Most Body Language is universal

For a long time, people believed that body language was learned through imitation, but research over that last 50 years demonstrated that a large part of our body language is in fact encoded in us and is mostly universal.

One example comes from research by Jessica Tracy and David Matsumoto. When studying the behavior of blind athletes during the Paralympics they found that despite never having seen a physical expression of shame or pride, these athletes from across the globe demonstrated the same shame and pride expressions as seeing athletes when they won or lost.

Of course, some aspects of body language are cultural – hand gestures, and head movements for example - but what’s of interest for us here is that the majority of our body language is in fact innate, and that a lot of it is universal.

Connecting through emotion

Another universal cue is linked to emotion. Dr Paul Ekman has studied Micro Expressions extensively and he found that these expressions of emotions are universal… which is probably why I connected deeply with GMB Akash‘s work.

GMB Akash Interview for Photographer's Guide to Body Language

Meeting with GMB Akash and Kristian Skeie, two amazing documentary photographers

Akashs’ images and the stories that go with them speak straight to our deepest emotions. He has an incredible gift and a ferocious dedication to those who wouldn’t otherwise get to tell their stories. But beyond being a story teller, Akash is a man of heart and of action, helping those who’s stories he tells by connecting them with people around the world through his images and raising funds to help them. (more on that below)

I had the immense honor to meet GMB Akash and discuss Body Language & Photography a few weeks back.

I invite you to read GMB Akash Interview below to hear what he has to say.

GMB Akash Interview

GMB Akash Interview

GMB Akash
Award Winning Photographer

Tell us a little bit about yourself and your work

My passion for photography began in 1996 when I discovered that I had a gift for developing interpersonal relationships with the subjects that I saw through the lens of my camera. After that realization I was photographing daily with great eagerness. Subsequently, as a young man with some experience I saw the impact that images can have on people and societies. I was convinced that I had made the right first step into what would be the beginning of my life’s most important journey.

I started studying this art and its accompanying techniques, firstly in Bangladesh and then continued my studies in the Philippines at Ateneo de Manila University where I received my Diploma in Multimedia Journalism. Growing up in a developing country filled with millions of impoverished people and abused children; I had access to the darkest corners of the world. Overwhelmed with compassion and empathy for those people in my photographs, I was determined to give a voice to the voiceless and have it heard around the world.

However, at one point I realized that just effectively reporting the human rights injustices through my images was not enough. I repeatedly asked myself then: what changes have my photos brought to the lives of my subjects of abuse and suffering? I knew that as a photojournalist that it was my duty to tell the truth but besides that, as a human being I believed that it was my moral duty to find ways to alleviate the pain of exploitation and poverty of those people in my photographs.

It was at that time that I decided to dedicate myself to what became more than 10 years of my life of photographing ‘Survivors’. This resulted in a self-published photography book depicting the invincibility of the human spirit to survive against all odds. The proceeds from the book and subsequent exhibitions go to helping the subjects in that book. I help them set up small businesses for which I train them and monitor their progress in order to make them and their families self-sufficient.

All this while, I have still been taking photography assignments from my agent, Panos Pictures, NGOs and the media. Nevertheless, I managed to found the FIRST LIGHT INSTITUTE OF PHOTOGRAPHY in Narayangonj (near Dhaka), Bangladesh in August, 2013. Along with guest master photographers, I teach photography in workshops and seminars for aspiring young photographers at reasonable tuition. The proceeds from this school go to help achieve my ultimate objective of providing basic education for street children, child sex workers, and child laborers.

You have a very unique signature to your photographs. What part does body language play in it?

My photo journey compels me to discover the smallest pleasures of life that I was never aware of. Thus seeking humanity around me is an everyday learning process for me. My thirst to discover something new helps me to grow my vision for a new story. I can consistently work in one place, on one subject for a whole day.

I believe every photographer should develop their senses in order to explore their subjects more deeply and the images that result.

