I was listening to Valerie Jardin's new podcast "Street Focus" yesterday. Oh yes, in case you didn't know, Valerie, is an excellent street photographer. Although she is currently based in the USA she's originally from France, and returns often. To compliment her street photography she runs both domestic and international workshops. That's how I got to know her. I'm glad I did. Even though I'm primarily a editorial fashion & portrait photographer, almost all of my casual work is street photography.
Valerie is also a regular host of This Week in Photo (TWiP) the weekly podcast and website about all things photography hosted by Fredrick Van Johnson. TWiP recently kicked off a genre specific podcast about street photography hosted by Valerie called Street Focus. The podcast just released it's second show. I listened to on my way to work. It particular podcast was a Q&A format. One of the submitted questions she answered was about doing street photography internationally and how to handle the associated language & potential legal challenges.
She answered the question well. It got me thinking about my international living and traveling, so I thought I would write a post to share my experiences and kind of answer the question as if it were asked of me. Basically, if you are traveling to a foreign country and your native language isn't the spoken language how do you have an enjoyable photography experience.
But Steve, you are in Indiana which is about Americana as you can get, what can you add to the discussion? Well, except for Eastern Europe, the Middle East & Africa I've traveled on business or vacation almost everywhere. Also, professionally I did an extended expatriate tour in Latin America, the Far East & Canada. While traveling I carried a camera most of the time, and English was rarely the native language. You know what? Even outside of the big cities, I RARELY had problems. OK, OK, sometimes inconveniences & challenges, but never REAL problems. Why? because I did some basic planning. Will this work in every situation or in emergencies...not always, but here are some thoughts, tips, suggestions when doing photoshoots in an area where your native tongue isn't the primary language.
- Learn a few basic phrases - You know, "Hi", "How Are You", "How Much", "Can I take your picture", "sorry, I don't speak (insert language)", "Do you speak (insert language)", "Where's the closest WiFi hotspot", etc. If you have between 20-25 typical phrases, you would be SURPRISED how far you will get,
- Create a few "flash cards". OK, I'm aging myself in the time of smartphones, but believe me they can be a convenience. Figure out about 20-25 things that you think you will need to communicate, like, "can you drive me to (insert location)" - write it in you native language on one side and in the local language on the other. Use a 3x5 card or smaller. If in a bind, just show the card. Easy.
- Of course if you have a smartphone and have a data plan or WiFi access you can use one of many translation apps. Believe it or not they work great. With voice recognition they are even better. I use iTranslate, although there are many others. Even Google has a translation algorithm that can be used. One app I used in Paris that was amazing (and can be used offline) for reading foreign text is Word Lens. I saw several people using it and it extremely useful for reading signs, maps, menus, etc.
- Get the name & contact number of a local resident in the city you're visiting. In today's social media connected world it's really easy to find a contact. Whether on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Flickr, etc. Just reach out to your contacts or post a general post that you will be traveling to (insert country) and make a contact. Reach out to your friends who have been there and get any contacts they might have. Once you get a contact reach out to them and ask them if you can use them as an emergency translation or guide service. Get their phone number or friend them on FB. If you get into a jam simply text them or send them a FB post. I do this on most of my trips (even in the USA) and my experience is that people (especially photographers) are eager to help.
- Visit a "tourist" area. Why? Because there are tourist and someone there will speak your language. Same goes for American restaurants. I mean seriously, do you think only locals go to McDonalds in Berlin, Beijing or Paris....nope, didn't think so.
- Visit or hang out near a university. Often younger adults will have a grasp of English. Why? Because of social media and the internet.
- Don't be an "ugly American". I've traveled all over and you can spot them a mile (kilometer) away. They're loud, they're not thinking local, they expect things to operate just like at home, etc. Believe me, even I shy away from an ugly American when I'm traveling even if they do need help. Stay calm, be respectful, and talk in a conversational tone. The locals will know immediately you don't speak their language, and if you're not rude most will try to help.
- Take someone who speaks the language. That's one of the great advantages of taking a photography workshop like the one hosted by Valerie. Built in translator.
- If all else fails, do like I do, SMILE & say "Hi". It's amazing how much farther you will get when you are friendly.
There are LOTS of other tips but the above has almost always worked for me. I also realize this is all common sense, so there's that. Using these tips however, there is only a few times I've gotten in somewhat of a bind...once in Vietnam & once in China, but those are different stories... So just enjoy yourself, be prepared and grab your camera and capture something amazing. You'll remember it forever.