Photography Travelogues: In The Shadow of Mount Ararat
June 21, 2012 4 Comments
Mount Ararat in Turkey is steeped in history and tradition. Just prior to this photo being taken, we were on a mountain opposite Ararat viewing what many believe are the remains of Noah’s Ark. If not Noah’s, it’s certainly in the shape of a huge ‘boat like’ structure, but how it came to be resting several thousand feet above the valley floor, no one could tell me!
These are Kurdish women and we assumed this was their village. The main road is behind us and we had stopped to admire the view of Mount Ararat. The air was so clear that even distant objects seemed very close.
However, just below the road, our guide Mehmet spotted these women having a chat. He walked down and started talking to them. They seemed to be friendly enough, enjoying a laugh, so I wandered down too. I sat off to the side, not able to understand a word that was said. Mehmet later explained that he didn’t understand much of their dialect either, and perhaps that was why they were all laughing so much.
Mehmet spent probably 10 minutes talking to the women before he asked if he could take a photograph (our guide is also a keen photographer).
More laughter followed and the matriarch acquiesced, but the point to take away is the process Mehmet went through.
Rather than just stumbling on these people and pulling out a camera straight away, Mehmet spent time talking to them. This is far less confrontational. Imagine if you were sitting in your front yard and some Kurdish tourists walked by and started photographing you? You mightn’t be so worried if you were in a public place like a market or a showground, but in your own home, you’d probably be a little concerned about who these people were.
By spending time talking to people, you can allay their fears. Once they knew we were a bunch of photographers from Australia, just having a holiday in Turkey, suddenly we’re no longer a threat. They know something about us.
This doesn’t necessarily mean they want us to take their photograph, of course. The woman in the background didn’t want the camera pointed at her, although she changed her mind when Mehmet offered them a small monetary thank you.
Note, we didn’t offer to pay them up front. All the photos were taken first and it was only when he was leaving that Mehmet offered the matriarch some money. He did this because he knew how tough life could be in this part of the world and he just wanted to show his appreciation.
I don’t have anything against paying to take a photograph. It’s true that it can change the nature of the relationship between the photographer and the subject, but for photographs like these, it’s not really that important. I’m not working as a documentary photographer or a photojournalist; rather I want to take an environmental portrait that shows how these women live.
However, there may be times when the subjects are used to being photographed (many people in cities and at popular tourist destinations are quite savvy) and ask for a small contribution. Personally, I think this is a fair exchange.
Everything about this scene is as we found it, the only difference is that instead of the women focusing on themselves, they are looking up at Mehmet and another photographer who is standing camera-left out of frame. Yet by having the matriarch conversing with Mehmet, and the other women reacting, the image begins to tell a story.
As there were 10 of us taking photographs (Mehmet was quite amazing in organising this), we only had time for a few frames each. However, shooting with a wide-angle lens, I was able to position myself to the side and allow the matriarch to focus on the others while I quietly clicked away.
A wide-angle lens is often considered taboo for portraiture. The reason is because a wide-angle lens stretches subjects towards the edge of the frame, making them look fatter and heavier than they really are. However, if you don’t place your subjects on the edges of the frame, then the stretching doesn’t happen (well, it doesn’t happen to them).
In defence of the wide-angle for environmental portraiture, the expansive angle-of-view provides context for the subjects, and when you’re in an exotic location like Eastern Turkey, it’s definitely sensible to make the most of the landscape.