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It is the kind of hot and muggy afternoon on the border of Namibia and Angola in southern Africa that causes time to feel lethargic. Cicadas languidly chirp in camelthorn trees. The sun seems parked in the western sky.

My traveling companion and I are in the heartland of the Himba, a tribe of nomadic Africans who have chosen to resist westernization. They maintain age-old cultural traditions ranging from migratory shepherding and mud-caked dreadlocks to plural marriage and living in mud huts. My friend and I are here to document the tribes struggle against a government-sponsored dam building proposal. It would flood the Himba and drown their culture in 21st Century influences.

My challenge is to record the most important but intangible Himba quality that would be destroyed by the damthe Himbas belief in themselves and their culture.  With the help of some hard-won local info and a hired interpreter, this is the image that appears

Himba Woman at Sunset 2005 Lin Alder

To photograph a stranger this way, a photographer needs to ask him or herself a few key questions


What are my intentions?

Even before its time to approach strangers, good photographers are aware of their own thoughts and desires. Is this a keepsake photo for the album back home? Am I seeking an opportunity to identify with a stranger? Do I want this portrait to tell a story?

The more awareness a photographer has in each situation towards herself and the subject, the more likely she is to capture an outstanding image.

Man With Nike Hat 2005 Lin Alder

Who is my subject? Are they a human or an object?

It is easy for a photographer to see the world with their camera instead of their heart. The camera sees light; the heart sees moments filled with stories, emotions and humanity.

When approaching strangers, good photographers see the stories in another persons eyes, the emotions written on their faces, the tale speaking silently from their surroundings. This woman in a Johannesburg market, for example, is much more than a textile merchant. She is a strong African woman who is proud of her heritage.

African Textile Woman 2005 Lin Alder

After getting her permission to take a few photos, I stopped clicking to ask about her life story. Once we connected on a deeper level, she became comfortable, revealing a deeper level to the camera through her expression and posture.


During a brief stop in a rural Botswana village, this mother and daughter approached. Through the universal language of gestures we shared a brief conversation. Rather than an immediate photograph, this image was captured after waiting for a few minutes until more rapport developed.

Botswana Mother 2005 Lin Alder

What kind of energy am I projecting?

Almost like a law of physics, it seems that whatever energy a photographer sends to his subjects, they will respond with similar energy. Approach a stranger with fear and they respond with fear. Express genuine interest, get genuine interest in return. Send out a warm smile and they respond with a smile.

Chilean Man in Front of Adobe Church 2005 Lin Alder

Am I paying attention?
Strangers do the strangest things sometimes. Good photographers pay attention to the world around them and capture these things. When a stranger is taking a picture, for example, ask them if you can take theirs.

Girls Photographing Each Other 2005 Lin Alder

When traveling with a group of strangers, consider photographing those who are guiding the group. This man in Botswana, for example, guided one of the boats in a group I traveled with. His hat begged to be photographed. After smiling and pointing at his hat, I captured his gentle grin on film.

Man With Pole 2005 Lin Alder

Am I only taking or am I giving back?

Capturing outstanding portraits of strangers is truly a two-way process. Photographers can easily slip into the act of taking without giving back. This can be avoided by genuinely engaging with the stranger on some levelsharing food, conversation, or at least gestures.

The key is to give something of yourself. If it is a photo you wish to give, carry a mini-instant camera and gift a photo or two to the strangers you photograph.

Three Women Looking at Small Polaroid Photos 2005 Lin Alder

What are my eyes doing?

Not only are eyes the windows to our souls, they are also the gateway to a strangers portrait. Making and maintaining eye contact is challenging, but great portraits require this crucial act.

Caretaker, Monte Leon National Park, Argentina 2005 Lin Alder

Where am I photographing?

The courage to approach strangers is influenced by the place where you encounter them. Many photographers build this courage through trial and error in such public places as outdoor festivals, city parks and bars. Street performers are great subjects, especially when you tip them.

Street Singers 2005 Lin Alder

Am I having fun?

Few things draw strangers to a photographer more than a fun-loving demeanor. If youre having fun, strangers are naturally curious about what youre up to. They might even come over for a look

Cowboy Kid 2005 Lin Alder



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