Learning a bit of foreign language opens doors to photographing people.
Photography is an international language spoken by everyone, right? One picture being worth a thousand words, and all that entails. But sometimes understanding a photo is a whole lot easier than creating it, especially if you can't say a dang thing in the local tongue.
Imagine walking on a beautiful beach along the Mediterranean's famous Riviera. You spot the perfect couple frolicking in the light surf. Aim the camera and they start giving you a very bad time in French. A policeman shows up. He doesn't speak English, and you get to leave the beach - without your film, if she's topless and you've snapped a few shots.
Same goes at that quaint weekend market in a small Mexican village. You want to shoot the young mother with a beautiful baby clinging to her back: the perfect Madonna and child. One of the fruit vendors shouts a few words at you in rapid Spanish. It's her big brother. Some fruit is thrown; maybe a little shoving match starts. The cops show up again. You lose an opportunity.
In situations like these, you don't get the picture. You don't get any cooperation from anybody. And you can forget a model release. In the worst-case scenarios, you end up getting a black eye, taking a trip to the local police station or paying a bribe.
I have photographed in the markets of North Africa, where I drew a crowd that wanted money and a fight, not necessarily in that order. Same thing in the residential areas and markets of Hong Kong. They threw potatoes at me the first time.
These uncomfortable situations can be easily avoided with a few up-front, friendly words in the location's native tongue. Learning to "speak photography" to your international subjects is easy. Saying "Smile!" in the local language is the password to a lot of enjoyable picture-making in most countries. You're on your way to getting model releases understood and signed, too.
Saying "Smile!" in the local language is the password to a lot of enjoyable picture-making in most countries.
I have a system.
I develop a short list of working words and phrases that are important to my photography and lifestyle. Learn to say things like these: Smile. Move left (or right). Look up. Hold hands. Do what I am doing. Where is the most beautiful beach? I want to hire an attractive model. Where is the city's best view? May I photograph you?
Start with the minimum number of words and phrases that meet your shooting needs. Include "please," "thank you," "excuse me," "may I" and "this is a wonderful country." Courtesy goes a long way toward making friends and photos. I also suggest including on your list the kind of foods and drink you enjoy. Same goes for books, music, art, crafts, clothing, films and anything else you wish to encounter in a particular country.
My working lists have grown into small books of some 300 words and 50 or so phrases. I have even gone so far as to learn exactly what's being sung in a few of my favorite operas (they don't have supratitles in Italy). When I order a meal in Milan, I can get the right pasta and wine. You only have to eat pickled deer feet once in Bangkok to ensure that you'll learn how to say "fried rice." (It's pronounced "cow pot," more or less, although my pronunciation always brings a few smiles to the faces of Thai people.) My favorite Thai phrase is "song sing," which means "two beers."
Next in my system is visiting a restaurant that features foods of the country you plan to visit. Ask if anyone working there is from the old country and speaks good English. If there is such a person, ask him or her to give you some language lessons for a few bucks. Learn your language list. Have your model release, if you use a simple one, translated into the language. Visit the restaurant a few times and order your meal in their language.
If you want to learn the basics of a particular language, I suggest checking out one of the many guides produced by Bilingual Books. Their "Ten Minutes a Day" guides are available for a dozen languages.
To get by using a foreign language, you need two things most of all: a total lack of fear, which most photographers already enjoy, and practice. You will make mistakes. Just laugh along with the locals and listen when they tell you the right way to say something. Say it back to them. Use the language whenever possible, especially with people from the country who speak good English. They will help you learn the language and, even better, they will appreciate your efforts to learn something of their country's culture.