Money to Take Their Photo: Trophy Hunter Photography

Indian women in the step well near Kheri Gate, Amer, Jaipur, Rajasthan, India. These are local women we met, asked them to pose and paid them. We spoke with them to great length and worked out the details for our group to shoot. Once it was over, they were happy and we were happy.

 

Recently PetaPixel posted an article that created a huge controversy among its readers. So much so that they actually took down the article, though you can still find the original article on the author’s site. The PetaPixel article was entitled, “How to Deal with Locals Who Ask You for Money to Take Their Photo” and created a stir because of its hugely ethnocentric bias. Now, let me stop here and give a caveat. Some of you might feel I have no “dog in this fight”, meaning, I have nothing to add because I myself am a middle (upper middle) aged, white male. Three strikes right there. But let me suggest that I might be able to add a little insight to this debacle as I have over 23 years of living in Asia under this expanding belt of mine.

How Did We Get Here?

First off, the article was written from the perspective of a Westerner rather than a global citizen. I don’t even know where to begin, when every paragraph is headed up with a photo of a white person having their picture taken with a local resident. It just felt creepy from the start. Then with statements like, “For instance, be aware that many middle-aged men who ask for money are planning to buy alcohol”  or “As you may know, developing countries are very money-orientated cultures.” Seriously?  Wow, they just lost any credibility they may have had in two sentences.

Dare I say, we are looking at this through the wrong lens. We are asking the wrong questions. The question isn’t, “Should we pay people for their photos?” The more interesting and maybe a more important question is “How did we get here?”

Before the advent of the ubiquitous digital camera, before the democratization of photography and travel – back when travel was rare and a kitted out SLR or rangefinder was unheard of – people traveled for a different reason. Sure, the uber rich took safaris to the “Dark Continent” to take home a trophy they bagged from the comfort of their Land Rover. Out of that horrible experience grew the rarer still photo safari. As yet, the photographic workshop was something of dreams.

Travel for Travel’s Sake

Back in the early ‘90s when I first moved to India we lead tours. Not photo tours – real honest-to-goodness tours, based in culture and education – my wife and I spend two years in language and culture acquisition before we hung out our shingle (so to speak).

It was during these two years that we learned less about how to say something and more about why Indians say something. It is taking time like this that you learn to view a different culture with an open mind. You learn never to say words like, “They always…” or “ They never…”. Because you learn that the truth is, there is always someone breaking the stereotype. In culture, there are no absolutes.

When people joined our tours, they came to learn and experience this vastly different culture of India, the camera was an afterthought for the most part. It was only there to take home memories, not make a trophy. Locals enjoyed having their photos made and the thought to ask for money for something like a photo was absurd. They would no sooner ask their friend to pay them for a photo then they would their new foreign guest. How rude would that be!

Trophy Hunter Travelers

But then around the turn of the century something happened. It is what sociologists call the democratisation of knowledge and technology. With the digital age and the internet came the ability to travel both virtually and physically and do it cheaply. Cameras became cheaper and more available to the masses. Everyone wanted to be Steve McCurry and photograph their “Afghan Girl.”

Without going into the debate about McCurry’s ethics of setting up photos, the big difference is McCurry was on assignment. He was one of the few and the elite that were charged with telling a story about a culture. The rest of us just dreamed about the opportunity. But now the masses were able to afford a DSLR and a 70-200mm lens and a cheap ticket to the Taj Mahal and now everyone can try be McCurry. And to be honest, with amazing results. Some amazing photos filtered up through the centillion of pixels burned over the years.

On our tours, we had a rule, that you could not take a photo until everyone in the group asked our hosts at least one question. Contrived – but it made sure people interacted with our hosts.

 

The Disillusioned Travel Photographer

But something happened. Everyone (yes, I am now generalizing) has started to become jaded. Both photographer and subject now feel things are due them, entitled. As a photographer, that leads photo workshops myself, I have seen participants lose patience in the exploration of culture and want to simply get the photo and move to the next one.

