I’m just going to throw it out there that it’s way easier, thanks to gender stereotypes, to be a young woman writing a post about taking pictures of children, and not feel particularly creepy about it.
In and around the Yuanyang Rice Terraces of southern Yunnan Province, China, I had an unexpected plethora of picture-taking opportunities. Nice! Initially I headed down here from Kunming for the rice terraces, ringing the hills from low to high, obnoxiously romanticized in advertising videos shown on incoming Chinese tour buses. The terraces, they were sublime. If I could offer one piece of unsolicited advice, it would be that you don’t really need to buy the formal 100RMB admission at the visitor’s centre. Unless you’d like to take photos of people taking photos, as I stealthily did, in which case your money will certainly be well spent.
But it was less the terraces, and more the people and interactions with them that stayed in my thoughts during and after my three days around Yuanyang. In particular, it got me pondering the ins and outs of my favourite type of photography. I’ve been thinking quite a bit about what it means for me and for them when I take pictures of people…
For me, it’s perpetually interesting to see, and at times to document humanity doing mundane or totally zany things. If I had to choose one, only taking pictures of places, food, AND nature, or only people and their lives, I’d certainly choose the latter. Maybe part of it for me is the challenge and the accompanying satisfaction of earning the person’s or group’s ‘go-ahead’ to take the picture. To capture something representing a moment of a life you had the good fortune to glimpse, or, even more awesome, an interaction with someone that you got to share. And all without pissing off anyone in the process, and without paying for the picture.
If I could have a guarantee (written, verbal, handshake, blood oath, whatever) I was never offending them, I’d take photos of people a lot more than I do now, with or without them looking into my bulky (but trusty!) lens. My first subjects? The ladies swinging their hips and arms to music in the park outside today’s coffice (coffee-office) in a park within Urumqi. My eye is on you, dance troupe with impressive coordination.
But what about them? Chances are that even if someone is irked for a moment, they’ll likely get over the next. Or, they won’t care at all. It’s just a photo, and I’m just one person. I think that can be a dangerous philosophy to have as a tourist, considering not only photography but many aspects of travel. It tends to discount the culminative effect of the countless interactions that person has potentially had with visitors before, and has yet to come.
You could say my personal photography philosophy is still forming, still a bit out of focus (har har). Generally, eighty percent of the time if I want to take a picture of someone I will do my best to be upfront and get their permission. I now try to follow this all of the time for close up photos now, but in years past I didn’t as much. The other twenty (ish) percent of the time would include photos of crowds, sneaky photos from a far distance, or photos where the person is turned around and is likely none the wiser (although nearby people in all likelihood may see). It can be difficult to try and capture a candid photo if you’ve already engaged the person in a conversation about whether or not you can take it. I, for one, am terrible at and generally dislike ‘acting natural’ once the lens is in my face.
There are a few people whose feelings I care less about when taking their picture. On the low end, where I couldn’t care much at all, are people that are taking close up photos of me without asking, and people who are asleep (notable exception to this would be homeless or destitute people sleeping, that just feels wrong).
By contrast, I try to be the most careful and respectful around children, and inhabitants living in areas that tourists may visit specifically to see people, I’m thinking of ethnic minority villages as an example. These people that, I expect, may commonly find themselves at the butt end of the glass whether they like it or not. The conundrum is that I would count myself among the large group of people who find these individuals the most rewarding to meet, interact with, and take pictures of. The kids, I’m perpetually a sucker for the kids!
Here’s a description of a day in China that offered a bizarre amount of encounters with not only children, not only ethnic minorities, but children OF ethnic minorities, in a very popular area, camera-toting tourists around every brick corner. Oh wait, I guess that’s me too. My experiments in picture-taking etiquette follow.
One day, I didn’t feel like joining the hordes on the viewing platforms offering the best panoramas of the terraces. This should be taken to mean that I did not feel ambitious enough to negotiate a price for a seat in a shared minivan to the other viewing points. Instead, on the advice of my hostel I set out walking down the dusty road to see some of the villages neighbouring Duoyishu, where I was staying. I had a destination in mind, but I got kind of lost and didn’t make it (a common occurrence for me, particularly pathetic as I am a geologist).
I walked awhile past work trucks full of people, lots of corn drying in doorways, and pigs. It was idyllic, and I especially love big ugly pigs. The villages spring up along the main road but are punctuated by patches of forest and crumbly cliffs.
I met a group of children sitting on a section of wall between two villages. We exchanged pleasantries, all parties were pretty stoked on each other. I have to define ‘exchanged pleasantries’ specifically for China to generally mean that we wave, smile and stare at each other. If words are spoken, they are rarely understood one way or the other – for me the language barrier is built up like a fortress here, and the few words and phrases of Mandarin I do know don’t consistently have the desired effect.
I hung out for a while with them and decided I wanted to take photos. To ask, I gestured hesitantly with my camera, and they just kind of stared, looking curious and shy and didn’t give me a clear answer one way or the other. I did it anyway, it’s true, I DID IT ANYWAY.
You can see in the following three photos a seeming progression; that once I snapped a shot and showed them on the display, they appeared to be more enthusiastic about posing for the camera. Does this mean they liked me taking their photo as long as they got to see it and have a giggle? Not sure, I hope so. In this instance I definitely asked for forgiveness rather than permission.