GMB Akash Interview

Many things inspire me. It can be beautiful colors, wonderful light, an expressive gesture or unusual compositions. But the main inspiration lies in my heart.  The moment I feel something tug at my heart is the moment that enflames me the most.

The body language of the subject plays a significant role in my photograph. My mantra is keeping things simple. I let the subject of my photograph be as natural as possible. I help them to express their soul all the way out through their body language. Often times I have seen how exceptionally varied it can be from person to person in the expression of their emotions by body language. The poignant moment is that instant when the person I am photographing opens up themselves with ease and enables me able to record the visualization of their unique expression through gesture.

Is there a particular expression or body language you observe within your subjects that you don’t see in people living out of poverty?

I see the beauty of a human soul, though it can be grim, as I depict mostly the people who are living on the edge of the society.

The power of these people is that they express themselves effortlessly in front of my camera. The ways they sit, the ways they look around or the ways they express themselves are easier than I see in people living out of poverty. People living out of poverty are more concerned about their reputation, ego, and are more self-conscious.

But I find that the people living in poverty are closer to their original selves and natural. Their expressions are communicated either by looking through the camera or looking away from it but they are always straightforward and deep. They express their core feelings whatever the circumstance is.

GMB Akash Interview

While I was photographing a lady who was sleeping in the street with her pet cat, even knowing she was being photographed did not change her way of sleeping or expression, She continued to rest in the street with her cat lying over her.

What Body Language cue do you look out for that lets you know when someone is ready to let you photograph them / work with you?

I take time, a lot of time to go deeper into the milieu. The first days I never take pictures because they would not be good. I wouldn’t know the people I met nor understand the place I had just entered – my photography would be bland and meaningless. But there is always that moment when it feels completely natural to open my camera.

With time people relax and curiosity in their eyes is replaced with a warm welcome.

Suddenly, I have a friendly conversation, or the afternoon light makes them feel at ease. Then I take out my camera and for me and everybody around me, it is the most natural thing to do. There is consent. People don’t accuse me, or reject me or pose for me in unnatural ways. They are just there, doing what they normally do. Then I click away. It feels like a conversation; a conversation between me and the people, between me and the location, between me and the light, between me and the souls that make this place alive.

During such moments a landscape becomes a soul scape.

Can you share with us one photograph that is really special to you and tell us why?

While taking the image, I was on the top of a rapidly moving train and there was nothing to hold on to. The particular fact about this image that makes it unique is the bravery.

GMB Akash Interview

A housemaid is sitting in the joining link of the running train. She travels like this twice daily in order to save her train fare. This represents the image of struggle and hope. The way people are risking their lives with the hope to live in a better way.

As the traveler is a woman, I feel it adds a different dimension to the image of freedom through struggle. The key attribute of the photo was capturing the moment of hope and struggle together. The way she is sitting on the adjacent link of the running train depicts her determination for the dream she holds and her body language expressed fearlessness in such a dangerous situation.

What is the one Body Language cue that makes you cringe when you see it in a photograph?

For creating the photo series ‘Inside the cage’ I worked in a mental hospital in Indonesia. The images I took had long lasting impression on my mind.

When I entered the hospital I worked inside a cage. About a meter’s distance from me a naked man was sitting beside the drain. A few meters away from him some men were contorting their emaciated bodies as much as the shackles would allow. Others were sitting comatosed. The 1,000-square meter center is divided into two iron-fenced dormitories — one for men and one for women. While being confined by the length of their chain around the wooden beams on which they are trapped or in the makeshift cage in which they are imprisoned, they are forced to eat, sleep and defecate in the same spot.

When I look into those images the expressions of their hollowness makes me cringe.

GMB Akash Interview

Pro tip from Akash

Body language is the way your photograph itself speaks. For capturing the best moment it is vital to let your subject communicate in a natural way. The more space you give to your subject to express his/her visual language the greater chances you will get to acquire a meaningful photograph. Every person has a way of expressing his/her character; a photographer’s job is to create a way to bring it out and capture it in his/her picture.