While I am more of a photography enthusiast than any sort of professional, I inherited my father’s eagerness to capture the moments to remember. This translated to different art forms growing up (again, amateur), but I loved being able to show others the world through my eyes. As I moved into a university dorm and my living quarters got smaller, I transitioned more to photography because cameras were small and could fit under my bed better than an easel could.
Transitioning to a DSLR, I began to appreciate how one photo could say 1000 words. Street photography was my favourite. I loved capturing the beauty of everyday life. This was especially true for places that were naturally more colourful than the relatively monotone concrete and brick cityscapes I had been raised; environments dotted with piles of the most vibrantly ripe fruit I had ever seen, multicoloured fish swimming in buckets, temples made of real glittering gold, brick was replaced by walls painted fuchsia and canary and teal.
And then this happened.
The year was 2015, I was freshly 25 and galavanting around South East Asia. This shot was taken in a large winding market in Hanoi, Vietnam. Despite being only a week away from completing a full 4 month adventure filled with countless markets, temples and wildly beautiful landscapes, I was still as trigger happy as the first day I landed in Bangkok.
Returning home after my 4-month trip I was eager to edit the billions of shots sitting on my memory card. Unfortunately for me, something was wrong with my lens and many (MANY) sadly came out blurry. But then I came across the photo above, and her expression was as clear as glass. She did not looked too stoked to see me.
See, I think anyone who has wielded a camera on a street has been in this awkward place before:
Walking down the street in a new place, something catches our eye and we instantly reach for our camera to capture it. But that something is a group of people.
… and you don’t want to seem creepy so you awkwardly position your camera at a different point of focus, while including your intended target in the frame
… only to look at the photo later and realize that the subjects of your shot noticed you taking the photo
… and what was supposed to be a shot capturing the simplistic beauty of everyday local life is now looking at you confused as to why you are crouching behind a garbage can.
OK. So maybe we haven’t all crouched behind a garbage can. But haven’t we all wanted to? To not interrupt the setting with your foreign existence, and feel immersed? To capture the vibrance of what you are seeing with your eyes, and bring that beauty back home some how? To get that angle we’ve been salivating over in National Geographic since we were 9 years old?
Maybe the amount of blurry images I ended up with wasn’t because of my lens, and rather an outcome of shaky hands and hesitation from fear of being noticed. In the photo that changed everything, the merchant’s human stare had the power to transcend my lens and photo into my gut. I felt uncomfortable, and it wasn’t because she noticed me. It went deeper, and I wondered but how could a photo impact me so strongly. It was the feeling that I wasn’t the first giddy tourist to snap a shot of her that day, and I wouldn’t be the last. It was just that: she was a human, not an object.
After some soul-searching I realized that this fear of being noticed stemmed from an internal battle between my right to freedom of expression, and a subject’s right to privacy. Personal privacy and comforts not only vary from person to person, but also place to place (not to mention, there are LAWS that vary around this, too). Where do you draw the line?
Today, as the founder of a sustainable travel company for womxn, I often design my tours in a way that is hyper-mindful of visiting the people, as much as the places. Curating community experiences that cultivates meaningful connection. This is especially top of mind as I wait for borders to reopen post-COVID-19. I sit here thinking of how we — as a global collective of explorers — can press “reset” and recalibrate the way we visit the world and its people. Most importantly, as welcomed guests.
Today, I still can’t say that I know the answer of where to draw the line. I generally avoid taking photos with people as the main subject without their permission. Like this photo taken of two sweet brothers in Jaipur, India.
I’d like to think that when I am welcomed into a country as a visitor, I can leave as a welcomed guest, and ensure that my presence doesn’t sour the experience for the next person, or more importantly, the person I am visiting. Instead I have reinvested my interest in taking landscape shots, which do include people a lot of the time, but the perspective is less personal. Less in-your-face. As I developed my knowledge around colour theory, rule of third and juxtaposition, I realized a level of creative freedom that allows me to tell a story. And I don’t need a close up of a stranger’s face to convey the kind of emotion I was looking for, either.
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