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Tips About My Addiction: Photographing Faces

By: Peggy Anne McNulty

Date Posted: 2000-10-21

As I wander about Okinawa, I notice the faces of people who seem to carry the wisdom of many years. For many, the wrinkles that they wear furrow deep into their skin. Are they really as old as they look, or has life simply etched its trail of years harshly upon their cheeks and foreheads? Yet, each face tells a story as I pass them along the streets or roadways of distant towns. Faces of workers in the field, faces of women threshing sugar cane, old men on bikes along 58, older women riding bikes attached to large wooden boxes trailing behind. They own the land (and the road) most of the time. As I pass alongside them, I take care not to get too close-for it is clear that they are free to weave along in “their” path, letting cars be the watchdogs of their safety.

One might get annoyed, but I enjoy the extra moments to imagine their age, or to simply study their profiles. I have not stopped at simply looking, although that in itself is intriguing. The photo addiction that I possess has prompted me to venture into a new dimension of "capturing the face" on film for my album of memories from life in Okinawa. These are some tips on how one might get started if suddenly hit with similar urges to obtain these treasured glossies.

Pretend you are taking a wonderful view shot that just happens to be above the heads of the people you really want to shoot. In many cases, depending on what is really behind them, you can pull this attack shot off very efficiently, especially if you own and can operate a zoom lens with a lens capacity of 200-300 mm. Don't expect to obtain a quality print from the disposable Kodak varieties that are readily available. I usually let my children experiment with those and sometimes just “forget” to develop the film. For the most part, the quality is not what I desire, but the children have fun and hardly ever notice that you never picked the pictures up! This trickery will end at around age 8, when you might be asked if the pictures are back yet. And we all know how long mail takes to reach Okinawa, so you still have an out.

Children dragged along for a photo adventure can be a great distracter for the photo opportunity of a lifetime. My greatest shots have been taken by dragging one, two or three of my ten-year-olds as forefront disguises. You can easily stage a child to pose. Taking time of course to give them ample instructions will add to the distraction. After a while, anyone around will tire of watching and the field is yours. Now spend a little time scanning to the left and right and above where you’ve planted the kids. Focus on the shot you really wanted in the first place. You need to clue the children in on the game, or a rather restless child might make the scene difficult. My children enjoy pretending to be the subject of pretense and will often “ham” it up quite nicely to add to the distraction. Once child(ren) are in place, move the kids back and forth to suit your needs and zoom in to get the choice shot. Get the picture focused just right while giving the children instructions to get out of the way if needed. Staged shots are not my preferred photos. By bringing children to the scene, faces with natural expressions can be obtained rather easily. An occasional soda purchased along the roadside, a bag of chips and a hundred yen piece is a great reward for the actors.

This is also an ideal time to capture some great candids of your own kids, when they least expect it. Candid shots show the true personality. I much prefer those to the ones with cheesy grins and yellowed incisors.

When not traveling with children, I have been so bold as to ask permission to take a photo, using gestures, smiles and at least two bows with my limited Japanese greeting of the day. In many cases this has worked, but it’s difficult explaining that you’d rather not have the “Nixon-styled” peace symbol of the seventies held up near their face. It's a given and unless you can zoom in to avoid the fingers, you will always have two digits displayed. I have a treasured photo of a farmer from Tori whose age and hard life were reflected in his hands and fingernails, so this familiar gesture became a bonus. Many times, I pretend that I've taken the picture and then wait until the face relaxes from a seemingly forced smile and the hands drop. Take more than one photo when permission is given. After the first click, most people assume you are done and on many occasions it is the second or third shot that is the prize.

In my experience of photographing close-ups I have found that many more men are willing to agree to the adventure than women. Women typically present themselves in a more shy fashion, however, with a few more bows and smiles I have gotten older women to agree to the experience. Young women love to be photographed and enjoy the attention. I have also found that although I don't use the “money tactic” often, a single five-hundred yen piece has brought on a sudden agreement of consent to be photographed on many occasions. In many of the third world countries that I have visited, you will be expected to pay your subjects a small price to be photo'd. It is the norm in countries such as Egypt, South America, Haiti and Russia. In other countries such as San Lucas and parts of the Caribbean, posing and money is generally refused. I have not found this to be the expectation in Okinawa, nor in Mainland Japan and if handled poorly, might be considered an insult.

Another way to obtain good face shots is to purchase items from the person you are interested in photographing. At carnivals and roadside stands buying fruits or corn dogs, you can capture some unique elderly women or men involved in their business. They often welcome a photo after a purchase or two. (You can always throw the corn dog away later).

Photos of children seem to be well accepted by Japanese parents who rarely refuse this opportunity. I have taken pictures of children without asking and have noticed the proud parent smiling and bowing in thanks. If you travel to China with children of your own, be ready. The Chinese will hand you their camera and ask you to take their picture with your children-over and over again. As a parent, there is a certain code of pride and honor associated with having one's child requested for a photo shoot. As a Pediatric Nurse Practitioner, photos of children are always a wonderful addition to my office or home and are always admired. As a child visiting China, it gets old fast!

So, the rules are simple. For the most part, ask when appropriate. In a large crowd, like the recent tug of war or Eisa Festivals, you are home free. You can zoom into wonderful faces without any objection because so many people are filming that no one really notices or cares. It’s expected. Parades and school events are another way to master this talent if you are too shy to venture out for a one-on-one encounter.

When the photo is simply "too good to miss", just go for it and zoom away, keeping the invasion of privacy to a minimum. Once while touring the island of Mykonos in Greece, I staged a shot that simply was impossible. I waited an hour until finally, the elderly lady got up from her chair in the corner of a shop and started to head home. I followed her for blocks until she stopped to open her gate. Dressed in black from head to toe, she was the National Geographic centerfold I had only dreamt about. Feeling a bit assertive, I took some of my finest photos. While my husband felt a bit sorry for the old lady, I was too busy stealing a moment of her life, etched on one of my most treasured prints.

In most cases in Okinawa, you will be greeted with a pleasant smile and a nod of approval or an embarrassed and shy refusal. I have tamed my assertiveness since Greece and while I respect their desire not to be photo'd, I am not denied the enjoyment of their faces, sketched in memory forever in my mind.

Be creative and enjoy this unique chance to be an artist without the talent of drawing a line. My Dad was a wonderful watercolorist in New York. He once looked at my photos and denied that they were art. I couldn’t disagree more. Even now, as he glances from above, I am sure he'd agree that to capture the moments and faces in life and transpose it to film takes the eye of an artist and the sensitivity of someone who truly appreciates living.

Everyone taking pictures has a style reflected through their lens. Distance shots are wonderful if you feel less assertive in your approach. Have fun. It can be your natural “Prozac” and a release of a tense day, week or tour of duty. It's my golf, my massage, my jogging event and my way of experiencing life through he eyes of the people who live and work this land we have been privileged to enjoy and be part of. Click, click.

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