Traveling all over the world and living in exotic places like Cambodia, I take a lot of photos. I take photos of monuments and mountains and temples and tuk tuks, but most of the time, I take photos of people. Witnessing and documenting the daily lives of average people fascinates me, as I believe it reveals the true roots of their culture far better than any anthropology book ever could.
Unfortunately, many of the people I take photos of are poor, often living on the streets, reduced to begging, eating out of the trash, with no education, medical care, social programs or government aid to help them, a form of desperate poverty that we’re not accustomed to in the United States.
“Can I take a photo …?”
I can’t help not to take photos of these people, and all people, as it would be inauthentic not to document what I experience in the world. But I make sure I am not just a tourist in their pain. When possible, I ask if it’s ok I take a photo first, thank them in their own language, smile widely, and give them a dollar or some money for their trouble.
But despite these measures I cannot help but think it’s still a one-sided transaction. I – the privileged, fair-skinned, empowered, overly-fed Westerner walks among the poor, dark, uneducated masses in exotic lands, snapping photos of their deplorable circumstances in order to spread “awareness” and “help” them by posting their photos on Facebook. To me, the whole thing reeks of a new colonialism, no matter how good my intentions. The power dynamic is still there, even if the abject imperialism is absent.
“Can I take a photo of you?”
My thought was this – just like always, I would ask to take a photo of someone remarkable I encountered. But if they happened to live in poverty, powerless and bereft of hope, I wanted to leave them with something this time– not just take something away.
“Can I take a photo of you, please?”
So when I was recently in the U.S. for a few months, I bought an instant camera. It’s not a Polaroid, the household name in instant cameras for decades, but a Fujifilm. I also bought enough film to take 100 photos (and let me tell you, the film ain’t cheap – about $1 a shot).
I tried it out for the first time today. Passing a street corner in Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia, I encountered this woman living on the streets. She was sleeping on a bamboo mat right on the pavement, taking care of her little baby.
I signaled to her that I wanted to take a photo and she didn’t object, as she probably had many tourists walk by on their way to breakfast snapping photos, and maybe she hoped to get a tip out of it.
I clicked the button and the photo ejected from the top of the camera with a whir. Never having seen or heard of an instant camera before in her life, she didn’t even blink. But a few tuk tuk drivers on the street saw it and came over to look, realizing it was something cool and different. I took the photo in my fingers and waited for it to develop. Impatient, I shook it a few times, even though the instructions for this Fujifilm camera states that shaking it doesn’t make it go faster.
Soon, the image seeped into existence – a poor woman sitting on the street tending to her baby, the deep red of the wall and the rich purple of her clothes in contrast to the straw yellow mat beneath her. The tuk tuk drivers “ohhhh’d” when they saw the photo develop.
“Can I give you this photo…?”
Enchanted with her own image, she finally understood that it was for her. I asked to take a photo again but this time, she held out the photograph and I snapped a shot with my iPhone.
I may have walked away with something rare and beautiful, but left her with something just as valuable. Of course this won’t feed her family or take them off the streets or “fix” her problems, but our encounter is finally in balance.
I went down the street and ate a hearty breakfast, looking at her photo on my phone and excited to get back to my hotel room where I could write this.
I would give her a dollar, too, when I walked back past her, I decided. But when I walked the same route home, she wasn’t there. Her bamboo mat was empty beneath the red wall. Maybe she was so excited, she’d gotten up to show off her new photo, I thought.
I have 99 photos left to take and give away – and share with you. This is going to be fun.
“Can I give you this photo, please?”
PS To read more like this, just click on the Give a Photo category to the right, and thanks for sharing.