When on the road with my camera, sometimes for months at a time, I often go to bed with the distinct feeling that I receive more than I give. I am a traveling photographer who focuses on people, which means I spend my days asking things of others. I ask for their permission, their time, their image. I ask them to overcome their shyness or distrust, or to act like I’m not there. I ask to be let into their lives for a moment, even though I will soon be gone.
Not everyone says yes to my requests, but very many do. I’m most touched by those for whom “yes” is a stretch, who prefer not to be the subject of a camera’s attention but who, even more, for whatever reason, wish to grant a photographer’s request. They very clearly are giving to me.
In response to their giving, I want to give too, and so when I return home I devote many long days to emailing pictures to the people I’ve photographed. “The act of giving initiates relationships and even friendships,” writes Anthony Gittins in his book Bread for the Journey. “Not to give is not to be in relationship.”
Back before email became nearly universal, if I spent several days in a particular community I would sometimes stop by a photo store and develop a few prints just before I left. I would then retrace my steps from the previous days, stopping at shops and stalls and homes where I knew I could find the people who had allowed me to photograph them — people such as the woman above, who worked at an optometrist shop in Kanchanaburi, Thailand.
The relationship between a photographer and the people being photographed is often passing. But it is still, even if only for a moment, a relationship, and cherished friendships sometimes have grown from that initial encounter.
At the least, through the thousands of people who’ve allowed me to photograph them, I’ve been enriched and awed. And in return, in countries around the world, thousands of pictures have been left behind.