We are missing the travel experience. I venture to say there are too many photographers who visit a country or culture and never see it with their naked eye – they only view it with through their camera lens. They don’t stop and drink the tea, or to smoke the hookah. They don’t bother to explore. They don’t ask questions of their host. Heck, they don’t even have a host!

Locals have gone from being hosts to becoming makeshift models. I am not talking about professional or even semi-professional models. At the risk of starting another flame fest, my workshops are known to hire locals to work as a model, we pay them well for their time and their services. What I am talking about is the shopkeeper or tradesman that sits and does their daily routine.

The guest photographer (and that is what we are, a guest) walks up, sticks a camera up, takes a photo and walks away. Often without even an exchange of pleasantries and no knowledge of what is unfolding in front of them. In doing this we, the photographers have treated them as disposable models and so why would they not want to be paid? Photographers doing this do both a great disservice to themselves as well as the culture they visit. They are missing the “story” and they risk portraying a stereotype of the culture they are visiting. I am guilty of this, it is too easy to do. It is hard to take time, to slow down, to talk with someone that might not even speak your language.

2 Steps Forward, 1 Step Back

This is a tension I have lived with for years. I find myself taking one step forward and two steps back. Clients, want a trophy photo, they want to feel their time is well spent. In other words, they are getting what they have paid for. I understand this. But there are bigger forces at play here. As a workshop leader, I need to curate my clients’ experience so they they get what they want and in doing so we respect the culture and society we are a guest in.

So what do we do about it? The genie is out of the bottle and there is no putting him back. We can’t change a cultural revolution or in this case a technological one or the side effects it has had on the world we live in. We can only change ourselves. We can only be responsible for who we are and how we react to the culture we are visiting.

I think we need to structure our workshops as experiences rather than events or hunts. In an experience we take time to participate and to enter into a shared time of discovery. Both by us as well as by the culture we are visiting. The experience is the end, the goal. On the contrary, a hunt is about one thing, the trophy. Whatever it takes to walk away with a trophy and damn the culture, full speed ahead.

Somehow, as a workshop leader, I need to make the experience and the discovery just as much a part of the trip (maybe more) as the trophy. By doing this we lessen the impact we have on our hosts, we educate and promote cross cultural understanding in a time where this is of the utmost importance. Maybe, just maybe, we can start a new revolution or awakening in travel photography.

 

Related links:

DEAR BEGINNER, YOU MAKE RIPPLES!
BE A CULTURAL INSIDER AND GET BETTER PHOTOGRAPHS. (PT.1)
BE A CULTURAL INSIDER AND GET BETTER PHOTOGRAPHS. (PT.2)

 

9 Emperor Gods Festival – Pt 4

A medium cracks the serpent whip to begin the ceremony.

A medium cracks the serpent whip to begin the ceremony.

This is the last in a four-part series on the 9 Emperor Gods Festival that took place at the Tow Boo Kong Temple in Butterworth, Penang, Malaysia.  You might find it helpful if you read the FIRST,  SECOND and THIRD parts of this story before continuing.

On this the final night of the nine-day festival Taoists gather to pay homage to the nine gods and send them back to heaven. More people gather on this one night than any of the previous nights. This is special. The evening started with my crew arriving at an already packed temple. Everyone was standing in the courtyard holding three or four long joss sticks. If you don’t know what a joss stick is, think large incense sticks. These are usually lit and then placed in a sand laden urn as a prayer offering. But tonight they will be carried in the procession of the gods to the sea.

After we had waited for some time, the mediums, who by now we know by sight, come out and sit on their stools to ready themselves to be possessed by the spirits of the children and the monkeys.

I want to pause here. I have heard people criticize other reports of this and other festivals for being inaccurate. Let me say; this information is straight from the participant’s mouths. Every night I would ask questions of devotees and record their answers when I could. These are stories that these followers have lived with for their whole life, yet everyone I asked seems to give me a different response. So to be clear, these are not my words, but theirs.

Back to the mediums. They sit and readied themselves and then the leader again, cracks the serpent whip. Each of the nine mediums starts to sway and move and then eventually stand up and take on the attributes of a child or often a monkey.

