'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.

Jesus College Newsletter: Young white men rowing on the cover.

I have the great fortune to be married to one superbly educated man. He knows how to cook a perfect bouillabaise, gives great back massages, and has climbed the 'half-dome' in Yosemite (which is not actually pronounced 'Yo-sa-might'). All this despite the fact that he went to school in Boston, if you know what I mean.

Yes, they tell you to say that. They say, "Don't tell people you went to Harvard, it makes them feel bad." When he first told me they said this I was like, "True, it totally does." But then he explained to me that this kind of thinking is the height of elitism and I was like, Hey, you went to Harvard, what do I know?

Anyway. He went to these Great Schools and now the Great Schools assume he must have become a Great Man. Two years after you've finished your undergrad, for example, Cambridge confers upon you an honourary Master's. Just for having gotten a B.A. 

And for being the kind of person who goes to Cambridge.

As soon as you've graduated, they come a-knockin'. You got your GD (Greatness Dust) and now they expect to be repaid with GE (Great Endowments). Joke's on them, in our case. We arrived at my in-laws' place in Wisconsin today and one of these glossy card-stock alumni magazines was sitting on the table. It's from Jesus College, Oxford. It's where Jesus learned to wear robes with panache. Even better, apparently they call each other 'fellow Jesubites'. This is something I'm going to have to whisper into my husband's ear sometime special. 

Here are some of the choicest tidbits from the Jesus College Oxford Newsletter.

"This [funding drive]...wasn't easy by any means; Jesus Historians tend to excel in their chosen careers, but do not on the whole tend to pick particularly lucrative occupations...nearly a third of the College's Historians donated to the Appeal, including teachers, family lawyers and those who are retired..."

Oh, pity the poor family lawyers!

"Just before Easter, our Deputy Development Director, Ali James, took a trip across 'The Pond'. ... many miles were covered by plane, train and on foot!"

A jubilee -- in the Canadas!

On St. David's Day Tea: "The sun shone and guests spilled out of the Harper Room and into Front Quad with their cups of tea and cakes."

Oh, how devil-may-care!

Sarah Beynon, DPhil student, writes about her 'Wild Zambian Adventure': "...I'm no stranger to unsavoury odours, but the smell of a rotting hippo carcass was enough to get even my senses screaming! But boy was it worth it -- oozing maggot masses, beautiful metallic green hide beetles chomping on the dehydrated sinew, and huge crickets feasting on unwitting insects not quick enough to scurry away. Quite special if you're an entomologist I assure you!" 

Thanks for the assurance, Ms. Beynon. Thank you so very much.

Martin Powell (2004) discusses 'Teach First', which is one of those programmes that tries to get rich, unqualified people to teach poor, unfortunate savages -- I mean, people.

"The relationships built with the students are really what make my day... when you have developed such a strong rapport...that they can appreciate the effect that you are having on their education..."

It's almost like they get to go to Oxford!

"Strong partnerships with many organisations also enable you to develop your leadership skills; for example, through attending a two-year Leadership Development Programme."

Lead, lead, lead.
Into the light.

"At times it can feel that a school is making your week hard; you have had to break up a fight, you are exhausted from teaching six consecutive lessons, a late night due to parents [sic] evening and you still have to mark and plan."

Just like that time you worked the graveyard shift at the shipping yard, but harder.

"There are occasional lows, especially when you are working in such turbulent schools. However these are times when an objective mind is required when applying your leadership skills."

(Side note: From what I know, Leadership Skills is when you boss people around but convince them that you're not. I don't talk to people sitting beside me on the airplane because they're always reading books about Leadership Skills. Also, my baby throws up.)

On Exploration and Adventure: "...a colleague hand-delivered a large expensive-looking envelope embossed with the Buckingham Palace insignia that turned out to contain an invitation to a reception in honour of 'those involved in Exploration and Adventure'. The reception was to be hosted by the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh in December... How exciting!" 

This event was recently re-branded from its former title, 'Colonialism and Douchebaggery'.

There's a section where they profile some graduates of bygone eras. Six former students. All were in Chemsitry. All are men. All are white. And all have worked for/run corporations (lots of oil) and been involved in law enforcement and/or army. These people literally run the world.

 Brian Elms (graduated 1953) "...spent 20 years working for three blue chip companies -- Proctor & Gamble,... Mars, working in their vending operation -- and finally United Biscuits, where I was Marketing and Technical Director for their fast food brand Wimpy and had fun developing, for example, the spicy beanburger..." 

When I die, I want that on my tombstone: Svea Boyda-Vikander, Veggie Burger Developer.

Pat Tyrrell left Oxford in 1968, "...two years before women were to sweep all before them and become a formal part of College (we had ensured their place as an informal element for years!)..."

Those pesky women. More 'education', less 'objectification'. I even told her I'd pay for the procedure.

(Did you know that I once called out my British friend on some sexist thing he'd said, and he called me an 'alien slut machine'? It was kind of the high point of our friendship).

Finally, Terry Darlington shares an excerpt from his book. Not to be daunted by the conventions of English, he tells us that, "Dr Dobson was the world's greatest expert on entymology, and so good that I almost began to care how words changed over time." 

And, also, how ants crawled all over them.

(from http://jonmarkgreville.wordpress.com/2009/10/03/fortieth-anniversaryjesus-college-oxford/)