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How to Approach People When Taking Photos in SE Asia

I’ve wanted to write something on this topic for ages. To be honest, this is probably the question that I hear most from my students: how should I approach people to take their photos?

For most people traveling in Vietnam, and to be more precise, for most Westerners travelling in SE Asia, taking photos of people can feel like you’re intruding into their private lives. Well, I have a few recommendations on how to approach this.

First, when people tell me they do not want to intrude, and enter people’s private spaces, this is said and thought from a Westerner’s perspective. Indeed, private space is very different here compared to the US, for example. Here, leave the door of your house open and neighbors will start coming in to borrow chilly, pinch your kids cheeks or just come in to see what’s going on. People will hug you and walk with their arm around your shoulder 10 minutes after meeting for the first time. And after only 1 minute, the questions begin: “Where are you from? How old are you? Are you married? Do you have kids? Do you make a lot of money? Etc…” The concept of privacy differs for Westerners and locals.

So how does one actually get close to people?

Well, it is all about the photographer’s attitude toward their subject(s). Let’s say I’m eating snails on my terrace in Paris on a Sunday afternoon (as all French people do on Sunday afternoon) and this foreign guy comes in to see what I’m up to. My initial thought would be: “what the hell is this guy doing?” But this guy, obviously not French due to his accent and poor French language skills, comes to talk to me.

He looks very excited and is eager to ask me about what I am eating. He manages to speak a little French and asks if these are snails. He tells me he heard about this French tradition but never actually tried it. Of course I offer him one to try, and the guy tries it, looking very satisfied after consuming one of the most famous French culinary treats (this is a bit tongue in cheek - I am French and I’ve eaten snails 3 times in my life, this is not something we have for breakfast!). He seems very happy and gives me a thumbs up, with a big smile, and asks where he can buy some.

Then I think: “Wow this guy is cool, he is ready to try this disgusting looking dish and seems to like it. He is pretty open-minded to be doing such a thing. And he makes me smile with his thumbs up and bad accent.”

So when that guy reveals a camera up and indicated that he wants to take a photo to remember this moment, “sure,” I say! We have had a good time discussing snails and watching his weird face when swallowing his first snail. And you know what? If you can send me the photo as well, I would love it! 

But this takes a lot of energy, and time. You do not always have the luxury of time when traveling. Yes, taking photos of people takes time, unless you walk to people, snap a shot and walk away. But then you are kind of an A**hole.

Learn the basics of a language, and when I say basics I mean learn 3 words: Hello / Beautiful / Thank you. Come to people, say hello, at least (I meet a lot of people who have been traveling in Vietnam for over a week and still do not know how to say hello). Try to communicate with the people using your hands and smile (Oh yes, the smile does EVERYTHING in SE Asia). Get interested and curious about them, what they are doing, things surrounding them.

Once the contact has been made and there is a good vibe going on, maybe it is time to take out your camera. You do not need to ask to take a photo, you have been talking to them for 10 minutes with a camera as big as their pet dog in your hands. They know what’s up.

After you’ve snapped a photo, show them and say “beautiful” in their own language. You’ll usually end up with 10 people around you laughing and how their neighbors look on a photo. Then it is time to say “thank you.”

This is something one needs to realize when traveling: for people living in developing countries, it is not obvious what we are doing with our photos. People who have never been out of their villages may see cameras as something used by the government to document the population of a country. People just don’t know we love taking photos just because we love it! So one needs to make this clear, explaining we love them because we think they are beautiful.

I have been watching carefully which method works best when going out on a photo excursion. “Hello can I take your picture?” never works. People either do not speak English, so they won’t understand and walk away, or you are in an area with a lot of tourists and they will think “please not again!” and walk away.  

Once again, approaching people and getting them to open up is all about your attitude. It takes a lot of energy and smiles, but anyone can get there. Be friendly, act like a local and smile a lot!  


Etienne Bossot is a travel photographer who has been based in Hoi an for 7 years. He runs the popular Hoi An Photo tour & Workshop and leads photography tours across South East Asia. Make sure you check out his photo workshops specially designed for expats in Vietnam:

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