Photographing AsiaPhotographing Asia


A Photographer's Notebook

Dean Barrett



By now, nearly everyone in the world has photographed everyone else. It must be true to say that there exist literally billions of slides and prints stored in closets and digital photographs stored on computers taken for “home consumption,” almost all of which will share the same fate: a month of active interest, several years of neglect, and, finally, an ignominious destruction during a day of spring cleaning or else deletion during a day of hard drive cleaning.

Such “family” slides and prints and digital photographs are similar to novels and books of poetry published by “vanity” presses; they’re lots of fun and the expense is generally limited; but their value outside an immediate circle of family and friends is negligible.

Yet with the advanced technology of modern cameras, and all that the wonders of digital photography have to offer in simplicity and convenience, anyone with basic intelligence, a modicum of talent, decent equipment, and the willingness and time to practice should have little trouble producing very respectable results.

And once he has devoured books on how best to pose a subject and read articles declaiming which lens works best in which situation, or spent hard-earned cash on the latest cableless wi-fi camera which sends photographs to his computer even as they are taken, the day may come when the photographer sets out to show what he can do. How he too can return with top quality photos. Perhaps on a vacation to Asia. But when he returns and sends out his best work to editors, he wonders why he cannot get his work published in magazines and elsewhere. Why his best efforts are rejected. Why despite hours of practice, lots of book and internet reading, closets full of expensive equipment, the latest software, the sharpest LCD screen and an abundance of megapixels, and even a bit of talent, magazine editors dare to suggest that his results still lack the professional touch.

Why? Because the professional shoots not a haphazard collection of slides or prints, but rather a photo-essay; as with a novelist, he has a theme. At some point before or during his journey, he knows what he is trying to say, and he has attempted to know well what he is shooting. He is, in other words, a professional traveler with a plan, not a tourist with a camera.

There are, of course, many different kinds of photography: Advertising, corporate, destination, fashion, etc. But people on tours or those traveling alone are not usually aware that professional photographers make more money in a few hours by photographing the interiors of a hotel or a few food dishes for a restaurant than they will make in a few days of “editorial” photography.

No matter. The man or woman with a camera who travels is at least as interested in the “experience” as he is in the amount of money his photographs may eventually bring in. But he does want to be published.

Over the decades, I have been mainly a writer but have also done my fair share of photography for books and magazines. And I have discovered that there are certain characteristics successful photographers share, consciously or otherwise. And the characteristics may at first seem contradictory, because professional photographers are often very rude yet extremely sensitive. They tell a myriad of lies yet search for the truth; again, like a fine novelist.

The photographer is rude because he knows that if he politely asks permission to photograph a person, that person will either say “no” (in which case all is lost) or say “yes” (which usually results in a stilted and posed photograph). Must of the time, the best photograph is one in which the subject simply continues with his or her work. The resultant shot is natural and uncontrived. Needless to say, many “subjects” resent the photographer’s apparent lack of manners in not asking permission before shooting.

In London, I photographed two policemen standing together facing my camera. When I had finished, one said, “Wouldn’t it be more polite for you to ask permission first?” I explained that subjects who give permission usually stiffen up for a shot rendering many shots useless. He pointed out that they had in fact stiffened up, anyway. I replied that “for this shot, that’s perfect.” He smiled and (I think jokingly) said, “Seems to me then we should be getting paid for being such good subjects.”

Another example of “rudeness” can be seen in my photographs of Hong Kong’s Aberdeen fishing village. I hired a sampan and was rowed between the long rows of longliners, gillnetters, houseboats, and other sampans. I used a 135 mm. telephoto lens to capture scenes on deck, including boat families eating dinner, regardless of their obvious preference for no photography. It is natural enough to take a few shots of life on deck aboard Chinese fishing vessels and, after all, from my own rented sampan I had a legal right to point my camera in any direction. Yet, suppose you and your family were just sitting down to dinner and a photographer appeared at the window and started clicking away. What would be your reaction?

And, again, while photographing the colorful Bun Festival on Hong Kong’s Cheung Chau Island, an angry policeman ordered me back to the press stand with “all the others.” He was merely doing his job. But the point was, I was also doing mine; because if I had merely stayed in the area marked out for the press by the police, i.e., with “all the others,” then my shots would also have looked like “all the others.” And that is no way to get outstanding shots. Rudeness, even flouting of regulations, is sometimes necessary. There are times in travel (or “scenic”) photography when, alas, “nice guys finish last.”