  • Each of the nine mediums starts to sway and move and then eventually stand up and take on the attributes of a child or often a monkey.
  • Cracking the whip to start the ceremony.
  • All the mediums seem to be energized by the cracking of the whip.
  • Another medium cracks the whip. Note the pacifier in the mediums mouth.

They ready themselves and the crowd to meet the veiled gods. Each god is removed from the inner sanctum of the temple and brought ceremoniously to a waiting float in the shape of a boat. After they are loaded onto the boat no time is wasted, the floats proceed out the temple and onto the route of the procession. A huge crowd follows each float always holding up the burning joss sticks. The route wanders around and then ends at the ocean side.

The boat/float that contains the gods is met by a huge crane that is quickly attached to it.  The crane then lifts the boat from the transport and slowly swings it over to the shoreline. Here after some effort, the boat is eventually disconnected from the crane and attached to another boat by a cable.

 

  • A medium makes a pathway for the gods.
  • Note the pacifier.
  • The gods are removed from the temple under a cover. Here a flag is used to create a barrier.
  • The gods are moved through the crowds.
  • The under cover the gods make their way to the boat where they will ride to the sea.
  • The dragon figurehead of float as it leave with the gods to the sea.
  • The crowds of devotee following the floats.
  • The crowds of devotee following the floats.
  • Alway eager to have their photos made.
  • Even the mediums want their photo made by Simon Bond.
  • This medium blessing a devotee whiel waiting for the boat/float to arrive.
  • Riding atop the float.

 

At this point we were told the ship with the gods would be pulled out to sea and set on fire and that would be the end of the festival. But to our surprise, they lit the vessel on fire right there on the beach. It went up in flames in a matter of seconds. The gods were released back to where they came from as the crowd prayed and worshiped.

  • The boat waits to be hoisted to the beach.
  • A crane hoists the boat with the gods to the seaside.
  • Floating through the air like something out of Peter Pan.
  • Easing the boat to the shoreline.
  • One of the lead mediums giving direction.
  • Securing the boat.
  • Last minute blessings.
  • Fighting the surf while trying to tie the two boats together. The motorboat will pull the other out to sea.
  • The fire being lit.
  • It only takes seconds for the boat to be consumed in flames.
  • It only takes seconds for the boat to be consumed in flames.
  • Clearing he debris so the boat can leave.
  • Saying farewell to the 9 Emperors.

 

After some time the flames had died down, and the smoldering craft was pulled out to the open sea. The festival ended, and we were left to walk back to the temple and our car sandy and wet.

In closing, this festival was one of the most spectacular festivals of the year. We covered the events from one temple. But there were dozens if not more temples in the area that were doing all of the same events but on different nights.

 

9 Emperor Gods Festival – Pt 3

As if walking through hell, these devotees walk over burning coals and paper.

As if walking through hell, these devotees walk over burning coals and paper.

 

Just a suggestion, but you might want to read the the first two parts of this series before continuing. You can read the first part HERE and second part HERE.

Click on the photos to see them at full size.

At this point in my saga, I am just over half way, day seven of the 9 Emperor Gods Festival. On this evening participants walk on live coals and fire. I say coals and fire because in some ways it is like two different events.

By the time we arrive (I photographed this with Pete DeMarco and Simon Bond) the bricks in the Tow Boo Kong Temple courtyard have been pulled up and a shallow fire pit has been made. The fire has been burning for some time by now. It is mostly coals with only a few burning embers.

Two men take a long flat plank between the two of them and start smacking the coal bed.

Two men take a long flat plank between the two of them and start smacking the coal bed.

 

Two men take a long flat plank between the two of them and start smacking the coal bed. This action effectively readies the bed by compacting the coals and stamping out any flames. After they get it looking they way they want temple officials start throwing salt on the red hot coals. For some reason, this changes the surface to black with the red embers under it. My thoughts are it also drops the temperature of the surface or insulates it.

 

The first to cross the coals where the mediums. This was while the coals seemed to still be very red.

The first to cross the coals where the mediums. This was while the coals seemed to still be very red.

 

However, with that said, while the coals are still very red a whip is cracked and one of the lead mediums takes off running over the coals. He does this two or three time as if to test it for the rest of the soon-to-be walkers.

