It started in Thailand. Giggly school kids would approach us and ask, “One photo?” At first I thought they were asking us to take a photo of them. When I answered yes, the kid would rush to my side and one of their friends would snap away (usually on a cell phone). Once permission was granted to one, all the kids would want their picture taken with the tall, white farang (foreigner). It happened a few times in Thailand and was cute… for a while.
Then we went to India. Western tourists have been exploring India for years, yet from the intense stares we got, we thought perhaps we were the only white people some of these Indians had ever seen. Once they snapped out of their stares, they would remember that they had a camera or phone and would ask for a photo. So we obliged. Snap, a shot with a woman in a sparkly, green salwar khameez, in Hawa Mahal, Jaipur.
Click, a photo for the man eyeing me up at the Taj Mahal.
He thought it was cool that I would wear the local dress. Or maybe he was shocked to see my lily white stomach peeking out and had to splash it on his Facebook page.
Some “stole” pictures of us as we passed by. Most asked politely, and while we always joked among ourselves about asking for some rupees, we never said it to them. We asked many people why they wanted our photo. They usually didn’t answer our question with words, just the usual Indian head wobble. When we asked our tour guide Navin about it, he said they like to pretend they have a Western friend and show the photos off to other Indians.
Ken’s perspective on this is, of course, recorded on video:
We felt funny sometimes having our picture taken. We may have been dirty or sweaty or feeling uninteresting. And those are the times when we remembered that turnabout is fair play. Barely a day has gone by on our world tour without us sneaking a snap of an unsuspecting local. We do it all the time, so why shouldn’t we have our photo taken by a stranger too?
We do have our limits. One boundary that I feel the world really needs to respect is not touching a stranger without permission. We are constantly reading about cultural sensitivities in guidebooks and how we foreigners need to respect local customs. So I was a bit shocked at what happened at the location of Buddha’s first sermon, outside of Varanasi. A few of us were approached by a local who wanted to take a group picture. We lined up for him, and then more budding photographers gathered around us. It was brutally hot that day, with the sun beating down, so I had my sarong wrapped around my head and shoulders. One woman charged at me and forcefully tried to remove my sarong from my head, for a more Westernized look to her picture. I replied gruffly that she shouldn’t be grabbing me like that and scowled for the last picture.
Good thing we’re not looking into becoming politicians, because we have no idea what incriminating photos some of these people may have of us!
I’ve noticed when I travel that locals will often tell me they have “a friend” in Milwaukee or Wisconsin. How can so many people in a tiny town in Mexico have friends here, I wondered. Then it finally occurred to me… for them, “friend” meant “person I met once and talked to for more than 10 seconds.” They remember a little bit about a lot of people — more than I would have guessed — and reference the “friendships” as a way of connecting to new tourists, I think.
Anyhow, that’s just my guess. I wonder if your picture-snapping experiences are related to that.
I freely admit that I secretly snap photos of people as we travel… like fashion disasters, or people gleefully posing in front of a statue of Mao, or the situation last night of a Chinese guy puffing away right in front of the “no smoking” sign. I guess turnabout is fair play. What you said about them remembering a little bit about a lot of people is interesting- makes sense given that people in tourist areas would have brief moments of contact with many different people.
Hmm, maybe they take pictures of me because they see me as a fashion disaster?!?!
They probably think as good looking as you guys are that you’re some kind of movie stars. I’m sure that they don’t see many westerners traveling around by themselves like you two do. Most of their encounters may be with large tour groups that they are unable to have one to one with. Maybe it’s just your great energy that sucks them in.
Yes, wearing sunglasses does give some the idea that we are famous, as many Indians do not wear sunglasses. Good energy? Depends on the day!