On a breezy winter morning, I scurry down a leafy street in Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital, in search of a morning cà phê. Before I can get to my daily caffeine fix, though, I freeze. Facing a busy road as motorcycles whiz by her, a woman is selling local street goods — lottery tickets. The world around me stops for a moment. In a state of flow, I press the shutter.
To be good at capturing life, I have to anticipate what happens next. When I come to a new destination, I first try to absorb everything unfolding in front of me — the sights, the smells, the sounds, the rhythms of a place. Travelling is powerful because it takes us out of our routines and inserts us in the middle of the routines of other people. But we have to pay attention.
I have always been an observer of people, keenly aware of our cultural differences — but also of our shared humanity. I was born in Kazakhstan and grew up in Estonia, and that family geography meant that every summer, I’d travel back and forth between these two different places: one decidedly European, even in Soviet times, the other, decidedly Asian. I picked up my first camera, a yellow point-and-shoot Kodak film, at age 10. In my 30s, I became a travel photographer and writer with a mission to tell stories that celebrate our diversity and also share how, more often than not, we are quite alike.
At its best, travel photography tells a story of a place through its people, food, streets, architecture and culture. And isn’t that why we travel: to learn something about each other, to understand a world that’s different from our own, and to help build bridges, rather than walls?
Photographing people is one of the central aspects of travel photography, and to me, it is a sacred task. Too often, I see photographers in the field taking pictures without asking permission first, invading others’ personal space and assuming they have this right. Emotions like mistrust, contempt or discomfort travel through the lens, and when a portrait is taken without permission, you can see it in the final work. Before taking out my camera, I try to establish rapport with the people I photograph; at minimum, I ask my subjects for their permission to be photographed.
I’ve always believed that the people in my stories should be my partners in storytelling. Some time ago, a major publication approached me to do a story about the Bedouin community in Wadi Rum, Jordan’s southern desert on the border with Saudi Arabia.
Before I said yes, I wanted to make sure that the people I was about to photograph were on board with the story, and that they trusted me to represent their culture and beliefs. I’d spent years travelling to Wadi Rum and I had developed relationships inside this community, so it was my honour to do this work when they said yes.
To tell thoughtful stories that represent traditions and cultures accurately and with respect, we have to invest time and effort into building these relationships. While it’s not always possible for travellers to spend weeks or months somewhere, it is useful to adopt this long-term mindset. It can help us think about what happens to a place long after we leave it, and the effect our visit may have on the people who live there.
Travelling with my camera, I also want to ensure I don’t perpetuate the colonialist narratives that plague my line of work. Instead, my goal is to tell stories about people the way they’d want these stories to be told. I ask myself: does what I’m portraying play into a tired narrative, or does it try to show a different side?
With many assignments in the Middle East, I often see images of “war-torn” villages, conflict and desperation. That’s the stereotype of the region that Western audiences have absorbed. But the Middle East is not a monolith. It contains a multitude of cultures, beliefs and economic and political situations.
My profession has also helped me approach situations I encounter on the road with humility, shedding the need to impose my beliefs on someone else. Across the globe, the standards of women interacting with others in public vary wildly, for example.
In the Chinese province of Zhejiang, I took a portrait of a young woman wearing traditional attire for a theatre performance. I could rarely do that in Jordan as women prefer not to be photographed, especially by a stranger. During my visit to Iraq Al-Amir, a co-operative of women artisans in Amman, I respected that wish and asked if I could photograph their activities instead, without revealing any faces.
This simple shift helped us build a level of trust with each other, an understanding that says, “I see you and I respect you.” That orientation toward humility and respect has served me well on my travels, allowing me access to spaces I believe I wouldn’t have otherwise gotten.
Over time, I’ve developed a personal philosophy that guides my visual work. Our world is diverse and multi-layered. It’s also quite unfair and ruthless at times. And so, I try to introduce a bit of wonder, reminding viewers that it exists, even in the midst of complexity and pain. What I seek to portray with my camera helps me find wonder wherever I go.
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