Photographing people can be challenging.
Photographing people of different cultures, religions and nationalities can be even more complicated.
How do we photograph people while travelling without causing offence?
This conundrum presented itself to me while travelling in Peru.
It soon became apparent that many local people living and working near tourist hot spots such as Cusco and Arequipa did not like being photographed. It was also apparent that certain travellers insisted on photographing these people.In reaction, some local people demanded payment for appearing in traveller’s photos. For a few ‘Nuevo Soles’, they would acquiesce to performing the role of subject.
This arrangement led one fellow traveller to remark,
“They’ll give you their soul in return for your Sol.”
The traveller was referring to a commonly-held belief that Peruvians, and other indigenous people, are reluctant to appear in photographs because they think that the camera will steal their soul.
Some cultures forbid being photographed. Australian Indigenous people traditionally forbid photographs, even though today’s youth, even in remote communities, have fallen under the spell of the selfie.
Local people living in tourist hot spots, such as those in Peru, detest photography because they’re simply sick of it. Sick of arrogant tourists appearing in their community on a fly-by visit only to shove a camera, or phone, in their face and demand a photo.
Analysing this phenomena theoretically or philosophically informs us of the concept of the ‘other’. Theoretically, the ‘other’ is a person or thing that does not belong to our culture and is therefore different. Our culture is the norm, and any other culture, and people belonging to that culture, are the ‘other’.
Travel, and photographing people, can be a manifestation of ‘othering’. Travellers, who journey to lands that are different to their own, seek photos with people simply because they are different. The visitor is not interested in that person’s thoughts, personality, motivations – only interested in what makes that person exotic, strange, different…the ‘other’.
Without delving too deeply into philosophy, it could be argued that the visitor chases photographs of the ‘other’, because sharing those images with friends and family makes that person appear more travelled, more worldly, more exotic.
Some local people have responded to their ‘othering’ in a pragmatic way. Some reluctantly pose for tourists, in return for cash or in the hope that visitors will buy more of their Maasai souvenirs. Photo done, the traditionally-adorned Maasai warrior resumes playing on his smartphone.
In contrast, some local people are perfectly happy to be photographed, especially kids.
Personally, I have never experienced any major issues with photographing people. I try to be respectful traveller, but I’m also not a passionate photographer (in fact, at the moment I don’t even own a camera) so I simply don’t take many photos.
I have, however, been in situations in which the opportunity arose for me to take a photo of a public event, even a private event that was happening in a public space, and I took the opportunity to snap a photo as a passive observer. My photo was never going to make any difference to that event.
Photographing children is another topic altogether. Their images can appear anywhere, and be used for any sinister purpose. Such is the potential danger that a Surf Life Saving Club in Sydney, Australia, has banned parents from taking photos of their own children during ‘Nippers’ (junior life saving training). Instead, the club hires a professional photographer to take photos of the children, and parents can only access those photos through a password-protected site.
This is the world we live in.
Also, as an aside, when I first started backpacking (when I was a boy…) smartphones and even digital cameras were rare. Many travellers carried a film camera and had to re-stock on film, preciously guard their used film, and wait until they arrived home, which could be six months later, before they could process the film and see how their photos turned out.
In such circumstances, one travel buddy once remarked.
“Film is more valuable than your passport. You can replace your passport, but you can’t go back to that very moment and take exactly the same picture.”
Thus, while photography can be a fulfilling activity to accompany a journey, perhaps we should all remind ourselves to enjoy that very moment.