Saturday, March 24, 2007

Photo okay?

Intercultural multimedial etiquettisms
Whew, for someone who hasn't done much since Thursday, I sure am exhausted. Think I will recycle some viewer mail I received last week, from Ron in Missouri.

Ron writes:
Hello Sirensongs - I was referred to you by a member of Virtualtourist.

I'm a street photographer. I love photographing people in candid situations. My experience is limited to the western United States and Vietnam.

I am wondering about any special customs about photographing women in India, things I might not be familiar with. I notice that there are very few photographs of women in the website galleries that I have found. Much of my work is in open markets and at fairs and like events, so I frequently photograph vendors, then return with copies of the pictures to give them the next day. I try to establish relationships in this way, rather than just pointing a camera at people and then disappearing.

Anyway, I'm going to Gujarat in two weeks, my first trip to India, and any advice would be appreciated. I have enjoyed reading your travelogues.

Dear Ron:
Like everything Indian, the issue is complex and not without contradictions.

On the one hand, most of the culture adores (literally) images and imagery, everything from home movies to pictures of film stars to icons of the gods.

On the other hand, there are traditional concepts of modesty to deal with, as well as complicated inter-gender relations - that is, as a woman, it is much easier and less "intrusive" for me to photograph another woman than for a man to do so.
(You get mixed messages, too. The Bihari ladies at left are waving and yelling, "No photo!" - but still smiling playfully. They are "supposed to" be modest and shy, as a cultural expectation, but may actually enjoy a little attention - if no one is looking!)

Additionally, there's the perception of "rich" foreigner "taking something" from the local. All these things must be considered.

In general, when someone is in a public place doing a public job, (ie, selling things in the market or on the sidewalk, or working on the farm) I consider them "fair game" - but always approach them with a smile, and making the "click click" motion indicate, "Photo okay??" Again, this is much easier for me as a woman - it is never misunderstood as a "come-on."

Sometimes women will say no and dismiss me with a wave of the hand. More often, they will smile and indicate yes (the various 'head woggles' of south Asia can be confusing to newcomers, though).

Occasionally (very) they will demand money - I do not give money to them as I think it fosters a whole range of unhealthy reactions.

Also, sometimes they will indicate that they want you to give them a copy of the photo. Never promise "yes" unless you absolutely can do it and intend to. Otherwise, they think you're just another foreigner who does not keep promises.

Most often, I indicate "sorry, not possible" and shake my head. ("Not possible" is Indian English, understood by all.)

When I'm in one place long enough, though, I do as you suggested and return photos to the models, who are usually delighted.

Whenever feasible (if crowds are not too rowdy), I do show them the digital image in the viewfinder. More often than not this is met with a big smile and loud laughter. It is much appreciated, since many people have never seen a photo of themselves.

It also serves to bond with people and give something back to them.

A couple more things :
-Muslims in general, and Muslim women in particular, are very touchy about being photographed. Their religion officially frowns on any image-creation (though personally, they may enjoy it), and the women especially bear the brunt of extreme "modesty" requirements.

They may say yes, though, if you ask politely. I think it's more difficult for a man to photograph a Muslim woman. One exception is Muslim kids - boys and girls. They usually have no objection to being photographed!

Another thing to keep in mind:
Oftentimes, people will be engaged in activities on the street or sidewalk that are, in fact, private - washing kids, bathing themselves, cooking or doing laundry. (see photo at left)

This is the nature of lower-class Indian housing -a great deal of it is out in the open; lots of people live in lean-tos and sheds, half on the street and so on. Many people have to bathe at the public pump and have no privacy.

Try to be sensitive with anyone, but especially women, in such situations. Again, the kids usually have no objection at all and enjoy it!

And one more thing: Please check out and perhaps contribute to, after your trip, the group "50 Million Missing" - dedicated to representing the Indian women and girls who are "missing" in India's ongoing gender-wars.
Thanks for writing, and happy snapping!

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