For this travel photographer, success is a soulful face

David Lazar's journey into countenance

The girl with the green eyes is my favorite,” says travel photographer David Lazar.  He was in a rural village in Bangladesh when he noticed the girl—emerald eyes, emerald shirt, “a great face,” he says. By a stroke of luck, she and her friends approached him—this often happens to Lazar on his travels—asking what brought him to their tiny village. The sun was setting, so it was too late to capture a portrait. “I said, ‘You have really nice eyes. Can I come back tomorrow to take photos of you?’” 

© David Lazar

That’s how he wound up in the home of the girl with the green eyes the next day, sharing tea and biscuits with her parents. She gave him a tour, showed him her drawings of castles and unicorns. “It’s really touching when you’re invited into someone’s house,” he says. “That’s so nice to experience as a traveler.”

After tea, he posed the girl outside on the front steps in the shadow of the roof where an opening of light from the sky shone on her face. He told her not to smile, to lean on her knee with her face forward and to look straight into the camera. “This face was so powerful,” he recalls. “That photo was successful for me. People really reacted strongly to it.”     

All in a face

Lazar, who’s based in Brisbane, Australia, got his first taste of travel photography 14 years ago on a three-month trip to Thailand and India when he was 21. He used a compact camera to take snapshots. Impressed by the quality of his travel companion’s film photographs, Lazar began researching travel photography and photo editing.

“I felt a real connection to cultural portrait photos with people in them, people in other cultures and countries that had interesting clothes and a different way of life,” he says. So he bought a DSLR and began using his annual vacations (from teaching piano) to take extended journeys into the world, focusing primarily on making portraits of strangers. He’s become a connoisseur of powerful faces.

Over the past decade, traveling to remote villages in countries including Myanmar, Nepal, Thailand, and Bangladesh, he’s learned how to spot a compelling face in the crowd (it’s something in the eyes, he says). And he’s become adept at persuading a stranger to sit for a portrait.

© David Lazar

“My approach is to have a smile on my face and always be respectful and polite,” he says. “And to try to be funny, make a joke somehow.” He keeps his camera in a sling bag so that it’s easy to access but hidden from sight, so as not to intimidate. Often he’ll sit in one spot for a while—perhaps at a market—and let other people become comfortable with his presence, by smiling and being affable and friendly, before striking up a conversation with a potential subject. He prefers not to begin by asking for a photograph; he begins by making friends “as quickly and efficiently as I can,” he says. “It’s certainly a skill. I will say it took me many years of practice.”

Befriending a stranger is just the first step. As he speaks with a potential portrait subject—making sure to take things slow, not to rush—he’s also thinking out a possible composition, surveying the area for a background that will jibe with the subject’s wardrobe. It’s also important the setting has the light he’s looking for since he doesn’t use artificial light sources. He’s had good luck photographing subjects in a dark room near a doorway where natural light illuminates the face. He looks for clean backgrounds, perhaps with colors complementary to the subject’s clothes, and avoids backgrounds with distractions, such as a random patch of sun or a black line that cuts across a wall. It’s easy to become so wrapped up in the subject that you don’t notice a flaw in the background, he says.

To make the eyes the central focus of the portrait, Lazar zooms in on them, focuses his lens on the eyelashes, and then zooms back out to recompose. “That guarantees that the eyes are in focus the most,” he says, and not another part of the face, such as the nose or forehead. Often he tells the subject not to smile in the photo, and he gravitates toward faces that, even at rest, with a neutral expression, “look intensely powerful on an emotive level.” That being said, there are some faces that look more natural wearing a smile or breaking into laughter, in which case he encourages those expressions for the portrait.    

© David Lazar

Side gig turned success

Though Lazar’s photos have appeared in many newspapers, books, and magazines, including National Geographic, Lonely Planet, and Asian Geographic, and he was a 2011 Smithsonian Photo Contest winner, photography isn’t his full-time job. He holds a master’s degree in music in film composition and earns his living as a piano teacher and composer.

“It was always a hobby for me,” he says of photography. “I never said, I want to be a photographer. I have always trained to be a musician. But the photography has taken over.” Since he works with students, he enjoys long breaks throughout the year that afford him time to travel and make photographs.

Not working on assignment or working for a client gives Lazar the freedom to pursue whatever subject matter inspires him, with print purchases and editorial exposure a happy side effect. While he loves making portraits of strangers he meets on his journeys, he sometimes arranges for more formal meetings with a particular group—for example, if he wanted to photograph a certain tribe and ritual in Kenya.

Entering and winning photo contests leads to news articles and exposure. A few years ago photo tour operator Luminous Journeys came across Lazar’s images online and asked if he’d like to co-lead one of its journeys in Myanmar. He’s now done nine in Myanmar,  Bali, and Vietnam and he has one scheduled in India next year. These trips give him the opportunity to mentor aspiring and amateur photographers while expanding his own portfolio of work.

When he’s traveling on his own, he has a rough itinerary of places he’d like to see, but leaves room to change up his travel plans when needed. “You might have a bad feeling about a place, whereas another place you like, but you need to get used to it and look around,” he says. “I don’t want to be too tied down.

© David Lazar

He packs light—one camera and one or two lenses only (a Nikon D800, and a Nikkor 24-85mm f/2.8-4D lens for portraiture and 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR for longer range images). “For me, travel photography is better when you’re not encumbered and weighed down with lots of gear.” If you’re carrying a heavy pack, you won’t walk as far and your exposure to the area and the culture will be limited, he says. “My approach with equipment is that it’s not what makes a great photo,” he says.

The gift of giving

Also important to Lazar is being respectful to those he photographs on his travels. “Really my intentions are to connect with my subject on some level,” he says. Whenever possible, he shares portraits with his subjects, sometimes printing small versions the day he makes them or bringing prints with him when he returns to an area. In 2011, when he captured images of the girl with the green eyes, they exchanged email addresses, and he was able to send edited portraits to her. More recently, they connected on Facebook, and he noticed she’d posted her portrait on her page.

Sharing portraits with subjects is the right thing to do, Lazar says. “It’s very touching when someone gives you something back. I am lucky to have gotten the photo for myself. The least I can do is to give it back to them.”  

Amanda Arnold is associate editor of Professional Photographer.