The people you meet: the art of connecting with strangers in Uzbekistan

written by Lola Akinmade Akerstrom June 14, 2019
Photographer Lola shakes hands with a local woman

Some of our most memorable travel encounters happen when we take a deep breath and walk up to that perfect stranger.

“What’s your name?” 85-year old Hushbek asks me in Uzbek, using our Intrepid leader Zafar as an impromptu translator. We are hiking around the foothills of the Nuratau Mountains in the tiny border village of Hayat in Uzbekistan. He is casually standing in his yard, soaking up the last rays of sunshine before the sun begins to set, and I wave at him from a distance in greeting. The photographer in me wants to capture his regal purple attire against the fiery red colours of autumn. So, I approach him.

Local Uzbek man in traditional purple dress stands outside his house and poses for a photo

85-year old Hushbek outside his home.

When he asks for my name, I tell him the shortened version I’ve been using since birth – Lola.

“Are you African?” he continues. I respond that yes, I am in fact Nigerian.

“Then tell me your real name. Because I know it has a meaning. African names always have deep meanings.”

Besides being visibly blown away by his statement, that simple interaction with Hushbek – a stranger – not only touched me deeply, but also continues to frame the way I interact with and acknowledge strangers.


For me, the most interesting part of my travels are the people I meet along the way. People who graciously open themselves, their cultures, and their lifestyles up to me so I can continually broaden my horizons and knowledge about this fascinating world we share.

And as a professional photographer who especially enjoys environmental portraits of people that communicate a sense of place and feeling, interacting with strangers comes with the job.

Approaching someone going about their daily business and asking them for a portrait can be very challenging on many levels for several reasons. Often, the subconscious reason why we’re afraid of photographing others is our innate deep-seated fear of rejection. But, the moment you ask someone for a photo, the interaction no longer becomes about what you want and now becomes about what they are willing to give you of themselves.

With this transfer of power in mind, here are some of my reflections from my travels; how I was able to connect with the locals and create some memorable portraits during my time exploring Uzbekistan through its food, traditions, and lifestyles.


Proper acknowledgement is the foundation of every exchange

We all want to be seen and acknowledged, no matter who we are. This is a very intrinsic human need.

Even the simple wave of greeting – which was the icebreaker between Hushbek and I – can be enough as a way of saying “I see and acknowledge you”. Better yet, calling a stranger by their name is the sweetest form of connection you can instantly build with them.

Uzbek woman stands in front of her village home with a broom.

Meet Kamilla.

During an early morning stroll around Hayat village as life slowly shuffled back to its daily rhythm, I ran into a lady sweeping her yard. I immediately walked up to her, greeted and introduced myself, and asked for her name in return – Kamilla. All through gestures with no common language spoken.


Show people that you appreciate what is important to them

Whether it’s a fishmonger laying out fish for sale in a market, an artisan crafting something intricate and delicate, or even someone with a pet, this means paying attention to their work and showing that you value their time, respect their craft, and appreciate what is important to them.

Uzbek woman holding traditional bread.

The freshest bread you will ever taste.

While chasing morning light around the streets of Bukhara, I ran into a group of women – bakers – who were setting up their breakfast stalls for the morning. I knew I wanted to photograph them and their warm earth-toned attires, so I approached them right away and asked them questions and tasted the bread they were selling. While my camera was slung by my side, it wasn’t the focus of our interaction until I had spent a few minutes with them and they were relaxed enough to grant me some photos.


Genuinely compliment someone if they catch your eye

I only compliment people when I truly mean it. It can be a great icebreaker for approaching strangers and can instantly lift their spirits for the rest of the day.

A newlywed woman in an Uzbek village smiles for the camera.

Newlywed Sadaf.

Sadaf’s bedazzled crimson red vest and dark makeup was what instantly drew me to her while strolling around the village of Hayat. So, I approached and complimented her, only to find out she was a new bride and that was why she was dressed up that way, even though she was working on household chores.


Be open to learning about them and their lives

One of the best traits a traveller can have is openness when exploring the world and being curious about similarities, differences, and what connects us such as love, family, and relationships.

Upon meeting shepherd Misha who was out herding his flock one morning, I knew I wanted to get a portrait of him. So, I walked up, introduced myself, asked for his name and if he was willing to let me take a photo. What ensued was an invitation into his home and a trip through his family album and history – from learning about his brothers to meeting his Kazakh wife Tamara and their son Shukrat.

Misha, Tamara and their son Shukrat pose for a photo.

Misha, Tamara and their son Shukrat welcomed us into their home.

What started out as a simple photo of Misha morphed into memorable photos of his family which are some of my favourites from my time exploring Uzbekistan.

Interacting with strangers during our travels doesn’t have to be as scary as it sounds.

Just as 85-year old Hushbek saw and acknowledged me as a person and wanted to know who I truly was behind my shortened name, this is the very same courtesy we need to extend to local people who we’d like to connect with on our travels.

Do you want to explore Uzbekistan for yourself? See our range of small group tours.

All internal images by Lola Akinmade Akerstrom. Hero image by Liam Neal.

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