Meet Peter Miers, a self-proclaimed amateur photographer. Turns out though, that his work sits well above that of an amateur.
Taking a humble approach, he explains, “I make plenty of mistakes; especially those that an expert would spot straight away. But really, the beauty of it all is that anyone can do what I do. There was no four-year course that I completed; anyone who loves photography can achieve the same result.”
Last year, Peter celebrated 21 years working with Peregrine. I sat down with him to discuss how to be a respectful traveller, tips for budding photographers, and how capturing portraits on the road enables a greater connection to a destination and its people.
When did you develop an interest in photography?
If I could list my three passions, it would be travel, photography and history. My earliest memories of photography started from capturing pretty mundane subjects – or for me anyway – but I began with buildings, landscapes and streets. I always knew the type of photos that I wanted to take; portraits, but I didn’t have the nerve for it.
It was on a trekking trip to Nepal when something changed. I met someone in the group who had an SLR camera. From that moment, I saw the beautiful images of people’s faces that this camera could capture in this style, and I thought ‘that’s precisely the type of photograph I’d like to take’. So, for my next big trip I bought myself a proper SLR.
Having the right equipment is one thing, but having the right mindset is quite another. I was always so worried about what other people might think or say if I asked a stranger if I could take their photograph. I realised that the worst thing people could do was say no, or occasionally ask you to pay money. Once I had the confidence to do that, it was like a revelation. After that, my enjoyment of travel photography has gone up 1000%.
How do you describe your style?
I suppose what I do, is finding faces and taking portraits that reflect the destination I’m in. It’s about looking for something a little more interesting, but that also reflects the character of a culture or a destination. It’s funny, when I come back from a trip, and I show people the photographs I’ve taken, and it’s almost exclusively portraits. Most people just look at them shaking their head asking me how I met these people, and they’re often quite bewildered.
And you know, it’s really just walking around and looking for faces; that’s what I’m interested in. I do this at home in Melbourne too.
Do you feel travel photography helps you connect with a destination?
I think it does, yes. Each photograph is a record of a momentary interaction with a stranger from a part of the world far from my own. I’ll be the first to admit, often there isn’t a long story behind each character, yet I do feel like I get something out of these encounters with people. We’ve met eyes, shared a smile and some mutual understanding of what’s going on, sealed in time by the click of a shutter. When I look back on these photos, I remember those moments. It’s magical to have that; as brief it might be.
This is helped by the fact that when you’re travelling around on a Peregrine tour in Asia, Africa or wherever, you’re with the local leader who might even introduce you to someone and going where there are no other tourists, and that’s where the opportunities come from. It’s about getting an insight into their lives and culture in an immersive way.
What’s the most powerful impact of your photos in bridging the gap between cultures?
I’m always looking for someone who is unlike myself, and there’s a great sense of enjoyment in sharing a fleeting moment together. What I love, is showing a warmer side of people that might look intimidating. Just capturing that glimmer in their eyes is incredibly meaningful. I’m not going to create decades of world peace by doing this, but I do hope that my work helps to break down some barriers in terms of cultural misunderstandings across the world.
Can you tell me about some of your favourite photos you’ve captured and the stories behind them?
There are five photos on the wall of my lounge room, some from Peregrine trips, and some from independent travel. One of them was in Udaipur, Rajasthan. My wife and I were walking through the city, and we found a woman on the steps outside her home. She just looked incredibly vibrant and colourful, with her sari set against the whitewashed walls. She looked at us and smiled, and we smiled back – my wife is very smiley – and it created a moment. When I asked to take her photograph, the smile she gave wasn’t one of a beaming toothy grin, but more of a relaxed and grateful smile. I’ll never forget it. It turns out the photo was pretty special too.
Another of my favourite moments was in Iraq, in a town called Erbil. I just saw one man walking through the market, and he had this incredible sense of purpose in his stride, and you could tell he was filled with charisma and grace. I asked if I could take his photo and, not wanting to hold him up for too long, I took just one shot. When I got back to my hotel that night, I was overjoyed with the photo – his eyes weren’t closed, and it was exactly what I was after.
What tips do you have for being a respectful photographer?
You have to ask for permission. Just imagine how you would feel if someone did that to you. Not everyone is pleased with a stranger taking their photo. Sometimes it means going outside my comfort zone, but also being mindful not to place someone else into their uncomfortable zone.
To ease yourself into an encounter, a smile goes a long way. A lot of time, people can’t believe that a stranger has come up to say hello. Sometimes you get a bemused look from people. It’s also important that if the subject of the photo is sitting on the street, you should crouch down to get on their level – it’s far less confronting. Then, of course, there’s body language; a smile, a wave, each of these things are significant. It’s about building that initial rapport without using words.
In terms of camera gear, what do you use?
I shot on film for a long, long time and only went digital in 2010. Nowadays, I love digital and how you can take 10-15 photographs without thinking about how much it would cost when you’re taking it. I started using a standard 18-70mm, then realised I needed to get a zoom lens.
Currently, I use a Nikon D7-200 and have an 18-400mm zoom lens that does it all. I’m lucky that I don’t need much equipment, as the style of photos I take are often during the day, on the streets, so I need something relatively portable.
What are some general tips for amateur photographers?
Aside from practising and just putting yourself out there, a good tip is to consider avoiding extremes of light and dark in the frame. The subject won’t come out in the way you want, and the camera won’t know what it’s trying to focus on.
Sometimes there can be a little bit too much noise in the background, so if you have a choice between someone standing in front of you, I try to go for the most neutral of experiences. But on the other hand, sometimes props like a watermelon stand in a market work well.
To practice your portrait photography skills on the road, take a look at our range of Peregrine tours.