I’m not particularly good at photography, and I know that because everyone in my family is – and several of my friends in Malawi are. They have a talent for seeing things that I don’t. I can be on the same trip as a good photographer, see the same people and landscapes, even point my camera in the same direction, and their photos will be more interesting. If I end up with a nice photograph, it’s because the scenery is so beautiful and I have a great camera.
Beyond having a good eye and good equipment, I think you also have to be brave. The good photographers that I know aren’t afraid to ask people to take their photos. While it might be tempting to hover in the background, hoping to capture someone’s beauty or culture with the zoom, the good photographers are framing their pictures and creating portraits that give you a real smile, or a shy gaze, or a tough-guy stare.
It is so easy to get so excited about all of the new sights, smells, and experiences that we want to capture it all on film. To me, a market where beautiful women in bright chitenjes are selling colorful fruit and vegetables is a exciting place to take pictures. To the women, it’s just Tuesday.
Photographing people in Malawi can sometimes be tricky. There aren’t as many tourists here as there are in Tanzania or South Africa, so you tend to get one of two responses when you ask to take a photo:
(1) Hell no, crazy mzungu (of course, they are much more polite, but you know that’s what they are thinking)
(2) yes please! take as many as you like! where would like me to stand? will you get one with my friends over here? wait, let me show you my kung fu moves…
The key is to always ask. Some people say no and some people ask for money. But you can understand why people might say no or look at you like you’re a crazy mzungu when you photograph a market scene. I try to imagine what it would be like if someone was photographing me while I was shopping at Target. I would find it a little bit awkward.
But when people do oblige you and you take a few photos, the best part is showing them to the subject. The easiest way to make a crowd of kids laugh is to show them the pictures you just took. It’s nice to see the pride in someone’s face when they see how beautiful they look or how acrobatic those kung fu moves are. At the end of the day, while it will be great to go home and frame a few photos, the best part of photography in Malawi is the interaction that you have with people.
Side note – seriously, it is virtually impossible to get a photo of a group of kids who aren’t doing kung fu moves. I think it’s from all of the cheap martial arts movies imported from China, but it’s big here. Very big.