At the same time, the rudest of photographers may be extremely sensitive. He is sensitive to light, to facial expressions, to beauty, to unusual angles, to a situation which may shape up to offer an interesting shot, and to the cultural milieu in which he is photographing. He is sensitive in human relations and looks for the emotions which give any situation (or photograph) its power. It is precisely in his attempt to capture this ineffable quality that he may have to rudely disobey regulations or the preference of the subject.

Professional photographers are often professional liars; great photographers are often great liars. To get that perfect shot, a photographer should be willing to promise anyone anything. “Of course, if you let me near the procession I promise not to actually photograph the queen herself.” “Of course I promise to send you the originals.” “Of course there’s no film in the camera.” “I’m sorry, I didn’t see the sign.”

The irony, however, is that photographers lie so easily and so blatantly precisely because they are, or should be, interested in capturing the truth. Whether a shot is posed or natural is immaterial; whether those in the photograph have been paid to remain still is also unimportant. The question to ask is “Does the photograph reflect the truth of the situation?” No one should expect truth from a photographer’s lips, but truth should definitely appear in the photographs he takes. It is in the photograph where the story is told, and a photo-essay should reflect honestly the moods of an area and its inhabitants. Remember, no editor or art director cares how many lies a photographer told or how many murders he committed to get his shots.

Particularly in Asia, with its rich heritages, myriad cultures, and different levels of economic growth, opportunities for pictures with “juxtaposition of lifestyles” abound. In Hong Kong, everyone’s favorite used to be the shot of white-clad British cricket players playing on the green lawn beneath the Bank of China slogan of “Long Life to Chairman Mao.” Alas, Chairman Mao is gone, the Cricket Club has moved, and Hong Kong is once again part of China; but the alert photographer will search out his or her own “juxtaposition” shots. Of course the classic in this genre is the photographer who, asked to photograph and to capture the essence of India in only one shot, took a beautiful picture of a bullock cart being pulled by oxen. Inside the cart, being transported to a nearby military base, was a rocket. That’s “juxtaposition”!

A photographer – particularly a travel photographer – can also learn a great deal about people of different countries. Thais, for example, smile willingly for photographs and often ask that their picture be taken. Indonesians sometimes rush into photographs (which they will never even see) as if to be photographed is a means to Nirvana. In India, a young Indian man explained to a photographer friend of mine how his class was very interested in photography and studying it every day in school. When asked what cameras he used, the boy replied that the school had none with which students could practice – lack of funds had resulted in “photography” through lectures and notes.

In Hong Kong, where people are not overly friendly toward photographers, the story is told of the journalist who walked casually in front of a butcher’s shop to line up the shot on his twin lens reflex. When he again passed the shot and looked down into his camera to take the picture, what he saw was the butcher coming at him with cleaver in hand. And China’s elderly still fear the “box-that-captures-the-spirits.”

Many people seem to think that professional photographers have excellent dispositions. In fact, photographers are always friendly and as non-aggressive as the situation permits because, should they become involved in an altercation, win, lose, or draw, all that expensive equipment might be smashed. A photographer’s death is regrettable but understandable; but a smashed wide-angle Leica lens! Aiya!

Once a photographer becomes familiar with a place and its people, he should be able to develop his own means of getting the shots he needs. For example, when Singapore was modernizing, there was less and less of the old and the colorful. Nevertheless, I found that by locating and following brush-sellers and their carts I was inevitably taken through the most colorful and least modernized parts of the city. For it was only the most traditional who still buy brushes and cleansers from carts rather than from supermarkets. This technique still works in several Southeast Asian cities.

In China the technique I developed for photographing an old man’s beautiful face or a young girl’s charms was to boldly approach a family group and start photographing the inevitable baby. As Chinese are extremely proud of their children, this immediately put the group in a good mood, and I then switched lenses and/or subject to get the shots I had wanted all along.

