Give and Take


I've recently become conflicted about my travel photography. I have learned to truly enjoy taking both candid photographs of strangers, as well as photographs of strangers with whom I've actually exchanged a few friendly words. But I often feel as if the exchange is unbalanced. I take, but I don't give. I travel to far away places, and bring back photographs of the interesting people I meet, and memories of the places I've been. But I often don't leave very much behind, and I want to change that.

I met Mohammed at the beach. Our interaction was brief, and superficial. But somehow, for some reason, he gave me a full-faced genuine smile. I'm glad I captured it. 

And I want to clarify: don't mistake my discomfort for misplaced guilt or condescension. My desire to do more comes from a deep sense of gratitude to the many congenial and photogenic strangers who have allowed me to photograph them. I feel fortunate that I've become skillful enough at approaching strangers with the camera that people usually seem quite at ease with me sticking a giant camera in their face.

I took this photo on Bangkok's Sky Train. This woman never realized that I made an image of her, and I doubt she ever will.

Perhaps my photography feels most like an unbalanced exchange when I take candid photos, and don't even ask permission. I'll successfully take a photo without my subject realizing it, and walk away. They may never know I took their photo and posted it on social media, or talked about it on my blog. But I know. And recently, that knowledge makes me somewhat uncomfortable. Like I've somehow taken a piece of these people with me without their permission. And although I take these images in order to share my experiences with others, I'm still the one using them.

Fouad grills meat in a dirt parking lot between a public park and a water treatment facility. The food stand didn't have a name until very recently, has no menu, no worries, and some of the best food in Oman.

But I don't always feel uncomfortable. Sometimes I'll take photographs of people who are selling food, or souvenirs. With these people I at least have an obvious opportunity to leave money in exchange for a delicious meal, or a meaningful souvenir, in addition to taking a few photographs with me. These interactions seem inherently fairer to me.

I met Elaf while I was out taking photos near my home in Muscat. She seemed genuinely interested in getting her picture taken, follows me on instagram, and actually asked me to send her copies of the photos I took of her. I was more than happy to oblige, and hope more of my photographic interactions with strangers go just as well.

Other times, I'll have genuinely interesting conversations with strangers. I'll ask them about their hopes, their dreams, their fears. They'll smile with me, and seem genuinely appreciative that I've taken the time to talk to them, instead of just snapping a picture and walking away. I would also like to feel as though the exchange is a somewhat more fair one. I lend them a few moments of my time, and in exchange I get a few photographs. 

I don't remember this gentleman's name. He is a fisherman, and has been a fisherman his whole life, in a small town in the south of Oman. His smile is one of the most genuine I've ever encountered.

Nobody has ever accused me of exploitation, and if ever anyone seems uncomfortable with me taking their picture, or asks me not to, I will comply. And yet there I always am, a tourist who can afford the luxury of visiting a completely new, and different part of the world. And I have the additional privilege of being able to bring an expensive camera with me to document my travels. I know that many of the people I meet and photograph don't have that privilege, and for that reason my photography of them strikes me as unbalanced.

His name is Haj, and he was one of three boat guides who took me and some friends for a ride on a hand-made boat off the coast of Zanzibar. He's the most happy, free-spirited guide I've ever met, but the cynical part of me couldn't help but feel he was somehow putting on a show, a performances for the sake of the impressionable white tourists.  

But perhaps most importantly: to what end am I taking these photos? To post them on my social media pages? To remind myself of the trip? To feel good about myself? To express my artistic vision? Recently it strikes me that these are all rather selfish reasons. In the future, I want to do more to give back to the places I visit, and the people generous enough to allow me the privilege of photographing them. I'm not sure exactly what I'll do, but whatever it is, I'll be sure to write about it here. And I'm happy to take your suggestions.

It's possible that my newfound discomfort with taking photos of strangers when I don't give anything in return is condescending, or unnecessary (especially when my subjects seem to enjoy the process). Regardless, I felt the reflection was worth exploring here.

No matter how hard I tried, I couldn't get this man to smile. I talked to him for several minutes, talking about his family, his work, and his home country. He kept the same stoic, steely-eyed gaze the entire time. It was unsettling, and powerful. 

Some of the ideas that come to mind are to perform some kind of volunteer activity when I travel. Perhaps I'll bring some kind of gift with me: a token of appreciation to the people who allow me capture them in pixels. A good friend of mine always leaves behind some of his clothes to donate to people, and it strikes me as a subtle, but kind gesture. I might buy an instant camera so that I can actually give people some of the photos I take of them. 

I don't know this boy's name, but he was unbelievably friendly. As soon as he saw my camera he ran up to me and started laughing and smiling. He seemed interested in my sunglasses, so I let him try them on, and couldn't help but snap a few pictures of the unbridled joy pouring out of him. Needless to say, I quite happily let him keep my sunglasses. 

But for now, I hope that this initial realization and subsequent reflection are something new that I've brought back with me from my travels. I hope they lead to bigger and better ideas as to how I can do more to give back. And I'm happy to receive your suggestions. I also invite you to think about what you give when you take photos of the photogenic street foot vendor, or the adorable child asking to try on your sunglasses, especially when you're one of the few people privileged enough to be traveling around the world for fun.

Thanks for reading, and safe travels.

All images shot with a Canon EOS 6D, and the Tamron 35mm f1.8 Di VC lens.