When Culture Collides With Your Camera
I received this email yesterday from Victoria, a student in my Introduction to Photography class held here in Penang. I thought I should share it with you as a great reminder how traveling photographers need to be aware of the culture around them and always try to be sensitive to the local norms and traditions. Always remembering we are the visitors, this is not about us, this picture is about them. I am quoting this letter fully. I will let you comment. Did she handle it well? What would you have done?
Thank you again for yesterday’s class, it was very informative and certainly got me out the door today to practice! Though what an experience today actually brought.
I had almost 2 hours set aside and drove into Georgetown (around…around…no parking…around again) passing by so many exciting things to shoot. I eventually found a parking place and meandered into the busy district of Jalan Pinang (now with only 1 hour and 15 minutes left).
I found a bright blue wall, complete with scarlet red plastic chair and upon it perched the most interesting elderly Muslim man. I ‘stole’ a few shots but decided with my fixed lens that I wasn’t close enough so with those Kahunas you told me I needed, I moved in closer and asked the old man’s permission. A gentle nod and a few snaps of the shutter – I was happy. That was until I went over to show him what I had made of him and he waved me away, he didn’t want me near him and told me to go away down the street! My feelings unhurt but a tad bemused I accidentally stumbled into a little alley cafe just a few feet away.
I was greeted by the smiliest old man with a full white beard and he was dressed in Pakistani clothing. Before I knew it I was chatting to the smiley face and asked him if I could make his picture, he was more than happy to and liked the photo as much as I did! He told me to come in and sit down, so I selected the wobbliest tin table and plonked my self and camera down. Mmm roti bakar, half-cooked eggs and a coffee, a fantastic mid-morning brunch!
This alley though, was dark and dingy. This coffee place was snuck into the dark space and truly could be described as a hole in the wall. Not much more than a tin roof covered over between 2 buildings. It was then as I perused the ‘room’ that it dawned upon me…I was the only woman in this hole AND a ‘putih[1. The Malay word for “White”]’ at that. My camera sat next to the coffee cup, I desperately wanted to pick it up. There’s a man on the left of me who is Pakstani too, a younger but still bearded man. He sits against a deep brown burgundy wall and is bathed in a perfect shaft of light from above. His face is fantastic, the mood is everything I have wished for. I look at him, he doesn’t break a smile, in fact he is harsh. I try to not to catch his eye…the camera still sits.
Inside I have an inner turmoil going on – as a woman should I try to take this shot? He is giving me the cultural clues that I should dare not. Is it worth it for me to do this? Maybe I lost my reputation already by being a woman out on her own who was coming in, sitting down, talking to the old boy and wearing a breezy shirt? I thought of other white women and how they could be perceived on another day. Should I go for it? The sickening feeling of intimidation won and the camera still sat there.
Upon paying I was glad it had won. It was Pakistani the Younger who handled my bill and was he so careful for the 50 cent change not to touch his hand and mine at the same time that he dropped it into my palm from a good height above.
I’ve felt it before but now I really know; there are men’s worlds and women’s worlds. Times when they clash together and times like today when they are distinctly separate. Today I needed a male photographer alongside me for the man’s world and then I wonder if the story would have been different! As disappointed as I was that a great photo opportunity had been let go of, I was glad to be able to read and respect those cultural lines as best I could.
I did however, get a chance to play with the white balance & exposure compensation a lot so it was a good little jaunt into town after all 🙂
Thanks for all
See Victoria’s Flickr portfolio HERE