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.





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