Reprinted from Outdoor and Nature Photography Magazine
By Nevada Wier
However, the roads roll on, airports proliferate, and modern communication, television, and movies push ever farther into the hinterland. Remote communities are losing their traditional flavor and adapting the veneer of the western world. It is sad, inevitable, and irrevocable. Civilizations have unceasingly blossomed, collapsed, mutated and merged. We are still discovering beneath layers of earth, traces of ancient societies swallowed by catastrophes or marauding enemies. The major difference between now and centuries past is that change is occurring at a vertiginous rate and with boring similarity.
American pop culture is mutating - spreading all over the globe, with chain hotels, fast food and baseball caps. And, we - travelers, tourists and toters of cameras - contribute to the change as much as the media and the music industry. We drop seeds of our culture wherever we tread. I think it is easier to travel with little or no impact in fragile eco-systems than it is to move among the diverse cultures of the world - whether they be the city dwellers of Hanoi or the remote Miao tribes of southern China.
I am concerned about this, I ponder and consider it all the time - but it doesn't stop me from photographing. Photographing is no more offensive than making a drawing or singing a song - it is the conduct of the person photographing that is important.
Large numbers of people are travelling regularly out of their homelands for short periods of time and, it is inconceivable to travel without a camera. Susan Sontag wrote in the seminal book On Photography, "Photographs offer indisputable evidence that the trip was made, that the program was carried out, that fun was had ... Most tourists feel compelled to put the camera between themselves and whatever is remarkable that they encounter. Unsure of other responses, they take a picture. This gives shape to experience: stop, take a photograph, and move on."
I also think humans thrive on contact and communication, but we don't seem to be very good at it. Every day we witness cultural clashes and miscommunications ranging from tiffs in small communities to all out battles across borders. Photographing people while traveling is fundamentally about communicating. I have witnessed the most gregarious become tongue-tied at the seemingly simple task of asking someone if they can take a picture, or worse - assume that there was no need to make contact.
Sometimes I think cameras should be licensed or oaths administered at the purchase counter. "I promise to be a responsible photographer. I shall never assume that I have the right to photograph anyone." Or, something like that.
I have seen plenty of rude photographers in my day. I suspect that I have been one of them on many an occasion. As more and more people are toting cameras to exotic locations, we can't expect everyone to stand up and say "cheese" for us. We have to earn our photographs. We should take the time to build a rapport, even if it is only for a minute or two. Our subjects should be treated as individuals, not as objects, just as we would like to be treated if someone were taking our photograph.
A few years ago I was in Kashgar, a bucolic town on the western edge of China. Every Sunday there is a local market where it is possible to buy anything from buttons to camels. I was sitting at a local food stall devouring lamb kebobs when I felt eyes upon me. I looked up to see an unfamilar westerner taking my photograph. No problem, I believe that it is my karmic duty to pose and posture for all photographs. However, he never took his eyes from behind the camera and acknowledged me. My willingness and good nature evaporated. All he had to do was smile at me once and he could have photographed me all afternoon. I have never forgotten how violated I felt at that moment.
The very language of photography is aggressive: take, shoot, capture. All too often we take on the persona as predators behind a camera. "Did you get the shot?", I've asked countless people. Though cameras are not lethal, we can wound people by turning them into objects that can be symbolically possessed.
When I first started traveling and photographing over twenty years ago I felt uncomfortable, even guilty. Photographing someone I did not know made me feel afraid of being intrusive, so I stood back with a telephoto lens to discreetly photograph ... or so I thought. I know now that usually people were aware of me and probably even more annoyed that I was surreptitiously taking photographs. I did get some great images but there was an empty feeling; I was a voyeur, a passive observer, and not an active participant in the situation.
I began using wider angle lenses and thus coming in closer to people. I was forced to be direct and communicate in some manner or other whether it was verbal or non verbal. I discovered that 90 % of the world enjoys being photographed - it just depends on how you approach them. You have to be in a good mood, open, sincere and possessed of an almost Zen-like beginner mind.
I began to enjoy my travels more. I met more people and spent more time with them. Sometimes the outcome was a stunning image, but more often it was a memorable experience. Photography doesn't divorce me from a situation. It motivates me to become more involved. I find myself searching out colors, patterns, paying attention to the changing tones and hues of light, ande becoming increasingly sensitive to events. I also find myself relating to people I might otherwise feel too shy or reluctant to greet. And, in the end, that is why I love to travel.
