Traveling? It's Not OK To Take Pictures of Indigenous People Without Their Permission

Are indigenous women just "local color" to be snapped from afar, a picture of exoticism akin to the crunchy piles of crickets and cactus smoothies on sale?
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Publish date:
March 26, 2015
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travel, photography, tourism, Neocolonialism

“Get out of shot! I want this to look authentic.” Andreas sets up his DSLR to focus on the colorfully-clothed group of Zapotec women selling baskets of corn and mangoes under Tlacolula market’s rafters, and cuts the German tourists with the hammy pink shins out of frame.

Snap snap, “So much local color!” He exclaims. The women notice his lens and shake their heads, signalling him to stop. The woman closest to us jangles her fists at him, her greying plaits bobbing in the scattered sunlight. He lets his camera fall, head bowed, arms lifted to say, “I come in peace.” But he does not delete the images or show these women the photos he took of them. He walks away.

“Oh look! Another group. So colorful.”

His camera lens penetrates another group of women in traditional dress. Wagged away again, Andreas moans, “It’s better at ChiChi market in Guatemala. They’re so used to tourists that they don’t even bother to shoo you away anymore.” He wipes his lens, “Oh, and the outfits! The outfits are stunning. So much more colorful.”

In our ragtag group of hostel-goers who met at breakfast this morning there’s also Jon from Luxembourg, who’s halfway through his PhD in chemistry at Bristol University. He also has a $2000 camera which he points and shoots in the faces of indigenous women while they try to make a living. When they notice him and try to bat him away, Jon does not stop.

Snap. Snap. Snap.

He will not stop.

Snap. Snap.

“Jesus, stop! They’re asking you to stop.” Snaps Andreas.

He stops.

Why did Jon not listen to these women’s requests? Why does he only stop when a white man tells him to? Does he not see them as mothers and sisters, as uncomfortable with having a DSLR shoved in their face as anyone else? Are indigenous women just “local color’” to be snapped from afar, exclaimed and ooh-ed over, a picture of exoticism akin to the crunchy piles of crickets and cactus smoothies on sale?

I watch Andreas stop to flick through the pictures he’s taken at the market so far. Among the images of fiery red chillies and maize are the women he upset. He does not pause to look more closely at them. They mean no more to him than the corn for sale, because he never spoke to them or smiled with them, never learned from them or looked them in the eye, could only see them through a lens that reduced them to props.

What did Andreas glean? Photos he can put online that prove he saw the ‘real’ Mexico? No need to mention the dozens of tourists who were also at the popular Oaxacan market. An image of a Zapotec women looking fiercely into the camera will get 3 Facebook likes. An old school friend will write, “Nice shot! :)”

What was the point? To pretend for a moment he was shooting for a National Geographic cover? To dream that his photo, Group of Unnamed Zapotec Women #12, could become as famous as Steve McCurry’s "The Afghan Girl?” But when McCurry took his photo of a young Sharbat Gula, there was no long lens used from the other side of the refugee camp, there were no UN workers elbowed out of the way to make the image more “authentic.” He looked her in her green eyes and silently asked for permission.

In Don DeLillo’s White Noise, the narrator, Jack, and his colleague Murray visit THE MOST PHOTOGRAPHED BARN IN AMERICA. Driving among Farmington’s meadows and apple orchards, they finally reach the barn:

All the people had cameras; some had tripods, telephoto lenses, filter kits. A man in a booth sold postcards and slides — pictures of the barn taken from the elevated spot. We stood near a grove of trees and watched the photographers. Murray maintained a prolonged silence, occasionally scrawling some notes in a little book.

“No one sees the barn,” he said finally.

A long silence followed.

“Once you’ve seen the signs about the barn, it becomes impossible to see the barn.”

John and Andreas don’t see these women. They are taking pictures of taking pictures, reinforcing an image they imagine they once saw on the cover of a magazine.

As we wander back to the collectivo stand to find a car that will take us back to Oaxaca, Jon talks about all the archaeological sites he’s been to on this trip, how vast Mexico City’s National Museum of Anthropology is, “Sometimes I wish I could study Mexico’s ancient empires instead of chemistry. All those temples, all that history…can you imagine what it must have been like?”

I can — Mexico’s markets are one of the strongest connections to pre-Hispanic life there is. Even today, markets like Tlacolula are as far away from the the strip-lit, unscented, sterilized supermarkets of home as it gets: Babies play in empty vegetable crates while their mothers sell dozens of yellow-skinned, fatty chickens which hang upside down from their wrists. The scent of bright pink radishes and fresh strawberries mixes with the reek of blindfolded sheep heads. Potatoes and corn and fried chicken get sold down secret alleys — the sun beats down on a man who shuffles by with rheumy eyes, his grandson propping him up by the arm. Mexico’s markets are more alive than any museum.

Jon can’t see it. Jon imagines these women’s ‘realness’ has been diluted by the presence of Tlacolula market’s Coca-Cola posters. Better to study their ancestors in a dead temple, a library, a museum. And so Jon leaves with a camera full of still lives, when all he had to do was say hello and give the women he was so fascinated by a voice.