Aga Szydlik is a professional culture photographer and a doctoral candidate based in South Africa. She tells us that her journey with photography started with Muay Thai (the famous Thai fight style) which she documented extensively. Based in Thailand, she able to explore South East Asia, onwards to Indonesia and South Africa. She is enthusiastic about alternative processes, analogue photography, Lomography and salt/albumin prints as well as mixed media.
Tip from a pro: To work with the big brands, you need to market yourself in a way that will appeal to these types of clients. The kind of architectural or food photography a hotel chain needs is very different from what a tour company that specializes in extreme travel. Don’t try to work in all genres and styles. That’s a good path to becoming an inadequate photographer. Focus only on the genre and style you love and put all of your heart and effort into it.
You cannot always ask permission, of course. If you are shooting a street scene or a wide shot of a market, you can't run up to everyone and ask if it's OK. In general, people do not mind this sort of photography—it's only when they're singled out that they get uncomfortable. But not always. Be sensitive to the scene in your viewfinder. If people are getting nervous, ask permission or move on.
I introduced myself, telling Chan I had read articles about him. He didn't seem surprised at all, and brought a photo book -carefully wrapped in plastic- to show me more photos and a write up about him, along with other craftsmen in Hong Kong. I had seen Sunset Survivors; a book that tells the stories of Hong Kong’s traditional tradesmen and women through imagery and interviews. It covers a number of curious professions that are quickly falling into obscurity, from fortune telling to face threading and letter writing to bird cage making in the streets of old Hong Kong.
We often travel with people we know—taking a family vacation, for example, or bicycling around Tuscany with a group of friends. We quite naturally want to come home with pictures of them as souvenirs of the trip. Be sure to get these, but don't forget that you can also use members of your family and your friends to make your other photographs more effective.
It's best to ask permission if you want to photograph someone, especially if you are working in close. Engage them before you pull out your camera. Learn at least how to say "hello" and "May I make a photograph" in the local language—just showing that you've made a little effort helps. Explain to them what you want to do and what it is about them that made you want to make a picture. If approached in an open and friendly manner, most people will be agreeable—many are flattered that someone has shown an interest in them and what they do. In places where there's a lot of tourism, you may run into people who are tired of being photographed—many tourists are not courteous enough to ask permission, and local people can come to feel abused and exploited. The only way to overcome this is to spend time with the people or to go to parts of the place less frequented by tourists.
Approaching a new client can be a lot easier if you happen to be visiting that region, or if it’s where you are based. Start local and contact businesses who you regularly use or that have less than desirable images on their website…put together a proposal and they’ll more than likely say yes if it benefits them! If they’re just starting out on social media you can offer to create a library of social media images they can use over a 3-6month period to generate interest in their product/region.
The deeper you travel into distant lands and cultures, the more varied the people you'll encounter. It can be fun and intriguing to meet people of vastly different cultures. It can also be alienating and even dangerous. I've seen women treated poorly, child labourers hard at work, and helpless animals suffering in the streets. Tolerance for other cultures is necessary to access these places and document the realities within them. Our job as photographers is to observe, with the hope that our images may influence positive social change.
For example, a product review I did in December of 2014 led people to the product on Amazon via an affiliate link. That product sold extremely well, and people also bought other things well they were shopping. That affiliate link earned me a pretty penny. Of course, that’s not always sustainable. In January and February I earned $300 and $400 respectively from affiliate sales. In March, I only earned $50.
The Yuen Po street Bird Garden in Hong Kong was built in the late 1990's after the former "Bird Street" at Hong Lok Street was demolished. It was built to preserve the spirit and popularity of the bird stalls that once were in Mongkok. The Chinese have traditionally liked to keep birds as pets, and this tradition is maintained in this small garden. Men (I've not seen a woman there except those selling birds, birdseed and live crickets) walk around; whistling at the caged birds, from delicate canaries to colorful parrots, admiring their plumage and a few walking their pets in cages.
Make use of people to give your images life and scale. If the facade of a particular building appeals to you, the picture may be that much better if you show people walking in front of it. They will give it scale and also let viewers know what sorts of people live there, how they dress, and the like. An outdoor café may be more interesting crowded with people than empty.