However, when I reach a destination swarming with other tourists ... I take pity on the vendors in the most conspicuous places who must endure a plethora of cameras staring in their face every day. I walk around the corner, down the side streets, away from the crowds and then begin phtographing. I accept that there are some countries that are more open to cameras and foreigners than others. I accept that there are some places like the Native American pueblos in New Mexico, that I won't be able to photograph in freely without having a permit and an entree to gain their trust before I even pick up a camera.
I intentionally choose destinations such as Asia, where I can swiftly establish rapport without tipping or buying my way into situations. (I never pay for a photograph unless I am doing a commerial shoot.) I am aware that I represent more than myself -- I am also an ambassador of America, photographers, and modern women. It is a weighty responsibility that I take seriously, whether I'm in parts of the world that have or have not experienced much tourism.
I also deliberately travel to places that are on the fringe of tourism. I've spent years photographing the Kirghiz nomads of Western China, ridden horses into the depths of eastern Tibet and hiked for days to photograph seldom visited villages in Vietnam. I push farther and farther inland searching for the "authentic". On a generous (and slightly disingenous) note I would like to think that my photographic forays into the world are recording a slice of human history. However, I think it is more accurate to admit that I travel, like most of us, to satisfy a curiosity about the world and to witness the passing of a bygone era.
So why do sarongs, bamboo hats and embroidered jackets seem more authetic than a T-shirt and a pair of jeans? Mainly because they are different from what we wear and, in my opinion, much more attractive. Yet, just as westerners yearn for the past, most countries are reaching out for the material goods of the present. It is presumptuous and impossible to expect the world to be postcard perfect for our cameras. I believe it is our responsibility as photographers to avoid perpetuating the myths of travel. It is not all blue skies and sarongs in Bali.
I don't consider myself a social documentary photographer. I'm not photographing the slums of Calcutta or the prostitutes in Thailand (although I'm glad there are photographers who do so). I photograph that which I find beautiful and intriguing and that doesn't exclude traces of the modern world.
As I'm sweeping my viewfinder across the scene, cropping out the ubiquitous phone lines, Timex watches and little boys in ratty t-shirts and dingy pants standing next to their more picturesque mother in traditional clothing, I have to remind myself that often these "undesirables" can be incorporated in the image with the same deliberate and artistic manner as I do all the elements of my photographs. The pink plastic comb in a Miao's knotted bun, white tennis shoes under a Tibetan festival dress or even a tangle of satellite dishes can add a touch of humor and a note of reality, elevating the image to a new and poewrful visual statement.
Recently I was in Uzbekistan. I rose early to photograph the sunrise in Khiva and noticed that from my hotel room I had a lovely view of the minarets, however, there was a web of wires messing up the images. I experimented with all my lens, tried all possible viewpoints trying to find a way to isolate only the minarets before admitting defeat and included the telephone poles and wires in my image. I had no choice. I was forced to either accept reality or move to another location. I did both. Each image makes a different statement and possesses a unique quality.
We need to readjust our viewpoint of the world when we travel. We can't expect everyone to be in colorful native dress and be receptive to having their portrait taken. We have to accept "no" gracefully, but not let it deter us from trying to meet someone else through the lens of our cameras. We also have to look for the art in the everyday world and not expect foreign lands to be the stuff of our dreams.
Photographing is a way to make sense of it all for us individually, if we do more than indiscriminately point a camera and shoot. We can only do our best to be responsible, informed and sensitive travelers and photographers.
About the Author: A specialist in remote corners of the world, Nevada Wier's images have been published in magazines such as GEO, LIFE, Outside, Smithsonian, and Travel & Leisure. Her books include The Land of Nine Dragons, Vietnam Today and Adventure Travel Photography (Amphoto). Nevada is an instructor with The Santa Fe Workshops and leads photo tours with Mountain Travel*Sobek.
In the Bag: Nevada uses Canon EOS-1N cameras with Canon lenses including the EF 17-35mm f/2.8L USM, EF 28-105mm f/3,5-4.5, EF 100mm f/2.8 Macro, EF 70-200mm f/2.8L USM and EF 300mm f/4L IS USM, occasionally with a 1.4x EF extender. She uses Canon 540 EZ flash untis. Her tripod is a Gitzo carbon-fiber Moutaineer G1228 with Bogen "Joystick" #3265 or Gitzo head. Her film of choice is Kodak E100SW.
© 1999 Nevada Wier and Outdoor & Nature Photography