Say Cheese for the Travel Photographer
cheese!" please, in "internationalese!" Today's cheese seeking travel
photographer is increasingly apt to be rebuffed for their photographic
advances upon people subjects, especially in touristically saturated places.
No matter how smooth the camera-side manner in approaching locals, buzz-off
is often the not so sweet refrain.
The assumption that the world's people are, or should be, simply thrilled to have thousands of amateur and professional photographers glide up to them for smiley, ethnic portraits is a sort of photo-colonialism: the last gasp of a vacationing, dominant culture to control minorities despite the highest minded, social and creative intent.
My own quotient of photo-colonialism wears rough on me; environmental travel portraits are a special love of mine. Reality is that cooperative, people pictures are increasingly difficult to achieve.Last May I lead a photo tour to Morocco where this issue became a matter of frustrationto me and toseveral people in the group. No small challenge, I had to assess the photographers' creative and emotional concerns as clients wishing people shots on a commercial trip, while at the same time balance my sense of the current, social wind in a rapidly changing culture in which I have lived and traveled almost annually for more than fifteen years. Like people in many countries around the world, Moroccans suffer photo-burnout, with good reason. Let's expose a few case studies from the trip.
the south, we spotted off the road the striped, goat hair tents of the
nomadic Berber shepherds. For years I've taken groups into Berber encampments
with harmonious interactions ensuing, being invited inside for mint tea
and photo-ops all around. This time several of us entered the encampment
with me in the lead to "suss" out the situation, fully expecting our guide
Abdul to follow on to grease the photo-wheel, so to speak.
Upon arriving, a disgruntled, young boy emerged from a tent, obviously the turf keeper while elder men were off with the sheep and goats. Then mum emerged. I went through my gracious entry routine, gesturing intent to help a tour member set up a tripod shot of the tent and distant mountains. This went quite well for a bit as others entered the scene with their own photo intentions, including people shots.
Where's Abdul? I need you, now! The so-far-so-good would not last long as people poked inside the tent without invitation and approached mum and the boy for portraits. Looking back, I saw Abdul along the roadside engaged in gestured discourse with the police, who'd just happened along. Immediately, I knew what was up: the police are sensitive to any interpretation of rural Moroccans as poor. And, they certainly don't understand "picturesque" as a viable reason for taking pictures of them or their lifestyle.
Abducted Abdul! I was up the wadi without a word - no Arab speaking guide to facilitate our encounter with the Berbers. With neither ability to communicate nor change in my pocket, I saw no alternative save to advise photographers to tip for individual shots. The lad had become quite agitated by this time even though he was making out like a bandit, economically. The upshot was that he kept palming Durham, then flatly refusing to be photographed himself, and finally threw a boycott on mum, as well. What an agent!
A couple of out-of-pocket photographers were miffed when the boy ceased playing the game before they'd gotten their shots. At this Juncture, a dissatisfied photo-colonial attitude colored the trip for some from that point on. Photographically assumptive privilege and western logic brought to bear on the locals blindsided a few to the exceptionally diverse photographic opportunities unique to Morocco.
Moving along the Route de la Kasbah with its oases; spectacular ksours, or walled desert villages; and camel caravans - all back dropped by the Atlas Mountains - the group split up and set out on a sundown stroll in the Gorges du Dades. Tight roping along the cases' irrigation footpaths in the curve ball, evening light, exotic agricultural workers tempted our trigger fingers to no avail. The buzz-off gesture, especially from women, seemed even more prevalent than it had been on the same walk the previous year. Why?
To find out, my French-speaking husband Landt Dennis engaged four ethnically attired, young women in a cordial, giggly conversation. These were bright, French speaking Dades debutantes, surprisingly sophisticated. They stated, politely and directly, that talking to foreigners was OK, but they could not be photographed under any circumstances.
Asking our guide to investigate why there was such an absolute photo-taboo in a region where I'd been successful in taking shots of women in the past, he heard an amazing tale - whether tall or not, who knows. Evidently, a women working the fields recently allowed herself to be photographed by a French photographer. Her husband, part of the North African work force in France, saw the shot published in a Moroccan calendar. Returning home, he dumped his wife for her international indiscretion and humiliating, public display of his marital chattel.
Where this tale rings true is that there are many Moroccans from the Gordes du Dades, in particular, who work in France. The money they make, including the golden parachutes received from the French government to repatriate so as to preserve labor jobs for French nationals, is expressed in a recent building boom in the Gorges du Dades and throughout southern Morocco.
Sometimes my mind fairly booms with photo colonialism's many wily guises. Those familiar to me include: I can charm my way to people pictures; I deserve shots of the folks - I've blown big bucks to be here; my photo of you will be the best ever taken; the Zen stance: Lady, I don't really want your portrait anyway; and most egotistical: I'm a cultural competent, groovy with locals.
How can any of us be failsafe cultural competents these days, knowing every nuance of local culture and shifting sentiments of people towards being captured on film. We simply can't. Anti-photo sentiment isn't just in the world's pop-spots, either. A photo-tour leader friend tells of turning up with her group in a remote, Vietnamese tribal village only to find sufficient resistance to photography that she summarily moved the group on to a photo-friendlier community. Should resistance stop us from even trying to establish sincere, one-on-one photo-encounters with individuals in foreign cultures? Hell no, not me! Hitting Taroudant, a charming, small city in the south, we forayed into the streets by the hospital gates, rows of fabulous women waited admission to visit patients. Swathed in color, their kohl eyes peered at us and our cameras. Seven women sitting in a row seemed to throw a unilateral scowl at me. I mustered courage and made an approach; onlookers gauged the outcome.
With a 100mm macro ready for optical intimacy, I envisioned a close-up portrait that would eliminate the concrete wall behind. Approaching each woman in my fluent body language, I reverently expressed my desire to take her picture. And yes, got rejected right down the line. Then from the sixth lady, I got a tentative smile. Her eyes seemed to say, "OK you photo-colonialist, but make it snappy.''
As the trip came to a close, the people shooters seemed to fall into two categories. Those taking the wildlife approach with telephoto lenses for grab shots seemed to suffer the most frustration and alienation from the local culture. Those taking a more interactive tact, including a woman graced with schoolteacher sensibilities, found an angle; she worked with the kids, gaining license from the occasional parent along the way. This technique enabled her to transcend photo colonialism and gain a sense of social and creative atonement with the Moroccans.
Photo-colonialism: Say cheese for the travel photographer. Why should they- I don't know. But I do know there are people everywhere, regardless of economic level or religious tradition, who are simply nice enough to grace me with cooperation. And they're not even after "baksheesh." Every truly personal, people picture is a gift. While rejection seems a public embarrassment, it's not personal. Go for it; put yourself out there. Be surprised! Be graced!