Offset photographer Ayesha Malik makes pictures that are uniquely empathetic. Her environmental and studio portraits, which have been published on Time, Feature Shoot, and more, tap into human similarities across cultures, focusing on our potential to develop universal human connections despite geographical and cultural distance.

Raised on an American compound in Saudi Arabia, Malik had a uniquely layered experience growing up. She frequently visited Pakistan as a child and later studied photography at Parsons School of Design in New York City. For more than five years, she’s returned to Saudi Arabia to photograph the coexistence of contemporary and traditional culture in its people and landscapes.

Empathetic portraits of Four men gathered on the beach in Aseela by Ayesha Malik
Four men gathered on the beach in Aseela by Ayesha Malik

Malik’s talent lies in taking photographs that are primed for widespread editorial use as empathetic portraits, while retaining a respectful look at her subjects and their communities. Her gaze into strangers’ lives is thoughtful, compassionate, and without judgment. “I am a somewhat shy person,” says Malik, “so at first the hardest part is simply finding the courage to even approach someone. The biggest challenge is making sure that I leave breathing space for people to express themselves. If a person is a stranger it means I really know nothing about them. I never want to box someone in. I try to listen and pick up on visual cues, if not verbal ones.”

Photographs rarely offer a full picture of the subject’s humanity, but Malik’s pictures get pretty close. She generously gave us some insights into her practice with tips on how to create portraits with an open and intimate lens.

Two Pakistani Women Herding Sheep in Yard, by Ayesha Malik
Two Pakistani Women Herding Sheep in Yard, by Ayesha Malik

1. Be Real

“I believe this starts with being humble and respectful of all beings. This does not mean putting on an air of caring or interest, but connecting with your subject over the simple fact of a shared existence in this world. It allows a vulnerability to take place, a shared empathy for one another. After all, you cannot expect a person to open up to you if you are not willing to do the same. In creating this safe environment, it sometimes means you have to take the photos you do not really want to (to make a person feel comfortable) in order to take the one you do.”

Old Saudi Arabian Man Sitting with ane, by Ayesha Malik
Old Saudi Arabian Man Sitting with Cane, by Ayesha Malik

2. Be Open-Minded

“Educate yourself on the people and places you are photographing, and then forget it all. If there is anything I have learned, (it’s that) knowledge is important, but it is only one part of the bigger picture. Sometimes you have to let go of everything you think you know — whether it be from other photographs or text, to see what is right before you. Let the person before your eyes, in that exact moment, speak and express on their own accord. I find people express so much more, are ever more willing, when you come with no judgment or assumptions. People can be very surprising when you give them the chance to be.”

Portrait of Saudi Teen Girl in Traditional Clothing and Sweatshirt by Ayesha Malik
Portrait of Saudi Teen Girl in Traditional Clothing and Sweatshirt by Ayesha Malik

3. Bring a Light Meter (Even If You Don’t Need It)

“This sounds pretty straightforward, but it can be a great way to break the ice and to pass some time while your subject settles into the idea that they are about to have their photo taken. Most of the time, I can tell people are wondering, ‘Why does this woman want to take my picture?’ Spending some time taking a light meter reading instead of relying on the in-camera light meter or auto-settings helps me relax, but I find it also helps my subject relax and feel special. While I am doing it, I also have the chance to chat with my subject, if they are up for that. It is important to get your head out from behind the camera, even if it sometimes means some awkward eye contact!”

Portrait of a Disabled Man (Both of His Legs are Amputated) Sitting in His Handicap Motorcycle by Ayesha Malik
Portrait of a Disabled Man (Both of His Legs are Amputated) Sitting in His Handicap Motorcycle by Ayesha Malik

4. Look Around and Be Patient

“Do not be afraid to ask your subject to move around. Most of the time people are just as excited as you are and willing to put in the time to get a photograph you are both happy with. Every portrait is a collaborative effort. Sometimes the photo you want is a conversation and five feet away — where the light is different, where the surroundings help reveal something entirely new or different about your subject.”

Senior Pakistani Man Sitting on a Traditional Charpai Bed, in a Cattle Farm, by Ayesha Malik
Senior Pakistani Man Sitting on a Traditional Charpai Bed, in a Cattle Farm, by Ayesha Malik

5. Take Photos the Way You Want To

“If you want to take photos with a so-called ‘wrong’ lens and ‘wrong’ camera, do it. If you don’t do it your way, it’s not your portrait; it is simply a photo you took. Magic and revelations happen when we are truly ourselves. Your subjects sense your enthusiasm. I know myself. If I do things my way, my whole mindset is way more excited and positive.”

Top image: Portrait of Pakistani bride on her wedding day by Ayesha Malik

If you’ve already mastered the art of empathetic portraits, move onto animal portraits with these tips here.