Whenever one is traveling, where ever you may be, it's a good idea to have one's camera ready at all times. When we were in Laos this last December we traveled to Luang Prabang with my wife's mother and aunt. Here they've both lived in Laos their entire lives, but had never been to Luang Prabang, the old royal capitol. We were there for three days and on one day took them to the Pak Ou Caves and went by boat up the Mekong River, about an hour and a half boat ride. On the way back the boatman stopped by his village to drop off some laundry for his wife. When we pulled up to the shore there was a large group of women, men and children on the shore, with some of the women washing clothes and some of the women and children bathing. I saw this one young woman and thought there was the potential of a good photo. If we had been just a group of tourists in a boat stopping to take photos, most of the people would have been wary and on guard. But as the boatman was related to them and I was the only foreigner, the villagers more or less ignored us. But I still had to be careful and watched the girl and gradually raised my camera, a Canon 40D with a 70-300mm f 4-5.6 IS USM Canon lens shooting at a focal length of 220 mm at 400 ISO.
You can imagine if you were bathing, or swimming at a river or creek, and some stranger came by with a camera and started taking photos of you, you probably wouldn't be too comfortable, or possibly even angry. Taking photos of people is an art and I think a good photographer takes a lot into consideration when taking photos of people. Some of the best photos are spontaneous and not staged and a good photographer anticipates the moment that will best express what the photographer has in "mind." You don't want to be rude, but at the same time you can't be timid. It's a fine line and I've learned to be less self conscious and try to establish some kind of rapport with my subject, even if it's very fleeting.
I remember reading the book, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind by Shunryu Suzuki, and sometimes reflect how as a photographer, some of my best photos were taken when I felt like I was "one" with the subject I was photographing. I really believe that in taking photos of people you have to be in a state of mind where you connect with your subject, consciously, or more likely, unconsciously. As Daniel Goleman writes in Social Intelligence, the New Science of Human Relationships, "We are born to connect... and how we connect with others has unimagined significance." And I think about that a lot when I'm traveling and photographing people.
So, to continue the story of this photograph, as soon as the girl lathered up her hair I raised my camera and took some shots. I was maybe twenty feet away and only got about three shots when she noticed me and became self conscious and turned away. But I was "lucky" and I got the shot above which I feel captures an essence of Laos that I feel is captivating and "timeless." My wife's sister's boyfriend, who is an artist, painted a series of paintings for us, including a set of three based on this young woman washing her hair. We will be selling the paintings in our online store beginning this spring. One in the series of three you can see here. What do you think?