Then without any warning, the group of mediums, the same ones from the oil ceremony and the spear piercing all start walking rapidly across the live coals.

Then without any warning, the group of mediums, the same ones from the oil ceremony and the spear piercing all start walking rapidly across the live coals.

 

One of the mediums casually walking across the coals.

One of the mediums casually walking across the coals.

Then without any warning, the group of mediums, the same ones from the oil ceremony and the spear piercing all start walking rapidly across the live coals. Quickly following them are anyone else who wants to walk the coals. I was even encouraged to walk the coal by one of the “baby” mediums.

 

 Quickly following them are anyone else who wants to walk the coals. I was even encouraged to walk.

Quickly following them are anyone else who wants to walk the coals. I was even encouraged to walk.

 

By this time any red coals on the surface were long gone. If one ever did appear someone would stop the procession and toss salt on it and then let it continue. The line of participants seemed to be endless. Some did it two or even three times. Many brought clothing, idols even young children in their arms as they walked over the coal. I was told the purpose for this was an attempt to clean them of bad karma.

 

Many brought clothing, idols even young children in their arms as they walked over the coal. I was told the purpose for this was an attempt to clean them of bad karma.

Many brought clothing, idols even young children in their arms as they walked over the coal. I was told the purpose for this was an attempt to clean them of bad karma.

 

Then without any notice, several members of the festival committee started tossing folded paper money onto the coals. The paper was not real currency, but money printed for the spirits. The money, of course, smoldered and soon burst into flames.  While the raging fire burned people continued to cross the coals. Watching these people pass through a raging fire was the most visual and impressive part of the evening.

 

While the raging fire burned people continued to cross the coals. Watching these people pass through a raging fire was the most visual and impressive part of the evening.

While the raging fire burned people continued to cross the coals. Watching these people pass through a raging fire was the most visual and impressive part of the evening.

 

The last bow to the fire before it was all over.

The last bow to the fire before it was all over.

 

Soon it was over. The fire burned itself out, and people wandered away. Already thinking about Sunday evening, the last night. The night they send the emperors back to heaven.

 

9 Emperor Gods Festival – Pt 2

The medium must now walk the long distance of the parade route.

The medium must now walk the long distance of the parade route.

If you are reading this before reading the first part HERE, then you might be at a slight loss as to what this festival is about. Do yourself a favor and go back and catch up before reading on.

The Festival of the Nine Emperor Gods is at its core a Taoist festival that focuses on nine emperor gods that are now celestial stars. On this, the 5th night of the festival, spiritual mediums skewer their cheeks with long sharp stainless steel poles. The poles look to be 4 to 4.5 meters (around 15 ft) in length.

  • A guest performers from Taiwan.
  • Guest performers rest before the show starts.
  • Prayers are offered at the temple alter.
  • A dragon sculpture and fountain at the Tow Boo Kong Temple.
  • Prayer are offered non-stop throughout the night.

 

I asked Philip, one of the festival organizers at the Two Boo Kong Temple, who are these mediums? He said they had been born for this as if it is a unique gifting.

As the long poles are lined up in readiness for the event, oranges are stuck on the end of each pole’s point. Partly to keep people from playing with them as well as to act as a type of disinfectant.

  • The mediums begin to shake after the serpent whip is cracked.
  • Then one by one they start to get up and move and sway.
  • They start to squawk like monkeys or talk like babies.
  • They start to squawk like monkeys or talk like babies.

 

The mediums need to get ready for the piercing by allowing a spirit to enter their body. They sit and pray. Then as soon as another medium cracks a serpent shaped whip the group starts to convulse and the spirits enter their bodies. They take on different personalities, mostly of children or babies. These are obvious by the baby talk and pacifiers (or dummies) they start sucking on. Other turn into monkeys with whooping, and squealing.

The scars from the piercing are real and last a lifetime.

The scars from the piercing are real and last a lifetime.

They are then lead to a stool and very quickly but carefully the skewers are pushed through one side of their cheek. Here in Penang, they don’t seem to put anything other than the pole through their cheeks, unlike in Phuket where mediums push large objects through their cheeks.

