[Editor's Note: Lily Girma is the first photographer-in-residence to participate in the Road Warrior program, a partnership between MatadorU and the Belize Tourism Board. This summer Lily is documenting different cultural aspects of Belize as well as travel and adventure options around the country. Each week she'll be reporting on her experiences for Matador, her personal blog, and for other outlets.]
I was nervous. I started Googling tips on photographing officials, looking for any protocol or things to plan for when photographing someone of that stature. I’d photographed recording artists before and a few celebrities, but never government officials and certainly not the First Lady of a country.
But there was nothing online. Nada. Even Pete Souza didn’t have an interview up somewhere about being a White House photographer!
After spending some time clicking through the White House Flickr photostream, I decided to just stick to my rule of thumb for everything: be myself, get to know my subject quickly and go with the moment. The rest would follow.
The day arrived. I walked a long hall at Karl Heusner Hospital in Belize City, heading toward the pediatric wing. Behind me was the Minister of Health and the hospital’s administrators. To my left, towering over everyone, hair slicked back in a bun, wearing white pencil pants and a champagne silk blouse, was the First Lady of Belize.
We’d only met five minutes prior, outside the hospital. I had maybe ten minutes tops to absorb her presence and ask about her projects for women and children while walking through the hospital. I had to quickly get a feel for who she is before I started photographing her comforting children.
My instinct to just be myself seemed to work. “You’re the pro, you tell us what you would like or where is best.” Those were the First Lady’s words while we stood in her living room trying to find the best natural light possible for her and her daughter. She was right.
Two days with her was a great prep for what was coming next. A couple of weeks later, I was to have dinner on my last night in San Pedro with Belize’s Minister of Culture and tourism, Hon. Manuel Heredia. Just the two of us at Elvi’s Kitchen, one of the most popular Belizean restaurants on Ambergris Caye. Someone of similar stature, but in a completely different setting. I only had a day’s notice, so there was little time to prepare – but I’d had that experience already.
Over the following weeks, there were others I had the privilege to come across, like the Governor-General of Belize, Sir Coleville Young and the Mayor of San Pedro, Elsa Paz. No time for conversation, just a one-time opportunity to approach and take a photo.
Two months into my Road Warrior time in Belize, and I’ve learned a ton about photographing key officials. Here are my tips:
1. Be yourself.
The only person with professional photography knowledge in that room, is you. It’s fine to take charge and politely state where you want your subject and what props you might need. There’s no need to “deify” – at the end of the day officials are people, just like us. So the more relaxed and confident you are, the better the atmosphere for the official and the easier the shoot. Besides, most people are happy with helping you make them look good!
2. Be prepared.
It’s common sense but even while traveling, it’s important to have a back up camera body. You never know what can happen and if one fails, it would be disastrous not to have another.
Depending on where you are, there may not be any accessible cameras to loan or rent or it may be expensive, so keep that in mind. (Clearly, I learned this lesson the hard way!)
Being prepared also means making sure all your gear is clean, batteries charged and cards formatted the night before.
3. Do some research on the official.
If it’s a planned photo shoot, do some research on the official. Photographing someone is an intimate experience. You get to see who they are and also see what makes them comfortable or not in a very short period of time. It always helps to know some facts about their background and life beforehand, and it’s an ideal way to make conversation and break the ice at the start of the shoot.
It also helps to look up the work of official-photographers, but don’t get stuck on recreating the same poses or ideas. The best shots are the unexpected ones; every official is different, regardless of how “similar” their functions might seem.
4. Pay attention to light.
As always, light is the key. Whether the shoot is at home, in a restaurant or outdoors, the first thing to consider is where the light falls on your subject. With Mrs. Barrow, we were in her living room and I decided I would pick a side with the best natural light coming from a window. I also used my reflector, which I brought with me on this trip. But without, I would place the subject closer to the best window light.
5. Listen to your subject.
There’s a small caveat – that even though you know what’s best, you should always be willing to listen to what the official wants. If there’s a pose they want to try, so be it. Take a couple and see. You never know, they might help you get a great shot.
6. Have an assistant, even if it’s a friend.
If there’s someone you can take along to help you carry your gear or help you hold that reflector when you need it, do it. It makes the shoot go faster and you’ll be less stressed. When photographing the First Lady, I had a couple of Belize Tourism b=Board staff members with me and they were just fantastic carrying my gear, or holding my lenses during switches or even just getting me a glass of water. It helped me better concentrate on my task.
7. Don’t be afraid to ask.
If you don’t ask, you don’t get. That’s my rule of thumb for photography as well. If you need an official’s photo at an event but don’t have time to get to know them or chat, just walk up to them and extend a handshake while smiling, and ask politely if you can take their photograph. The answer could be no, but more times than not officials are more than happy to oblige. They’re used to meeting people all the time and being photographed by media – but it’s the approach that makes a difference.
When I saw the Governor General of Belize walking out of a tent from the launch of Belize’s September Celebrations on St. George’s Caye, I saw an opening to take his photo. I walked up to him, introduced myself in less than a second and asked. He was more than happy to pause for me.
8. Separate yourself from the crowd.
Where there are officials, there will be photographers. Lots of them. And well, leaning over and fumbling to find a spot will not result in the best shot. In fact it’s downright frustrating.
The trick is to just stay alert and look for different angles, or even better, wait for an opening when you can be the only one approaching the official. There will always be a time when the official is away from everyone. They will be more likely to allow it, too, because they won’t be overwhelmed by lots of cameras flashing.
9. Be mindful of security.
Some officials are likely to have bodyguards or security walking with them. It should be obvious at first glance. Make sure to ask that person first if you can approach, if necessary or make eye contact with them and they will either nod or say something to you if it’s not the appropriate time.
10. Have fun.
Embrace the opportunity and have a good time with it. Trust that all will happen exactly as it’s supposed to and focus on getting the best images possible!
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Lebawit “Lily” Girma is a published travel and concert photographer and writer as well as Matador's newest Road Warrior in Belize. She has a weakness for the Caribbean and Jamaica where she spends the winter, and never goes anywhere without her Nikon. You can follow her photo-travel journey at her personal blog.