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Could posing for photos overseas do more harm than good?

Could posing for photos overseas do more harm than good?

As I was standing surrounded by children having my photograph taken in India- with their hands touching my hair, eyes looking me up and down and some saying how beautiful I was – I had a sudden feeling that what I was doing was wrong.

I put my hand up over my face and said “no more” before I started to walk way. I’m glad I did as when I looked back I realised how many children, couples and individuals had come to see what the commotion was and even take a quick picture as I made a hurried exit.

I’ve posed for photos before when traveling overseas. The first time I found myself in the situation was in Malaysia a few weeks into my first trip outside of Australia in 2009. A group of young boys, maybe aged 10, asked to take a photo with me in my bikini. I was with my boyfriend at the time and I asked him if he thought it would be wrong to pose. We decided it couldn’t do too much harm as they were probably just interested in showing a few mates so I agreed and let them snap away.

Posing for photos with a family in Egypt
Posing for photos with a family in Egypt

Again, when I was traveling with a friend in Egypt I was asked by a family to pose. When I say family, I mean I stood still for about five minutes while every generation from grandma to the new-born baby had their picture taken with me. They even asked to place my blonde hair next to their face so they could see what being blonde was like. I agreed despite feeling extremely embarrassed and not quite sure why I was the subject of fascination when the pyramids where looming behind me. I asked my tour guide why they wanted my picture and she said it was because blonde hair and fair skin was seen as very beautiful and godlike, as it was extremely rare in their society.

Across Africa I was asked. Here the children found me interesting because they hadn’t seen a white person before let alone a red, blotchy, sweaty faced one with matted blonde hair. They liked to put their arm alongside mine and compare the colours. One even so kindly pointed out I had more arm hair by pulling on mine.

I had a rule that I would pose only for children or women if asked, but my last posing experience left me thinking that I might be doing more harm than good. When I asked the Indian girls why they wanted my picture they responded with compliments: beautiful, sweet, lovely and perfect. I think hearing that I was perfect was what made me feel icky and decide to stop. My friend who was standing by while this was going on said he felt uncomfortable. He feels there is a belief that the West is better in his country and he doesn’t like it.

When I have told these stories to my friends they have said I should feel flattered.  And I probably get stared at because I’m different or the individuals haven’t seen a white person before. While these are valid points I feel there is more to it.

My experiences overseas have helped me see how important it is that I follow my NGO communication guidelines in and out of the workplace. In my previous positions, I have been the one taking and using the picture. However, I never snap away without asking permission no matter how tempting or perfect the photo opportunity. Sometimes it’s as simple as gesturing towards the camera and waiting to see if the individual nods OK or puts their hand up to block their face. If the answer is ‘no’, I respect their decision. It will be obvious I didn’t have the individual’s permission if they look uncomfortable so there is no point forcing them. Which makes me wonder why people have continued to take my picture when it was clear I didn’t want to be photographed? I should have stopped them but I was embarrassed. This is a common situation when working with beneficiaries too, which is why it’s so important to get permission.

I also spend time explaining how I’m going to use the photo. It can often be hard to explain the picture will be viewed by thousands of people – thanks to the Internet – to someone who has never seen a computer before. So instead I focus on what I am trying to convey through the picture and what I hope to achieve. This way the individual being photographed can let me know if he or she doesn’t feel comfortable being portrayed a certain way. This is what was missing when I was being asked to pose for photos. I didn’t know what they were being used for. It wasn’t until I asked the Indian girls why they were taking my picture that I realised I didn’t like the way I was being portrayed.

Sometimes I’ve argued with myself whether it is OK to use my pictures for personal use on my blog and Facebook. It’s a tough one but I feel if I have their permission, and for the photos where the individual can be identified, I have explained what the picture will be used for then it is fine. I always ensure the individual is portrayed with dignity and respect and consider if it were my child or friend would I be happy with the way they were being portrayed? I often wonder if there are pictures of me floating around on other peoples Facebook profiles and what caption accompanies the photo. It’s a scary thought.

Upon reflection, I realise the times when I have been posing with children and it has been a mutually inquisitive experience – we’ve touched each other’s hair, swapped clothes and asked questions and thereby learned something new – I’ve felt good.

But when it has been one-sided – merely to get a picture with a white person or so the individual can be blessed (yes, I’ve been asked to bless a child) – then I’ve felt used and that I’ve contributed to the on-going belief that the West is better which it is not.

I believe that the interactions, conversations and situations I find myself in overseas should be positive experiences. I travel because I like learning new things about people and cultures and hope that by doing so I can break down some of the preconceptions and stereo types we find ourselves using. And, I believe photo permissions and use are a part of this.

This is why I’ve decided from now on I’m not going to pose for any more photos. I don’t feel comfortable with someone taking my picture merely because I look ‘different’. I don’t like that they don’t know my name, where I come from or who I am. I want someone to look back on my picture in years to come and remember the conversations we had, the moment we shared and what we learned about each other. Because isn’t that why we pose for photos?

This was originally written for and is featured on The Peach.

Do you think posing for photos causes more harm than good?

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Rachel is the Communications Director at WhyDev. She is a writer and communications consultant. Rachel combines her knowledge of storytelling and technology to help individuals and organisations in the social good space build their digital story. Over the last eight years she’s worked with international and local organisations across six continents. Her writing has been printed in numerous publications including The Big Issue, Dhaka Tribune and Maya. She is also the Regional Ambassador for NetSquared, Co-founder of Nia Children’s Foundation, a speaker, trainer and mentor. Read more of Rachel’s thoughts on her website: http://www.rachelkurzyp.com.au and be sure to say hi on Twitter at: RachelKurzyp

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4 thoughts on “Could posing for photos overseas do more harm than good?

  1. This post really made me think! Thanks! This has happened to me many, many times as well.

  2. I get asked to pose all the time in Indonesia and usually I don’t have a problem with it. It is usually when I am at tourist sites and it is usually families who have saved up to take a holiday to Borobodur or Bromo etc and they are just excited to encounter foreigners and sometimes want to practice the little bit of English they have learned at school. It has always been a positive experience (though somewhat tiring/irritating after the 15th or 20th group approaches you if it is a busy day). I am fluent in the language though and always talk with them about how much I love Indonesia. And hey, I’m a large woman so I’m far from the ‘perfect’ woman ideal in Indonesia, white or not, so I don’t feel that I’m imposing some sort of colonialist beauty ideals. Usually people ask me why I’m travelling alone, so I like to hope that these conversations leave behind some kind of impression of female empowerment if anything.

    I understand what you are getting at, but I think it’s something you have to decide case by case. These interactions can be an opportunity to open up a cross-cultural conversation rather than a snap and dash thing.

    1. Thanks for your comment Ashlee. I’d love to travel around Indonesia I’ve never been! I think language definitely changes the situation because it does make it easier to open up a cross-cultural conversation as you said. In my case I don’t speak any languages fluently – although I’m currently learning Hindi and Bengali – so it is hard to get a conversation going especially in the tourist areas like in my India example. But when I was in Mali and I had the time to build a relationship it was wonderful and I had a lot of fun. I guess when I said I wouldn’t pose for any more photos I was referring to those times when I can’t for what ever reason have a meaningful conversation or when I can see the individual or group just wants a quick snap and then be on their way. It’s a tough one and I think it does depend on assessing every situation.

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