It’s probably safe to say there’s not an oilman alive who sees the world quite like him. Bob Schwartz began traveling the globe in the 1970s as an engineer for a major oil company, his travels taking him on extensive jaunts through the Middle East, Asia and Latin America.
Schwartz’ eye for color and texture developed over time, but he was always a compassionate observer of the human condition, a penchant that led to some poignant imagery as he made his way from the Persian Gulf to the South China Sea, from the Indian Ocean to the Mekong Delta, from the Caribbean to the Amazon. Old women making their way through the markets, old men gazing into the distance, street children selling their wares – all become art in the lens of Bob Schwartz.
The Houston native began traveling to Dubai for business when it was still a small and unheralded city, when the glitzy Dubai Creek was just a waterway where the boat builders worked on the beach.
Schwartz wandered the streets of uncounted cities with his film camera in hand, an old Nikon F series, in places and times when camera-toting tourists were a rarity.
Nowadays he shoots with a Nikon digital, though he misses the quality of the old-fashioned hand-developed prints. But looking back, he finds that even more than the technology, his focus has shifted.
“I’ve begun to work closer to people and concentrate more on their faces,” he said. “I’ve had other photographers say, ‘Why don’t you pull back and open the scenes a little bit?’ But it’s not what interests me. And if you’re going to be any kind of artist you have to be true to yourself and do what really interests you. For me it’s people’s faces.”
Mostly he travels solo, but recently, he’s gone on a few photography expeditions, and he laughs at the contrast he’s seen.
In Havana, the group went to a gymnasium where kids were learning how to box.
“The parents and grandparents were what caught my eye,” he said. A couple photographers were madly shooting the kids. “I got to looking around and got more interested in the people sitting and watching.”
One of the most poignant images was a grandfather, whose beard stood out like a puffy white cloud against his dark, weathered face.
Once he accompanied a group of bird photographers on the Bolivar Peninsula. “We walked out on the East Jetty and it looked like those birds were halfway to Cuba,” he said. The other photographers started setting up their big tripods and pulling out long lenses. “I had this little bitty camera – so I started taking more pictures of the people on the jetty.”
One of the photos now hangs in the office of a Houston energy company that bought it from him.
Getting up close and personal isn’t easy. But Schwartz says with a little common sense and courtesy, he’s never had a problem.
In Havana, he would sit in the Parque Central and listen and smile as the passionate baseball fans would argue about the season’s best prospects. “You become a part of their little world and it becomes easier,” he says.
In Vietnam, he was struck by the contrast between industrialized Saigon – “you could have been in downtown Houston” – and the rural south, where people still plant rice with water buffalos. In Jaipur, it was cows in the filthy streets, contrasted with highrises, highways and industrial centers.
Everywhere he went, he’s marveled at the differences, but he’s also observed some universal themes – like the powerful drive of parents everywhere to provide the best for their children.
“Wherever you go, whether it’s New York or Central America, or whether you do it in a market in Otovalo or in a jardín in San Miguel, people dote on their children.”
Schwartz often wonders how his life would have been different had he studied art instead of engineering.
“I’ve had a great time being in oil,” he said. “But I’ve also realized how much I enjoy being around people of different cultures and realizing how in many ways we’re different, and in so many ways, we’re alike.”
Bob Schwartz’s 10 tips for photographing people when you travel
1. Engage the subject before you try to take his or her photograph. If you speak the language, chat for a moment. Don’t hang your camera around your neck; hold it in your hand ready to bring to your eye.
2. Get as close as you can. Don’t stand across the street with a long telephoto lens.
3. Always ask before you photograph. If the subject says no, back away, don’t try to take a quick shot.
4. Depending on how close you are, 35mm, 50mm or 85mm lenses work best.
5. 35mm lenses give you more context because their wide angle takes in more background/area around the subjects.
6. 85mm is the ideal portrait lens.
7. Get as low as you can. Don’t stand over your subjects. Get to their eye level or lower. Don’t “pose” the subjects. Get them relaxed and natural
8. Be mindful of what is in the background. You own what is in the frame. Trees don’t grow out of heads. Be careful of bright backgrounds unless you are trying to make a silhouette.
9. Learn to use the manual setting on your camera. It gives you so much more control over the finished product.
10. If your camera has a review capability, show the subject the photograph you just took. People like to see themselves. It opens the door for more photos.
Take a tour of the world through the eyes of Bob Schwartz on his website: bobschwartzphotography.com. There, you can see photos described in this story.