March 29, 2014

May I Take a Picture of You?

Quechua weaver in Cusco, Peru.
© Marcela Torres

By Marcela Torres

Meeting people from other countries and cultures is part of the magic of traveling. We often encounter charming people that share their traditions with us and we can’t resist the temptation of capturing that moment with our photographic cameras. This enthusiastic impulse, however, may sometimes cause an unexpected negative reaction.

Several authors warn against the danger of the “tourist gaze”. What are they talking about? Sometimes people from the local community may feel they are being seen as objects; something weird or amazing that must be observed.

In addition, it is no myth that several tribes and indigenous cultures in Latin America reject photographs for several reasons, including the belief that these would steal their soul. From northern Mexico to southern Chile there are many accounts of communities that fear or distrust cameras and the intentions of the people that carry them.

A professional photographer remembers the time he arrived unannounced with some friends at a small town in the Sierra Central in Mexico and was suddenly surrounded by children who were attracted by their “curious” garments and attitudes. But the party ended the moment he took out his camera and aimed at the children, who ran away terrified.

At Ciudad Perdida (Lost City), in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in Colombia, due to religious and cultural reasons, people of indigenous origin avoid having pictures taken of themselves, their homes and their objects. Tourists are warned not to insist in order not to make locals uncomfortable by invading their privacy.

The Mapuches, who live in southern Chile and Argentina, also reject photographs. To them, an image has a spirit and if someone captures it that person takes something away from them. This belief has presented a challenge to documentary producers, who always must give signs of respect in order to gain their trust and obtain their footage. Nevertheless, artists often just shoot photos or videos, promising to come back and give a copy, but never show again. It is important to understand that the Mapuches will always ask (and sometimes demand) a token of the time they gave away a piece of their soul. On a few occasions, people have been so offended by being photographed that they have broken tourists’ cameras.

The case of Italian scientist Guido Boggiani is, no doubt, the most extreme. Boggiani lived many years with the Caduveo tribe in Paraguay and was obsessed with body paintings and tattoos, shooting more than 500 photographs that he developed in the middle of the jungle. He was murdered in 1902, when he was 40 years old, and –although it is not really known for certain- it is believed that the motive was his photographic activity, since the expedition that went looking for him found his remains buried with his camera in pieces. After his death, a colleague of his published a series of 100 postcards of this Paraguayan tribe, which included a selection of 12 nude photos especially captured for scientists.

Of course, nowadays it is highly unlikely that anyone will threaten you with death just because you took a picture of them, but it is still worthwhile to avoid an unpleasant situation and show respect for the other person by asking a simple question: “May I take a picture of you?”

This entry was originally posted by the author on October 15, 2011.

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