Research, rapport, respect – how to be a mindful travel photographer

Documenting different cultures adds interest to your travel stories, but it's important to create images with sensitivity. Photojournalist Gulshan Khan shares some advice.
A young Muslim girl shouts with delight as she rides a horse on a carousel at a fete in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Hands grip tight to the candy-coloured carousel horse, face beaming with excitement, hijab billowing like a superhero's cape. It's not the typical image you see of a young Muslim girl – and that's exactly why it's one of Canon Ambassador Gulshan Khan's favourite photographs. "Muslims, particularly women and girls, are not always depicted as the expansive human beings we really are. I use 'we' because this is my own community," explains the South African photojournalist. "We see so much suffering and 'othering' in images from the African continent. And here is this girl so full of joy, photographed with dignity."

Gulshan's example reminds us that the camera is powerful. The pictures you create can perpetuate one-dimensional ways of looking at the world or they can reveal something more. This is especially true when it comes to photographing cultures or communities that are not your own, whether that's in the neighbourhood around the corner or somewhere you've travelled thousands of miles to reach. For Gulshan, this is part of the job. As an independent photojournalist who has been published in National Geographic, The New York Times and The Guardian, and a former Agence France Presse (AFP) freelancer, Gulshan regularly takes pictures of people and places in her home country and beyond. Here, she explains how you can create striking but sensitive cultural photographs.

Be mindful of history

A South African anti-poaching ranger uses a large torch to look for movement in an outdoor enclosure at night.

A South African anti-poaching ranger scans an animal enclosure for movement after dark. "I'm still learning how to navigate different situations. Always question yourself," advises Gulshan. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III (now succeeded by the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV) with a Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L USM lens (now succeeded by the Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L II USM) at 1/80 sec, f/1.4 and ISO3200. © Gulshan Khan

In the 19th century, when photography was a new technology, the camera was falsely considered by European colonialists to be a scientific tool which they used to classify and oppress indigenous people. That legacy lives on, believes Gulshan, feeding into the perception that it's an unbiased medium.

"Photographs are instructive. They teach us how to see ourselves and each other," she says. "There is this idea that a picture is objective truth, but that is a fallacy. You are always in your images. Your ideology, your experiences and your values will come through in what you choose to put in – and to leave out – of the frame."

Gulshan also highlights the entitlement that some Western travellers and image-makers feel they have to explore 'exotic' lands. "It's not a problem to visit places and take photographs," Gulshan stresses. "It is a problem when you do it with an assumption that you are better and know better than the people you're photographing."

Do your research

Two people salsa on a rooftop dance floor watched by seated groups of onlookers behind and to the side of them.

People dance at a rooftop salsa party in Maboneng, Johannesburg, South Africa. "If you're photographing at a festival or event, you should know what people are there for, why it's happening," says Gulshan. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L USM lens at 1/320 sec, f/2.8 and ISO50. © Gulshan Khan for The Washington Post

When you hear the word 'culture', you tend to think of nationality, race or religion, but for Gulshan the concept is far broader than this. "It could be a group with any specific value system, a work culture or people who belong to a social class or are part of a music subculture, for example," she says.

Whatever it is, you need to make sure you have done as much research as possible before you arrive with your camera. This will help you to identify unusual locations or important occasions – a festival or a protest, perhaps – that will give you the opportunity to take relevant pictures.

It's also about understanding norms and customs and the issues faced by different people, which will inform how you choose to photograph. Follow media coverage, read books, watch documentaries, familiarise yourself with places on Google Maps and – most importantly – talk to people, Gulshan advises. If you're abroad and staying in a hotel, chat to the staff. Or, if you're at an event, ask attendees what it means to them and why they are there. Be respectful, empathetic and ready to learn.

Choose and use your kit wisely

A woman wearing a long white dress and eye-catching jewellery sits on a bench outside her Johannesburg home.