9_emperor_gods-10-05-07-07-53

Some of the mediums had their left cheek pierced, others their right.

The mediums then carefully rise and bow before the temple and it’s gods.   Then slowly move to the front of the parade. This ritual is done nine times with each of the nine mediums.

  • Oranges are uses to both protect the public from the pear tips as well as a way to disinfect the spear.
  • The orange is removed and the spear is pass down to the men who will be placing it through the medium's cheek.
  • A medium himself, this man hold one of the younger men as he get ready to have the spear placed through his cheek.
  • The right spot is carefully found.
  • The sharp spear brought carefully up to the correct spot.
  • Then the spear is pushed through to the middle.
  • Once completed...
  • the medium rises...
  • bows to the temple and then leaves to join the parade.

 

The parade itself is unremarkable. It is like any other parade in the U.S or around the world. It is made up of everything from  pom-pom dance teams to floats and dignitaries. The only difference between this parade and the Belton, Texas 4th of July parade, is Belton doesn’t have men with 15 ft  steel poles running through their cheeks.

  • As if it were obligatory, the parade like so many others around the world has it's own pom-pom team.
  • Floats with local dignitaries and clubs made up the parade.
  • The mediums with their spears through their cheeks walked the long route of the parade with help.
  • Every so often a medium would stand on a stool and encourage the crowd to cheer.
  • Every so often a medium would stand on a stool and encourage the crowd to cheer.
  • The parade route was long and slow. The mediums needed to rest frequently.

 

The parade does a huge loop and ends back at the temple where it started from. Those people who didn’t want to walk the many miles in the parade were left at the temple grounds with a live theatrical production to watch and plenty of food to eat.

The next big event happens on the 7th night: Fire Walking.

Chinese New Year in 15 Photos

The Kek Lok Si temple in Penang, Malaysia all lit up for Chinese New Year.

The Kek Lok Si temple in Penang, Malaysia all lit up for Chinese New Year.

Chinese New Year in Penang

My wife and I have been back in Malaysia 10 days now. In that time we have been working frantically on our new visa to allow us to reside here. Without going into details – let’s just say it is complicated.  Our visit has coincided with Chinese New Year. Since arriving the shops and public offices have been close for Chinese New Year. It was the worst possible time to come to work on something like a visa. Especially when you have a small window to work in. I leave Sunday to host a 10 day workshop in India. But the upside is with the offices all closed it has given me ample opportunity to get back into the city and photograph this amazing place. Oh how I have missed Penang.

I hope you enjoy some of these images.

A Buddha in the upper floor of the pagoda at the Kek Lok Si Temple, in Penang.

A Buddha in the upper floor of the pagoda at the Kek Lok Si Temple, in Penang.

I found this arched door way on the first level of the pagoda at Kek Lok Si to be a true blend of Malay (read Muslim) and Chinese architecture.

I found this arched doorway on the first level of the pagoda at Kek Lok Si to be a true blend of Malay (read Muslim) and Chinese architecture.

The same group of arches, but facing a different direction and thus with a different backdrop. Not as symmetrical but more colorful.

The same group of arches, but facing a different direction and thus with a different backdrop. Not as symmetrical but more colorful.

Chinese lanterns at Kek Lok Si Temple, in Penang.

Chinese lanterns at Kek Lok Si Temple, in Penang.

More Chinese lanterns. These were hanging at Kek Lok Si, in Penang.

More Chinese lanterns. These were hanging at Kek Lok Si, in Penang.

Kuan Yin Teng Temple or Temple of Mercy in Georgetown, Penang.

Kuan Yin Teng Temple or Temple of Mercy in Georgetown, Penang.

Kuan Yin Teng Temple or Temple of Mercy in Georgetown, Penang.

Kuan Yin Teng Temple or Temple of Mercy in Georgetown, Penang.

A view back over the city from Kuan Yin Teng Temple at sunrise.

A view back over the city from Kuan Yin Teng Temple at sunrise.

A temple volunteer pick up the older josh sticks. He needs to leave room for the hundreds more that will be left by the worshipers to come. Early morning at Kuan Im Teng (廣福宮/觀音亭).

