Will I ever take photos the same? The postcolonial gaze and tourism

Two weeks ago, I was very fortunate to be able to travel to the pacific coast of Mexico for a week to visit a friend. Like many tourists, I packed my camera.

On my second day in Mexico, my host took me to a nearby market in Pochutla. This bustling market, featuring locals selling and buying fruit, fish, clothing, and toys, presented many opportunities for a photograph. Something that immediately caught my eye soon after we arrived was a man who had fashioned a bicycle into a knife sharpener. I quickly pulled out my camera from my bag and pointed the lens. Instead of snapping away, I paused, hearing the echoes of recent seminar discussions on photography in my head. This would lead to me standing quietly for about 5 minutes thinking about the ethical and theoretical implications of this potential photograph.

First, I questioned what my motivation for taking the photograph was. I admitted this had to do with the strangeness of activity in relation to others going on in the market. A fruit stand next to a knife sharpening service seemed abnormal. This answer made me uneasy. My desire to capture this moment was based on a process of “othering.” Was this potential photograph an example of the colonial gaze? Thinking about E. Ann Kaplan’s definition, my photograph is a reflection of the assumption that the white western subject is the norm. This then implied that my gaze is also postcolonial, regardless if I take the photograph or not.

This initial anxious inner-discussion played out while I stood a few feet from the man working away, oblivious to an audience. My friend and host approached me and, thinking I was being timid, took the camera from my hand and approached the man on his bike. The man looked up. Inner-debate number 2:

If I took the photograph and the man was looking up at me, did it counter-act my gaze?

In terms of some of the seminar discussions of the colonial gaze I’ve been engaging in recently, this is a grey area. Some would answer yes, that the act of the photographed looking at the photographer, and at the postcolonial audience, does qualify as act of agency and of resistance. I felt myself relax slightly, maybe it was okay after all to take this photograph.

Enter debate number 3: My host turned to me asking, “Did you ask him if we can take his photo?” I immediately blanked. Did I? Even now, I can’t be sure. If I didn’t, there are implications. First, my lack of consultation takes away the man’s opportunity to say no, and block my postcolonial gaze. Secondly, it’s also very rude.

I play out the scenario if I had taken the photograph without his permission: most likely he would have been unable to hold up his hands and block the shot, as he was busy operating a machine. Again, another instance where he could have disrupted the postcolonial gaze. Immediately a photograph taken by Warren Langford of a Yoruba woman trader attempting to shield her naked child from photographers comes to mind. Similarly, his photo was taken in a market.

Oblivious to my inner-anxiety, my host continued to chat with the man, asking his permission to take his photograph. He pleasantly said yes, never breaking from his work. She quickly snapped the following picture:

The picture taken, my host beckoned for me to move on so we could do our grocery shopping.

Over the course of the following week I continually kept coming back to this moment whenever I took out my camera. It made me think about my photos and what they represented. I don’t have a solution for how I will negotiate these issues in future travels, but I’m hoping that an awareness of my complicity in a postcolonial gaze is a step in the right direction.

 

 

 

The North gets in your bones

Recently I had the chance to travel up to Iqaluit, Nunavut, on a business trip. For someone who has only ever lived in a city, this was an amazing and unforgettable trip. I’ve already decided that this trip is only the first, and am adding hiking through one of Nunavut’s four national parks to my bucket list. It truly made me appreciative of the initiatives being undertaken both promote and protect these areas. Here are some photos from the trip:

Amazing sunrise from the plane

Amazing sunrise from the plane

Iqaluit Airport

Iqaluit Airport

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The English elementary school

The English elementary school

 

Shwarama in Iqaluit, you better believe it!

Shwarama in Iqaluit, you better believe it!