I continued on my way and passed through another village. Some lunch would have been welcome in the house of Megan’s stomach at this point, but I hadn’t cracked the Hani people’s lunch spot code yet, so onwards it was. Off the main road behind a gate there were a few exceptionally snotty children. As I walked over, another came peeking out from his house. Maybe I made some funny faces, or maybe we just smiled at each other like the last gang, the memory escapes me. They had a father, or grandfather with them and he gave me permission to take pictures of the little ones. Although they seemed enthusiastic about it, the pictures look like their dribbley ringleader is trying to get me out of there.
In the heat of the day with little water and even less food, I feasted on almonds and an apple for lunch. It wasn’t time to dig out an emergency granola bar but that moment did arrive later. I rested on the dusty steps beside a small pig house with a very big pig lounging within. A family was sitting out on the floor in the shade not far down the road. A few kids came over before long, curious about me but perhaps more curious about my food. Each I gave a few almonds, some more than once, as they’d traipse away with their bounty and return shortly after. One even brought me a small wooden stool, presumably as a trade, or maybe to sit on (I didn’t). I briefly had my camera out but these kids were shyer than the others. Their parents were too far away, and the idea of coercing them with food in exchange for photos wasn’t my favourite. My apple core went to the pig, and I trudged on.
My destination had been these traditional round ‘mushroom’ houses but I was tired, hot, likely dehydrated and certainly getting sunburnt. I turned around, and headed back towards Duoyishu. On the suggestion of a girl I met walking named Yin Yin, I found a stone marker that led towards a place to view a special area of the terraces, where the water that filled them was different colours. Weaving through the village, I passed burning piles of farm rakings, diving ducks, women hanging black cloth, and the occasional livestock.
Although I asked several people as best I could, I still got lost and didn’t end up seeing the terraces filled with anything other than murky brown water. I did however almost step in a dirty daiper as I balanced along the narrow stone irrigation channels that form walkways along the terraces. It was around this point that I sat (not in the diaper) and had one of my crisis granola bars. I still have one stashed away, it’s a Clif Bar (Mint Chocolate Flavour) and it is absolutely only to be consumed under dire circumstances that well surpass being hot and bothered in China.
Now, I told myself, I was really heading back to the hostel before I start trying to drink the brown terrace water. I was almost back out onto the main road when I turned a corner and came across a few girls dressed in traditional Hani clothing. They were, presumably, the children of the woman who had tried several times to give me directions, and probably thought I was a really hopeless case by now.
We stared at each other for a while, standard practice and if the story ended there I might not have written this post. Instead, when one of the girls pointed at my camera, slung on my shoulder, oh a whim I just handed the thing over. A sort of pandemonium ensued, as I attempted to show them how to look in the viewfinder amidst them subjecting the camera to the most rapid-fire photography session it had ever experienced.
Five excited children, one camera, I estimated a 50% chance that this would be the end of my Nikon D3000, and I gave it a quick eulogy in my head. It had been a great companion for almost seven years, even with a kit lens that had been broken for most of them. This would be a sign off in spectacular fashion for it, you know, perishing while doing what you love and all that.
Suddenly, I was among the subjects, as were the children’s mother, grandmother, nearby livestock and of course the other children. They didn’t quite have the patience to wait for the photos to load on the display, so mostly they didn’t see their handiwork. I think, more than anything, they enjoyed the loud satisfying click each time they snapped another picture.
And they were great, every few minutes whoever had the camera would try to politely hand it back to me, and I’d let them keep at it a while longer.
It was just us for a while, down around that corner in the village. I had taken out a phrasebook and was butchering some basic sentence when a group of tourists swooped in. Instantly, big lenses were in all of our faces. I laugh about it now, especially looking at the man’s expression in this photo. I imagine perhaps he felt like he had won the lottery. A foreigner, with a phrasebook, trying unsuccessfully to communicate with adorable children dressed in their traditional clothing, and who she has given her camera to, all in the backdrop of an idyllic rural village. It was too much for him. He is stoked!
In the moment I wasn’t laughing, I was actually a bit horrified. I felt like I had been working towards an equal exchange with these kids, that we were all enjoying each other’s company. Now, suddenly, I felt both a bit exploited by these big cameras, and also like an accomplice, keeping the attention of the children so the newcomers could take pictures. It was time for me to go, but not before some high fives with the kids.
I had one more opportunity that day to think about children and my camera. When I got back to the hostel Circle, a girl working there, took me down the hill, deeper into Duoyishu Village. We worked out across the muddy rims of the terraces towards some muddier children, who were catching prawns in the water. This was news to me, that there are prawns in the rice terraces.
Circle speaks Mandarin, and was able to chat with the kids while we watched. On our way back up the hill, she told me that the little prawn hunters had asked for money after they had let me take their photo. She had brushed them off and told them no, her opinion being that it was a bad habit for children to form, but that they ask because a lot of tourists do give out money, or candy. I suddenly thought, had all the children I’d met that day been asking me for money, and I just hadn’t understood what they were saying? Had I just ignored them and walked away, thinking they were saying goodbye or something like that?
This day gave me a lot to think about. It reminded me of what it feels like to be the subject of a photo by someone you don’t know. It also made me think that unless I’m willing and able to have some sort of meaningful interaction with the person or people I’m taking a photo of, maybe the camera shouldn’t come out at all. Importantly for me, my time in the villages did give me encouragement that these types of interactions can happen, and that with a bit of patience, luck and effort, they might be enjoyable for everyone.