What is the Universal Language?

Ya Ya Sebre is from Ouamani. [NIKON D2X, AF Zoom 70-200mm f/2.8D, ISO 200, ƒ/2.8, 1/250, Focal Length = 225]

I have been in Burkina Faso and Ghana which are located in West Africa. In Burkina Faso alone there are over 82 different people groups and each one has a different language.

While French is the official language of the country—not everyone speaks it.

Baobob Tree in the town of Tenekodogo, Burkina Faso, West Africa. [NIKON D2X, Sigma AF Zoom 18-50mm f/2.8G, ISO 100, Ä/3.2, 1/5000, Focal Length = 45]

So, how do you make photos with a language barrier?

This little boy shepherd is part of the Fulani tribe which is known for being herdsmen and is working in the village of Soubakamedougou, Burkina Faso on October 15, 2005. The Marlboro company gives hats to the young boy cowboys to promote their product in Burkina Faso. [NIKON D2X, 18.0-125.0 mm f/3.3-5.6, ISO 100, ƒ/5.6, 1/90]

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:

  • Informational
  • Graphically Appealing
  • Emotional
  • Intimate
This little girl was startled by the white photographers presence in her village of Konadouga, Burkina Faso. She quickly ran away after this photo was taken. [NIKON D2X, AF Zoom 70-200mm f/2.8D, ISO 100, Ä/2.8, 1/640, Focal Length = 300]

The 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.

Diane Zuma plays with water at well in Koudougou, Burkina Faso. [NIKON D2X, Sigma 18-50mm F2.8 EX DC, Mode = Aperture Priority, ISO 100, 1/320, ƒ/5, (35mm = 27)]

Those photographers who shoot those award winning journalistic photos are concentrating on capturing the body language of people.

Adrien Surabie a Senara which is a subgroup of the Senoufo in the villages of Wolokonto. [NIKON D2X, Sigma 70-200mm F2.8 EX APO IF HSM, Mode = Aperture Priority, ISO 100, 1/90, ƒ/2.8, (35mm = 270)]

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.

Little Senara boy in the village of Konadouga where only a couple of men spoke French. [NIKON D2X, 70.0-200.0 mm f/2.8, Mode = Aperture Priority, ISO 400, 1/200, ƒ/2.8, (35mm = 300)]

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.

If you want to read more on this subject there are many books available like this one “How to Read and Use Body Language,” written by Anna Jaskolka.

In the bush village of Sabtenga a small outreach group has been started. The oldest man was Musanai Zemnai, the Chief of the Young People, welcomes the group. Here he is holding up peanuts, which the Bissa people group is known for growing. [NIKON D2X, Sigma 18-50mm f/2.8, Mode = Aperture Priority, ISO 400, 1/400, ƒ/2.8, (35mm = 75)]

Just remember to travel light and put all your emphasis on the really important stuff—body language—the subjects and yours.