Lessons from the Scene: What is the Universal Language? by Stanley Leary


by Stanley Leary

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The past three weeks I have had to overcome language barrier during my coverage in West Africa. Burkina Faso is one of the countries I covered and they have around 82 different languages.
So, how do you make photos with a language barrier?
The best way to approach these golden opportunities of an exotic location is to keep it simple. You want to spend all your time on developing the relationships with the people—not fidgeting with your equipment.
Preplanning helped me to concentrate on communication and not my equipment, once in West Africa.
What are the elements for a good photo? Well, the Washington Post’s photo editors use this hierarchy for picture selection:
1. informational
2. graphically appealing
3. emotional
4. intimate
Photos, which just have documented the scene and look pleasing like a postcard, often lack the last two elements of the hierarchy.
These are really wrapped up in understanding the universal language of body language. Body language was all they had during the silent movie days, but it still worked and kept people laughing and crying.
The photographers who shoot those award winning journalistic photos are concentrating on capturing the body language of people.
Smiles mean pretty much the same the world over.
However, there is much more than just the obvious in body language. A tilt in the head or someone leaning in verses hands crossed all are communicating something different. Learning to recognize these subtleties will only help you with half the equation.
You need to also know what your body language is communicating.
You may want to spend some time watching your face expressions in the mirror before you try them on strangers. Knowing how you are being perceived will give you the best possible advantage to put people at ease and get the most cooperation possible.
Before you start snapping photos of people take the time and communicate with them as much as you can. If you do this first your photos will be much better because you have established a relationship from which you are able to get their cooperation. Those photos which meet the highest standards of intimacy, require the subject to let you into their world. 
Just remember to travel light and put all your emphasis on the really important stuff—body language—the subject’s and yours.