Sunday, May 18, 2008

smile for the colonizer

so one of my friends called me today with a story (calm down, this is not just frivolous: i have a point to make here). I am going to relay that story to you. then i'm going to relay a story of my own. then i'm going to bitch about both of them, and if we're all lucky, i'll come to some sort of conclusion. ok, so now that you have an outline, let's begin:

Story 1: two of my friends (both black) were having brunch at a restaurant in harlem. a few tables over was a french couple taking a break from their bike tour of the city, very excited to be in historic harlem! there was no one sitting in between them. In my friend's words,
"a mariah carey song came on. it might have been vision of love. (friend 1) put his hand up in the air, and i started to do a little jig in my chair. next thing you know, this french woman LEAPS out of her chair and snaps a picture of us."

dang. and of course, the french woman thought nothing was wrong, and was THRILLED to have gotten a picture of the harlem natives, celebrating their people's music over sunday brunch.

Story 2: i was recently in India on a work trip (i like this story already because it misleads the reader into thinking i have a job that pays me enough to live in this crazy city). It was just me, my boss, and someone we shall henceforth refer to as "the colonizer," even though technically my boss is british, and she is not. anyways, we were in this like, for lack of a better word, botanic garden (long story. it was made mainly of rocks.), and we had stopped to take pictures by a waterfall. the colonizer took a lot of pictures, we milled around for a while, and then got ready to move on. as we were leaving that particular area, we passed by two indian children splashing in the water. their mother and father were nearby, and the father was trying to get them to hold still for a picture. my boss commented that it was going to be a cute picture, and the colonizer, agreeing and giddy with excitement, ran up and snapped a picture of the children. as the mother turned her shocked face towards the colonizer, i quietly fled the scene and pretended like i was not traveling with anyone that day.

Commence the bitching: ok so here's the thing - what is WRONG with people? and i guess more to the point, what is wrong with Western culture? the whole world doesn't have enough fingers to count the number of pictures Americans and Europeans have snapped of people and children of color while on their travels, thrilled to get a picture that really captures the exotic nature of whatever place they happen to be in. and i can bet you about one bajillion dollars that not a single one of those picture-snappers has ever had the desire to photograph a white stranger eating brunch, standing by a waterfall, or just standing still enough to be secretly photographed. I don't think i need to explain to you why this is a problem. what i do want to know, though, is how can so many people continue to be so incredibly ignorant of their own privilege, and of their constant exoticization and other-ization of anyone who is not white? How can you, an american visitor in another country, go through the whole physical motion of spotting a complete stranger, taking our your camera, aiming, focusing, and shooting without ever thinking "i wonder if what i'm doing might make that person uncomfortable." seriously, how? and for those of you reading this who really enjoy doing that, imagine it happening to you. you're sitting at brunch, and a tourist walks up, snaps a picture of you, and then coos over how positively AMERICAN it is! god. its offensive, degrading, and frankly just shocking that so many people continue to think its just normal.

so i guess the point is, i wish people would learn some respect. i don't photograph you and your children without asking (and frankly, i don't ask, either), and i hope you'll do me the same courtesy. because i'm not a fucking landmark, or a cultural experience, i'm a person who doesn't need you ruining my day by reminding me i'm actually an 'other.' i get reminded of that enough without having a permanent record of it stored on your camera's memory card.


Brittany said...

This made me sad. One of the only places where the tables are legitimately turned in this scenario is our fair Harvard, a place where Black, Indian, Latino, Pacific Islander, Native American and white students will all get photographed by the resident Asian (predominantly Japanese) tourists.

But yeah. It's sad. I don't know.

Blah, I just got so depressed that my coherency went out the window.

Ingrid said...

I'm still shocked at the two stories. I really want to make a valid point right now but seriously - I'm still shocked. And I totally agree with Brittany about the tourists as school. =\ Ridiculous

emily0 said...

Yeek, that's so awkward. And horrible.

I did a lot of traveling in my life - I wrote a travel guide, in fact - and the behaviour people engage in when in a foreign country... let's just say "I blame the zoos". (I'm enunciating the word "zoos" carefully lol, that's a dangerous phrase to say out loud haha.) Or, rather, I blame the zoos and the theme parks.

As an undergraduate, it was really horrid to be photographed constantly. I wanted to put a towel on my head to hide, I didn't want all these people to have pictures of me In My Natural Terrain. And that was at Harvard, where admittedly I was full o' privilege for being a student.

Bernadette said...

An avid picture taker, I'm so guilty of this. But not just people of color--any old person doing something interesting (I've taken to photographing the elite latte sipping crowd of Seattle in the midst of this "democraZy" thing lately).

In any event, I never really put it into the context of "how embarrasing and marginalizing is this?!" until I went to China. Where I became the landmark. Or, better yet, when my big white boyfriend (he's 6'6) went from being "hey, look at that big American dude over there" to "Hey, over there...see the big white dude? She's right next to him."

Granted. I am a tall, black, woman with crazy looking hair. To them. I WAS a landmark in a foreign land.

But it was the experience of having people stop and stare and whip out the cell phone to call others over to stop and stare and turn the camera ever so cleverly to try and sneak a photo and then just blatantly pose me up on a statue of some sort that got me to thinking "dang girl, at the least, carry a small walk around camera so you can sneak some shots of people."

Guilty of all of the above even in the midst of knowing what it feels like to be the one stared at as the "other".


Rawi said...

This reminds me of a story from one of my English professors, with whom I took a class on Orientalism (and who happened to have studied at Columbia, under Said). So basically, my prof was talking about the ideologies implicit in all the photographs of 'native' people you see in anthropology books or in the National Geographic and whatnot. (The representation of) These people are caught in the time/space framed/assumed by the photos. Somehow, these people are doomed to exist in their Third World (while the tourist/anthropologist returns to civilization), and you don't think of these people outside of that framing. A certain anthropologist had such a picture of a native boy in a Moroccan village, a picture that was included in his published book. Decades later, the anthropologist hears from another academic (a friend of my prof), a Moroccan guy who came to study in the US and became a professor, and who wanted to tell the anthropologist: "so, here I am!" Turns out, he was that boy in the photo! Imagine the utterly confounded reaction of the photographer/anthropologist.