One rule photographers hear again and again is “if a shot is worth taking, it’s worth taking twice.” By all means, once you’ve traveled thousands of miles to a place, don’t be afraid to use a great deal of film, digital or otherwise. That is the least of a photographer’s investment. But rules of this nature must be adhered to selectively. If photographing wall paintings or carvings in a temple, for example, why photograph five twice instead of ten once?

The fellow with his box of slides or his album of prints or his website of photos may indeed be the biggest bore of the 21st century but it needn’t be so. The results of good photography habits should be good photography and maybe even some additional income, not a reputation for being a bore. Indeed, the best professional photographers themselves are seldom boring. They are extremely intelligent people with strong personalities who treat each assignment with the seriousness it deserves. I have had the privilege of knowing a few and even working with some as their writer on assignment: Kishor Parekh, Dinshaw Balsara, Brian Brake. They all had colorful personalities and a real dedication to photography. Photographers a notch below their level, I noticed, tended to talk much more about the various cameras and gadgets of photography, rather than the culture of their subjects.

Pencils don’t make great writers and cameras don’t make great photographers but it is possible to achieve a great deal of professionalism and pleasure with a camera. As the equipment becomes more and more automatic, the photographer is sometimes treated as more of a mechanic than an artist. Even advertising agencies may see him as a necessary evil. But the challenge to produce unusual, outstanding work is great and professional photographers accept it without complaint.

Photographers may face many hazards: rising costs, unrealistic deadlines, client demands, and client beliefs that the darkroom or some sort of photoshop software is where “the pictures are really created.” And almost every photographer of any repute is constantly plagued by those in need of slides for brochures or booklets who ask sweetly if the photographer can “help them out.” In other words, will the photographer allow a poor struggling multi-million dollar corporation or travel agency or hotel chain to use his work for free.

I have never been able to understand why people think they have the right to expect professional photographers to lend their slides without charge. I always ask such people if when they go into a clothing store or a grocery store to make a purchase if they also ask the clerk to “help them out” or if they expect to pay for goods and services. I also ask them if they are working on salary or simply “helping out” their employers by working six days a week 9 to 5. Needless to say, such queries invariably provoke less than friendly reactions. Which, as any professional would say, is fine. Let someone else “help them out.”

Perhaps the most confusing thing a man with a camera can do is to ask a professional photographer for advice. It seems an invariable rule that no two professional photographers ever agree on anything. They will not agree on what is the best equipment or the best film or anything else. Just to reconfirm this, I asked one photographer if there was any difference between Western and Asian light. He replied that Asian light is special and unique and to capture it successfully takes long practice. I asked a second photographer the same question and he replied that was all nonsense, there was no difference, and even if there were, “that’s what light meters are for.” So it goes…

But all agree that there is such a thing as a “photographer’s eye.” Perhaps it was best expressed by the photographer Dinshaw Balsara: “When I shoot a subject, I have a positive image in my mind – I see the shape, the composition, and I visualize how the photo will turn out. My art training has helped me develop the 'eye’. And no real photographer can be without the eye. That’s the difference between a professional and an amateur. An amateur has flabby eyes – many things are happening around him, but flabby eyes don’t recognize these wonders.”

I would add two points to this. A photographer mustn’t have flabby ears either. And a photographer must know the psychology of people.

To illustrate the first point, when I was traveling in the Thai countryside and wanted photographs of female construction workers for my first book, The Girls of Thailand, I would hear the sounds of construction from somewhere not too far away. They were muffled sounds of hammers and hand tools, not jackhammers, etc.

And as I walked slowly toward the construction site, I was already nonchalantly changing lenses and deciding on my approach. Would it be best to speak Thai or to act as a tourist who knew nothing about Thailand? And as I got closer, and I heard them beginning to talk about the farang coming, I would smile and take a shot of the building site, after which I would close in on my prey: a lovely dark-skinned beauty with shining eyes. In other words, whenever you are in a foreign land and about to photograph people, plan ahead and tailor your approach to best achieve your goal.  In other words, anticipate and prepare.

The above is also an example of using psychology and strategy to get the shot you need. When I was photographing Thailand: Land of Beautiful Women I would sit outside a bar on Soi Cowboy and buy a drink or two for women working in that bar. Then, after a bit of small talk, I would reach in my pocket, pull out my camera and place it on the counter. But I went on observing the passersby and made no reference to the camera.