A temple volunteer picks up the older josh sticks. He needs to leave room for the hundreds more that will be left by the worshipers to come. Early morning at Kuan Yin Teng (廣福宮/觀音亭).

A worshiper at the worshiperKuan Yin Teng (廣福宮/觀音亭) rases his josh stick in prayer.

A worshiper at the Kuan Yin Teng (廣福宮/觀音亭) raises his josh stick in prayer.

Lanterns in a Taoist temple neat Tanjung Bungah, Penang, Malaysia.

Lanterns in a Taoist temple near Tanjung Bungah, Penang, Malaysia.

 Meet Mr Lim. A retired factory worker who now volunteers at the temple to stay busy.

Meet Mr Lim. A retired factory worker who now volunteers at the temple to stay busy.

One of the fun events of Chinese New Year are the Lion Dances that happen all over the city. A troop of dancers and musicians dance to give a prosperity blessing to a shopkeeper in return for Aung Pow or a offering or gift.

One of the fun events of Chinese New Year are the Lion Dances that happen all over the city. A troop of dancers and musicians dance to give a prosperity blessing to shopkeepers in return for Aung Pow or a offering or gift.

Albert, the Chee Cheong Fun hawker, sneaks a peak at the man behind the lion mask.

Albert, the Chee Cheong Fun hawker, sneaks a peak at the man behind the lion mask.

Eid-ul Adha, Kapitan Keling Masjid

warningI woke up today thinking I would go out and shoot some rain photos. It has been raining here for the past two to three weeks. I was getting stir-crazy and needed to get out. As I was getting dressed I kept hearing the speakers of the local mosque in the background talking about something. Then it occurred to me, today is Eid-ul Adha! Holy cow..well, holy cow, goat and any other halal animal. Continue reading

Swayambhunath: The Monkey Temple

The Swayambhunath Stupa aka The Monkey Temple. Remember me complaining yesterday about not having an Equivalent 16mm lens. This is what happens when you don't have a wide enough plants, you cut off the top of a stupa!f/2.8, 1/25 sec, at 14mm, 800 ISO, on a X-Pro1

The Swayambhunath Stupa or The Monkey Temple. Remember me complaining yesterday about not having an equivalent 16mm lens?
This is what happens when you don’t have a wide enough lens, you cut off the top of a stupa!
f/2.8, 1/25 sec, at 14mm, 800 ISO, on a X-Pro1

 

You can tell by the past few posts by Jon McCormack and I that we filled out days shooting everything that moved. The Swayambhunath Temple is located near Kathmandu on top of a large hill. It is often referred to as, The Monkey Temple because of the hundreds of rhesus macaques roaming the site. Have I mentioned here before that I hate monkeys and rhesus are the worst – a long story for another time. I digress. We arrived and hour or so before sunset to be sure to get in position to photograph the stupa with the evening sky blue behind it. Fortunately, for us this time the floodlights on the stupa worked. Unlike the Boudhanath stupa there were no buildings to climb up to get better views.

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Life, Worship and Sitting around: Bhaktapur, Nepal

Playing the triangle for Puja.f/1.4, 1/80 sec, at 35mm, 200 ISO, on a X-Pro1

Playing the triangle for Puja.
f/1.4, 1/80 sec, at 35mm, 200 ISO, on a X-Pro1

 

Bhaktapur was the capital of Nepal until late in the 15th century. As a result it has many amazing wood and stone temples and statues all around the city. Both days Jon McCormack (Check out Jon’s images here.) and I shot there it was rainy and overcast. Not the kind of rainy skies that give dramatic dark clouds, the other kind of sky, the white and boring washed out kind.  Luckily bland cloudy skies are good for shooting portraits and detail shots of life. This is precisely what we did. We roamed the city looking for culture unfolding before us. Life as it is lived in the 21st century Bhaktapur. The trick is get up early, really early, before the tourists rise. The locals are already up and about by 5:30am. We would arrived around 6. Just in time for morning puja and the vegetable markets. (Note: if you can’t see all of an image due to a small monitor just click on the image and it will popup and fit your screen.)

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