'She didn't know I was there.' The ethics of travel photography.

I recently discovered a new blog. Sifting the Grain. She doesn't allow comments and she doesn't list her followers, so I'm not sure if it's one of those famous blogs everyone knows about or if it's more like my little secret.

A poetic and aesthetically perfect secret.

This week she wrote about 'Project Nuru', which is a pretty neat idea and similar to something I've had in mind for Missing Justice: Justice for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. They sell prints of gorgeous photographs and give the profits to 'highly effective' non-profit organisations (and yeah, Missing Justice isn't perfect but it's the most effective grassroots activism collective I've ever worked with).

She included this gorgeous picture:
by Kirk Mastin

I was about to buy this print for a dear friend who's soon to get married (you know who you are) -- but when I checked out the Nuru Project, I was disturbed by the description that Kirk Mastin provides for this picture.

"I followed this girl out into the water during Pongal, the Tamil New Year festival. She was one of thousands if not millions, that day on Chennai's Marine Beach, the second longest in the world. On the third and final day of the festival, families throng to the beaches, irrespective of socio-economic class. She was having a personal moment away from the crowds and was unaware of me."

Is is just me, or is the concept of this white, Western, male photographer following this 'girl' into the water a little bit creepy? And hey Kirk, why is it cool that she was unaware of you? What right do you have to intrude on her private moment in the midst of a religious festival? I don't know if you're religious, but would you like it if somebody took a photograph of you while you were doing some other private thing like, say, picking your nose?

Admittedly, taking pictures of people in 'exotic' locations is tricky. I've done it and struggled with the inextricable linkage of colonialism/imperialism and genuine appreciation for the subject: the person whose story is full of dignity, whose clothing, body, and surroundings (like the colours of the ocean, the sky, and the dress in the picture above) are so essentially beautiful.

I guess that's the problem: essence. Essentializing is an inevitable outcome when a privileged European-American person puts the image of the 'Other' on screen. Especially when the outsider thinks their photograph says something important -- or even tells the life story -- about the person they photographed. Some organisations (e.g. PhotoVoices) try to work around this by giving cameras and photography training to the people themselves. Like this picture below, from an infant welcoming ritual in a Boti village in Indonesia.

(by Aba Benu)

But images like this don't fulfill the same romantic notions as our buddy Kirk's does. The women pictured here, while beautiful and dressed in colourful fabric, aren't gazing off into the ocean as if waiting for a handsome white explorer to come. They're happy, proud, healthy, and thoroughly occupied with their own ceremony. They look like people with agency. They are very much aware of being photographed. As such, we cannot project so many of our colonialist fantasies onto them.

It was a challenge for me to take respectful photographs while I was traveling throughout the Global South. First, I wanted to show respect in the moment. This requires not doing such douchey things as photographing people in appropriate places (when they're sleeping, when they're in a religious ritual, when they're changing, when they're naked, and so on). And second, asking for permission to photograph; and third, perhaps compensating the subject in some way, either through sending them a print afterward, or giving them some token of respect. Like money.

Yeah, it's complicated to be paying somebody for their image. In fact, it's almost pornographic. But since you're already taking advantage of the many ways that your Western country has taken advantage of theirs, it's more complicated for you not to offer them money for their image. At least when you do, you're being honest about your position. And you're giving them some choice about what they get out of the situation. And for all you out there who are all, "But that would cost so much! I take so many pictures when I travel!", well maybe you wouldn't take so many pictures if the playing field were evened in this way.

The best way to take a respectful photograph is to take it from within a context of respect, where you know the people enough to perceive them as people with lives and opinions. Like Melanie Hadida, whose photographs we exhibited at Studio BĂ©luga, and were taken during a series of six-month stays working at a clinic within the community in Bhopal, India.

(by Melanie Hadida)

There's also the question of posing. I don't like pictures of 'Othered' women that focus on their bodies, beautiful as they (the bodies, the photographs) may be. I like pictures that show them doing things, and being people. I like portraits that show context and dignity, without harkening back to the eugenicist phenotyping where exotic photography got its start. Those photographs usually had a blank background, often showing the subject's profile: all the better to see the craniological differences of the savage.

(by Some Asshole)

Sometimes I was successful.
Like this one, of a grandmother in a town outside of Havana, Cuba.

(by Svea Boyda-Vikander)

Or this one, taken at the memorial ceremony for murdered Mohawk woman Tiffany Morrison. This is her mother.

(by Svea Vikander)

And other times, not so much.

(by Some Asshole named Svea Boyda-Vikander)

It's complicated. I guess the question is: if it were me, and I were a working-class woman of colour in a country with a history of colonialism, sleeping on a train, would I want some white woman to photograph me? Probably not.

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