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Environmental Portraits: A Retrospective

Portrait of child monks in Bangkok. Thailand © 2001 Charles & Mary Love
Young monks. Bangkok, Thailand © 2001 Charles & Mary Love

Although we’ve photographed our share of iconic landscapes and grand monuments, we believe that the true spirit of a place comes through in its people. Recently, while reviewing our files for a book project, we found that we’d amassed quite a collection of environmental portraits—photographs of people taken in their everyday surroundings. You can find a small selection of these in a new gallery on our website, Imagyn.com.

As photographers, we always hope that our subjects will relax and reveal their personalities—what the late portrait photographer, Yousuf Karsh, called a “lifting of the veil.” And they usually do.

Before taking a photograph, we usually ask our subjects about their lifestyles and concerns. Most oblige and are genuinely curious about us. This breaks the ice. We recall, for example, sitting cross-legged on the lawn of Naqsh-e Jahan, Isfahan’s enormous main square, enjoying ice cream with a group of Iranian university students. They discussed their post-graduation plans—one woman planned to be an engineer—then asked to friend us on Facebook. To our surprise, they had a way to circumvent their government’s filters on social media sites.

Years earlier, on a rooftop in Jerusalem’s old city, we chatted with a young Palestinian about the residency and property rights of  Israel’s Arab citizens.

Then there was the Buddhist monk in Bhutan who, on the eve of his country’s transition to democracy, asked us to explain how democracy works. We responded, with a touch of humor, that it’s easier—and more enlightening—to explain how it doesn’t work!

More recently, in Antigua, Guatemala, a local family prepared dinner for us in their home. They gave us a lesson in how to use our hands to make perfectly formed corn tortillas. (It’s all in how you “pat” them.) The parents told us they planned to send their son and two daughters to the best schools they could afford—and hoped that at least one would, eventually, join them in their hospitality business.

From such encounters, it became clear that people’s concerns are pretty much the same everywhere. They want to prosper. They want the best for their children. They cherish their families, customs and country. Moreover, they‘re as curious about the larger world as we are.

When we started to travel what intrigued us most were the differences among people. Now we’re just as excited by what we have in common.

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