When I was young, all I wanted to do was travel the world.

 

It all started at the age of five when I started paging through my grandmother’s National Geographic magazines. As I sat in my grandparents house in White Bear Lake, Minnesota, I looked through images of faraway, exciting places. For a kid born and raised in the American heartland, it was mindblowing. I realized that I didn’t want to just see these places in pictures, I wanted to experience them. I wanted to be behind that camera exploring these places. I wanted to experience and learn about these different cultures, see these sights, and hear the sounds. I wanted to learn to think differently.

Looking at those pictures in my grandmother’s National Geographic ignited something inside me. I wanted to learn more about the planet I knew so little about.

The best way I know to learn is to do things head-on, so I found myself studying abroad at age 17 in Okinawa, Japan. I didn’t speak the language, but lots of smiles, hand gestures, and laughter won me the trust of each person I met. Most importantly, my attempts to bridge the language divide taught me the importance and value of emotion. Something as simple as a smile allows people let their guard down, and communicated my intentions, allowing each of the people I photographed to open up to my camera.

My favorite type of travel photos to take are portraits. Usually, when on a mission for a portrait, I attempt to get as far out of a tourist area as possible, take a road less traveled, and head for an unknown spot in the city. I love bringing the lesser known (and lesser documented) cities and villages to life through photography.

Most of the time, people will approach me because I simply sit down at a bench or on a corner and just look around. In these scenarios, other people’s interest in me opens up a conversation in which I can ask to take their portrait. Once a mutual trust is established between subject and photographer, I begin to photograph. After a few shots, I show them a frame or two on my camera, and they become excited seeing themselves on the screen. Then they open up and, more often than not, want to pose even more.

In a fleeting moment, the camera lens can capture the person’s emotion, each frame can tell a full story for the viewer to interpret. Sometimes I will seek out a person whose face intrigues me. I just ask to take a photograph with a smile — a smile can go a long way!

My favorite portraits that I’ve taken are from my time in Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos. Their pace of life is significantly slower than anywhere I have visited. In Cambodia, I visited Steung Meanchay,  the municipal garbage dump in Phnom Penh. People live and work here for their entire lives — they don’t know anything different. Still, even though we come from very different worlds, they still smiled without hesitation anytime I took out my camera. Through photography, I was able to bridge the differences between us with raw emotions. This connection is what pushes me to keep looking for interesting people and places through my travels around the planet.

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Tom Hafner
Tom Hafner is originally from Saint Paul, Minnesota but currently resides in New York City or at 40,000ft. When he’s not working for an airline he continues to explore the world in his free time or on a long layover. His specialty and passion is currently portraits, but who knows what the future holds. See more of his work on Instagram at @tom.hafner.photo and on his website www.tomhafner.com.

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