Legendary photojournalist Robert Capa once said "If your photos aren't good enough, you aren't close enough". What he was saying was that we as photographers should become more intimate with our subjects, become not only physically closer but also more involved on a personal level with our subjects.
During a trip to the recent 2013 Maha Kumbh Mela in Allahabad I was frequently amazed by the number of photographers who seemed to show little or no interest in their subjects. Armed with two large DSLR cameras (generally fitted with grips) and large zoom lenses they seemed so often to be equipped more for shooting wildlife than the main subject of the Mela - people. Add to that the obligatory backward facing cap and maybe a photographers waistcoat plus the large bag of kit and these guys see themselves marked out as serious players not to be messed with. Watching the 2 guys below I realised why they needed long lenses - they walked straight past people without any contact, in a world of Nikon and Canon and not in a festival of 100 million people.
Whenever I go somewhere new it takes a little while to work out how people are going to react to being photographed - in Northern Kenya for example the reaction was generally a demand for money, in Iraq it was always met with a smile. At the Kumbh Mela it took literally minutes to realise that in this happy festival atmosphere everyone was not only happy be photographed but also frequently insistent that you should photograph them.
My reasons for photographing these sorts of events is the people. Yes it's an amazing spectacle but more than that it's an opportunity to meet and chat and interact with literally thousands of interesting and interested people. I think a lot of people have a natural reluctance to approaching total strangers and making small talk - for me it's one of the joys of travel and being a photographer and if you can get over this then you are half way there to 'being close enough'. I'm constantly amazed by the kindness and generosity of people I meet - if you don't take the time or effort to connect and get closer you will often fail to see this side someones character.
Of course there are cases where some 'photographers' go too far. At the Mela there were many instances where photographers would just barge in to photograph someone you might be chatting to without so much as a word of a 'hello' or 'do you mind' or anything else - I have to say the local Indian photographers were particularly bad in this regard. Now don't get me wrong I know that I frequently approach and chat to subjects as a way to soften them up for the inevitable photos that follow but by doing this you develop at least some kind of rapport and connection with an individual, no matter how brief it might be. In an ideal world it would be great to go into a community - spend days getting to know people and making them comfortable in your presence and then start shooting images - unfortunately we don't live in an ideal world and few of us can afford the time or luxury of working in this way.
Having connected with a potential subject it is generally very easy to decide if photos are going to follow - there might be the slightest sign that it's not going to be welcome and that's enough. I rarely if ever shoot pictures of someone not willing to be photographed, though there are always valid exceptions. Many amateur photography magazines advise travelers to take candid shots with a telephoto lens in order not to be noticed - I find this a rather sneaky approach that rarely results in a good image. Far better to photograph people with their complete approval, sometimes acknowledging the camera's presence and at others behaving as though you weren't there - but all the time the connection is there and the consent and respect maintained. Leave the long lenses in the backpack and use something in the 24 - 50mm range - get connected with the subject and share a bit of human interaction and get images that see into the lives of others.