It's very easy to make assumptions about people and places before we actually experience them and this can, at times, get in the way of our creative choices. As photographers, especially travel photographers, we often need to take chances and push ourselves out of our comfort zones in order to capture the best images, at the right times.
Travel photography (opens in new tab) has many unique challenges, both practical and technical, but we also have to consider personal safety. Not all locations are policed to the same degree and we can be forgiven for selecting our next destination based on crime figures found on Google or horror stories we read on forums. There is always a danger of creating a false preconception however and the truth about a place is often very different from how we imagined it might be.
This was the case for Bella Falk when she was planning a trip to South America. What she discovered when she got there reminded her that taking chances and being willing to communicate your intentions is paramount.
Bella Falk is a travel photographer, documentary director and writer from London. She writes for the multi-award-winning travel blog Passport & Pixels and won the Best Photography award at the Travel Media Awards 2020. Her images and articles have been published by National Geographic Traveller, BBC Travel and Lonely Planet among others.
Before I left for Guatemala, I searched for advice on photography there. How was I, a lone woman carrying expensive camera gear, going to cope in a country reportedly rife with armed robberies and gang warfare?
The warnings were stark, with tales of tourists having earrings ripped from their lobes in broad daylight or held up at gunpoint while walking back to their hotels. Even if I didn’t get robbed, most articles agreed that Guatemalans are private people who don’t like being photographed. So if you’re thinking about going to a market and waving a DSLR about, don’t expect to be welcomed.
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As a travel photographer who loves taking street portraits, I began to panic. Was I about to make a huge mistake? Was I about to lug all my equipment to the other side of the world, only to be too terrified to get it out?
For the first week, that’s exactly what happened. I’d come prepared, with locks for my backpack, tape covering the branding on my camera and gold standard insurance. But when I stepped outside, I felt eyes on me. Every street seemed dark and malicious, with grasping criminals lurking in the shadows waiting to pounce. If I dared to pull my camera out, I only managed a few snaps before quickly putting it away again.
The turning point came when I found myself alone in Livingston, a fishing town on Guatemala’s Caribbean coast, with five hours until the return boat and nothing to do. But I’m never bored with my camera, so I took a deep breath, slung it around my neck and went to see what I could find.
People stared, but I realised it was with curiosity, not avarice. And when I smiled and said hello, they turned out to be friendly and welcoming. Many were happy to chat; others were willing to let me take a photo. I spent half an hour photographing fishermen sorting their catch – all they asked in return was a bottle of Coke for their thirsty work (I gladly obliged).
It was the same all over Guatemala. From the traditional artisans who welcomed me into their workshops to the bus worker who invited me up onto the roof to see the view and the worshippers at a sacred Maya site who shared their prayers with me, I found that although people were shy at first, showing interest in them soon led to memorable moments and stunning images.
Bad things do happen, so it’s important to take precautions, but you don’t get the best photos without pushing yourself and taking a few risks. In Guatemala, stepping out of my comfort zone with my DSLR in hand led to a much richer experience than I would have had without.
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