Gulshan likes to take setup portraits where possible. In this shoot for a story about jewellery style in Johannesburg, she photographed individuals from different cultural backgrounds – Netsanet Abera Tumssa, owner of the Ethiopian restaurant Netsi's, is pictured sitting outside her home. Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 35mm F1.8 MACRO IS STM lens at 1/1000 sec, f/2 and ISO250. © Gulshan Khan for The New York Times

There's a balance to be struck between getting impactful images and treating people with the consideration they deserve. In general, Gulshan avoids long lenses, preferring to pair her Canon EOS R and EOS R5 cameras with a Canon RF 35mm F1.8 MACRO IS STM lens and to get close to what she's photographing, immersing herself in the action. "You have to talk to people when you are that close and inevitably your images are more intimate," she explains.

The exception to this would be when she works in sacred spaces and already has permission to shoot there but doesn't want to intrude. "In spiritual places you need to be sensitive to culture and the best way to make sure that you are not being disrespectful or intrusive is to ask if it is OK to be there," she advises. "Ask where you are allowed to be and where not, and what are the rules. In many mosques and temples, for example, you are required to remove your shoes, you need to be dressed in an appropriate manner and it is also disrespectful to walk in front of a person engaged in prayer or to try to talk to them.

"In those instances, I have used a Canon RF 70-200mm F2.8L IS USM lens," she adds. "I always keep my shutter as silent as possible so as to not be intrusive and to be respectful in situations that call for such a quiet and subtle decorum."

It's not just pro-level cameras such as the EOS R5 that offer a silent shooting option. Switching to the silent shooting mode on the mirrorless Canon EOS R10 adjusts all the relevant settings at the same time, preventing any sound or light from being emitted from the camera. Pairing the EOS R10 with the versatile Canon RF-S 18-150mm F3.5-6.3 IS STM lens will also give you a longer range to minimise disturbance.

Involve the people you're photographing

An older man with his hand pressed to his face sits on a wall. Behind him is a brightly coloured house and a mountain shrouded in mist.

Jean Rene, 56, pictured in his hometown of Hell-Bourg on the island of Réunion, a French department in the Indian Ocean. "Good cultural photography comes from a deep empathy for who you're photographing. Otherwise, it's just performative," says Gulshan. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM lens (now succeeded by the Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L III USM) at 35mm, 1/250 sec, f/2.8 and ISO100. © Gulshan Khan for The New York Times

A group of women sitting around a long dining table laden with food and bottles of soft drink.

A group of women break their Ramadan fast together at the Nizamiye Mosque in Johannesburg – an image from Gulshan's The Things We Carry With Us, a series about the community in South Africa. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L USM lens at 1/2500 sec, f/1.4 and ISO10000. © Gulshan Khan

It's important to make the distinction between public events, where there is an expectation that photography will be taking place, and with photographs that you take while wandering side streets or as part of a personal project with a certain group, "You should have informed consent," says Gulshan. This means explaining clearly to people why you are interested in taking their picture and what you intend to do with the images afterwards.

How you go about this depends on the scenario. If you're doing a project in a community setting, you might get permission first and get to know people, before moving on to taking candid shots when they're relaxed in your presence. In the streets of a city, you might strike up a conversation with a market stall holder and then take their portrait afterwards. If you don't speak the language, find someone who can translate for you. Pay constant attention to how the person you're photographing is responding. As Gulshan says: "You can tell if you're making people feel uncomfortable." If so, it's time to put your camera down.

Work from a place of respect

A crowd of people of various ages sing, dance, laugh and drink as they watch something in front of them.

"Always ask yourself what gives this depth? Where is the story?" says Gulshan. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L USM lens at 1/400 sec, f/1.4 and ISO1600. © AFP Photo/Gulshan Khan

While she now uses her camera "instinctively", Gulshan has spent time really looking at images and thinking about how people are portrayed. "It's important to be visually literate and conscious," she says. "Think about things like the angles you're shooting from and what that conveys to someone viewing the image." Follow different Instagram accounts for a greater understanding of how photographers are choosing to represent their own communities. Sometimes a sequence of images is needed to give a fuller account but, says Gulshan, "it is possible to say something profound about a people or a culture in a single image. Just remember that that is never the entire story."

Written by Rachel Segal Hamilton

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