But I knew that Thais are a very curious people. And, sure enough, within a minute or two, one of the bargirls would ask what that was for. And I would say, “Oh, I just plan on photographing tourists if they look interesting.” A minute might pass before one of them would say something like, “Well, what about us?”

I would feign a bit of surprise but then say, “Oh, all right, just stand out there in the lane.” And of course once she did that all her friends wanted to get into the picture as well. But had I first simply gone to the bar and taken out a camera and begun snapping away, I would have been much less welcome and might never have got them to pose. If you would photograph humans, know human nature.

And last but not least, what of the cumulative effect of all this photography on the “subject peoples” being photographed? Camera booklets tell us that when we take photographs “the light causes some extremely delicate chemical changes to take place in the film. The resultant ‘latent image’ is not entirely stable. Especially in hot and humid climates it can gradually degenerate.”

I once watched a lovely Balinese girl on her way to a temple balance a large basket of flowers and other offerings on her head. Beside her, sweating profusely from heat and exertion, a foreign tourist, decked out in de rigueur flowery shirt and shorts, attempted to get several photographs of the girl as she walked. He ran alongside, snapping photographs as quickly as he could. Miraculously, the girl’s balance and poise remained unaffected and unaltered by this onslaught.

But as photography is an intrinsic part of the seasonal tourist migrations around the globe, I wondered for how long Bali and other areas will remain unaltered and unaffected by foreign invaders, each armed with one or two camera bodies, several lenses, a flash, and a somewhat superficial understanding as to what it is they’re pointing their cameras at.

Because what the experts neglect to tell us is that when, day in and day out, thousands of tourists take pictures of people and places which have been photographed thousands of times before, the act of photography causes some extremely delicate cultural changes to take place in a society. The resultant hybrid commercial-cultural image is not entirely stable. Especially in hot and humid climates it can gradually degenerate.

That darling little Meo hilltribe just outside Chiang Mai, Thailand, that was so unspoiled not so long ago, has now set up stalls lined with cheap and gaudy souvenirs for busloads of tourists. And the children of Hong Kong’s Aberdeen fishing villages are no longer interested in posing cutely for photographs unless their palms are crossed with silver. And Thailand’s famous ladyboys who pose with busloads of Japanese tourists between shows expect to be paid.

Inevitable? Perhaps. But I often wonder if the very individualistic pioneers of photography ever conceived of the massive industries related to photography their research and development would spawn. And did they ever foresee the potentially volatile situations which a simple single lens reflex can lead a photographer into? Or the way in which freedom fighters in places like North Korea use a camera to show the world the horror – and again that word – the truth of what is happening.

Finally, Susan Sontag has noted that “each still photograph is a privileged moment turned into a slim object that one can keep and look at again” and also that “snapshots are souvenirs of daily life.”

For those who already know enough to take extra lens caps and batteries and battery packs along with them when they travel, here are ten suggestions for anyone interested in improving their “souvenirs of daily life.”


    1. Ignore prohibitions against photography which make little or no sense; obey those which do – particularly those reflecting cultural values.
    2. Don’t spend hours talking about equipment; get out and photograph.
    3. Don’t ever lend your work to a commercial enterprise for free; you work hard to get results – expect to be paid for them. Lending photographs for free is the mark of an amateur, not a professional.
    4. Learn as much as you can about the people and places you’ll be photographing before you arrive.
    5. Make certain your photographs tell a story, and tell it in an interesting, dramatic way.
    6. Relax. Travel-photography should be an enjoyable pastime, not a desperate search for unique photographs. Remember, life (and photography) is meant to be enjoyed.
    7. Whenever possible, avoid group tours if you hope to sell your photographs later. The areas tour buses cover have already appeared in dozens of magazines and travel sections of newspapers.
    8. Study the photographs taken by professionals which appear in high quality magazines. Why were they published? What qualities “sold” them to an editor or art director?
    9. Don’t spend hours reading magazine articles on photography; get out and photograph.
    10. Get out and photograph.
    11. Special note number 11 and perhaps the most important: Just when you think you won't need to bring your camera is when you'll miss the best shots of all.  Bring your camera!

Copyright 2015 Dean Barrett