Photos: Across Asia, Portraits Encompass Hard Lives and Childlike Wonder

New York-based photographer Nancy Scherl is inspired by people. In her extensive travels with non-profit medical missions abroad, she has found that people and culture breathe life into cities and towns all across the world. She has also learned, after being pummeled by oranges in Mexico City, that not everyone sees what she sees, but is still to be treated with respect. Her travels have widened her perspective on the human condition.

Her portraits illustrate, in equal measure, hard lives and child-like wonder; men and women who have a lot to look back on, and children who have just as much to look forward to. It is through their eyes that Scherl sees the beauty in the world outside the comforts of home.

Asia Blog reached out to Scherl via email to find out more about her work.

What inspired you to photograph portraits around Asia? How did you find your subjects across so many countries?

The past decade, I have traveled extensively throughout Southeast Asia and South America. Most of the travel was for international medical missions which I contributed towards by documenting the missions, such as The Smile Train. I'd often explore the city or town where the hospital was located.

Since many of the medical missions took place in Southeast Asia, those locations bacame a platform from which to travel to other countries after the mission was over. The far East has always lured me, however, so there were places that I visited which precluded mission work, such as India.

When I travel, I am most intrigued and inspired by the people and the culture of their country. People draw me in, and from there I become interested in the actual place.

How did your subjects react when you photographed them? Did you ask them first, or did you take candid shots? Why is it that the children always seem to be smiling while the elderly have a faraway look in their eyes?

A family trip to Mexico when I was in my teen years was a turning point for me. I recall framing a Mexican woman, sitting on the cobblestone street, selling oranges in Mexico City, with my dad's Rolleiflex twin lens reflex camera. With my eye hidden behind the camera, suddenly I was being bombarded by oranges. Immediately after realizing that this woman did not want me to photograph her, I took the film out of the camera to assuage her anger. I was so young and so naive, and so totally unaware of the fact that in many cultures, people are afraid of their spirit being taken away from them if they are being photographed. This left a long-lasting impression on me. 

From that time on, my travel experiences have always included asking for permission before making photographs of anyone. I very rarely "take pictures" that are purely candid.

I describe my travel work as being a subtle cross between documentary and fine art photography. Even with language barriers, there are ways to communicate to people to assess whether or not they are willing to be photographed. 

Some of the older people whom I've photographed seem to have a faraway look in their eyes. Perhaps this is because older people are more contemplative than children. They look back on their past and also envision their futures. Children seem more spontaneous and in the moment. 

Of all the portraits, which one was your most memorable, and why?

Perhaps the most memorable of all the portraits I've photographed is the Vietnamese boy on his bicycle in Cao Lahn, smiling at me and offering a peace sign with his hand. This boy's engaging gesture and his friendly manner was extraordinarily captivating.

About the Author

Profile picture for user Saira Siddiqi
Asia Blog contributor Saira Siddiqi is a recent graduate of the University of Texas at Austin, where she studied political science. Saira loves traveling, live shows, and good eats.