taking photos vs. being taken in photos

A new South Korean TV channel, Channel A, broadcast a three-part program of Greenland. I watched its third episode that featured Qaanaaq, and that reminded me of a Korean, the first Korean I met in Greenland, in July.

She’s living in NJ, USA, and went to Greenland to take photos to update her portfolio, she said. She initially went to Thule, or Qaanaaq in Greenlandic, but soon found the living cost there was too high. She told the hotel manager where she was staying in Thule that she may have to go back to the states, as she couldn’t afford it. Then the manager told her that he could arrange a dog-sledding to Siorapaluk, the world’s northernmost settlement, before she leaves the country. So  the following day, she hopped on the sled and ran for eight hours in the teeth of the freezing wind on the sled to reach that small settlement.

But two days after her arrival, her camera got broken as it wasn’t proof against the arctic weather. And that’s the very moment that the residents opened up to her, she said.

“When I was walking around with the camera, I could tell, they were giving me a wary look,” she said. “But as soon as I told them my camera got broken, they almost immediately opened up to me.”

She ended up staying in the settlement for three months. They rented her an old school house for $1 a day; they invited her to their houses; and embraced her as a member of the community.

Loads of foreigners come to the town and film/photograph their lives under the name of “reports.” But it may have felt like being the monkey in a zoo to them, and they protested it by unwelcoming the point-and-shoot visitors.

I could completely empathize with them, because that afternoon, I had a similar experience. In the residents’ shoe.

That morning, a cruise ship arrived in Nuuk and unloaded about 200 passengers–mostly Europeans–to the capital of Greenland. A German cameraman came to Greenland to film each town the cruise ship visits, and I took him around Nuuk as a guide. Waiting for him to finish filming the beach, I was sitting on top of a kayak wooden rack, looking at the fjord, listening to the iPod. Then a tourist came to me and gestured if he could take a photo of me. This European must have thought that I was a Greenlander. I told him in English that I’m not from Greenland, but he kept fiddling with his camera, looking at me. You know, in the cute cat eyes in Shrek. So, I climbed down the rack and moved to another place.

While traveling around the world, I myself also try to get the local residents’ everyday life in my camera. But I realized I’d never been to the subject, until then.

It was an unfamiliar, strange feeling. Not so pleasant.

Most of the time, I ask for the approval from the people who I’d like to take photos of. But I realized I did it as a courtesy and I hadn’t really put myself in their shoes.

Have you ever been the target of camera-wielding tourists? If so, what did you feel about it? If not, how would you feel about it?

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One thought on “taking photos vs. being taken in photos

  1. Interesting article. I’ve definitely been in many places where I have wanted to take pictures but couldn’t; places I know outsiders rarely see. I fought the urge because I also recognized that not only could I not pull it off without attracting unwanted attention, I would probably lose access to those types of areas as soon as the flash went off.

    Making friends with locals definitely gives you access to see sides of a country that the tourists never have a chance of seeing. Some wonderful examples I’ve had were a cock fight in Costa Rica, touring the Filipino slums, daily shopping at local small-time butchers or the poor man’s fish market, local-only after-parties once the bars close down, and countless other sights and hidden gems that only the locals know about, like hidden waterfalls, mountaintop views, etc.

    Yes, sometimes it pays to put the camera down.

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