one moment of genuine personality in his eyes coming. I squeezed the shutter, and made his portrait. I thanked him and moved on. Although I was shooting digital, I didn’t show him right away as I had other plans.
As photographers, we take more than just pictures. We take slithers of time in varying lengths, effectively stashing away moments that will likely never repeat themselves. The light, angle, people, fog, cars, birds, water, social circumstances, or even the peeling paint in your photographs are most probably never going to occur again.
As travel photographers, we stop time in the places we visit. What we compose in our viewfinders is a reflection of ourselves, but more importantly a slice of the life of others. We photograph buildings, forests, animals, food, our companions, and the ubiquitous ‘holding the pyramids’ shot. We also see or meet fascinating people, and will want to photograph them.
Back to the conundrum, how do these people feel about you taking their photograph? More often than not we use the ubiquitous hand on the camera to suggest we’d like to make a portrait, and the language skills of both parties prevent a deeper exchange. So how to we make this a more pleasant and memorable exchange?
Back to my plans. My plans were about 8 inches tall and 10 inches wide; they were behind glass and surrounded by a wooden frame. I would make a print for this man, and hand deliver it in the near future. This was almost more fearful than the initial approach to make the portrait. What if he didn’t like it? What would I do? Scurry away with my tail between my legs? Apologise?
Regardless, I decided to try. I walked past his market stall with the picture in a bag five or six times before I finally sparked up the courage to deliver the picture. I greeted him, and he remembered me. We talked for a couple of moments, and then as the conversation dwindled I withdrew the picture and showed it to him. His eyes lit up with that child-like light and a grin crept over his face, bringing out a few more wrinkles of experience. I had succeeded, and as a result I was invited to stay for lunch and we talked about our various mountain climbs around Korea; me suggesting I’d seen something amazing, he recommending the next great thing I see in his country.
How can we do this on the road? Zink printers. Though not the world’s greatest print quality, they give us the option to make instant prints from almost any digital camera and are smaller and lighter than traditional Polaroid cameras. As we work our way to Thailand for this year’s final Flash Light Expeditions workshops in Chiang Mai and Ko Phi Phi, I’ll be making the journey with my Zink printer in hand and will post the results here. I look forward to hearing how other people give copies of prints on the road.