Within days of my arrival in China I lost my blackberry, and I carried no camera. Should I get a new one? I thought.After all, if i didn’t put pics of my trip on Facebook, it never happened, right?
But I decided not to. I did not fly to Asia to snap photos, most particularly of myself. And so I made my way across China and didn’t take one photograph. To this day at times I almost doubt I even went at all. The entire journey unfolded like a psychedelic sprawl of memories, a blue with intermittent vivid, colorful images that I will carry to my grave. Every one of the experiences I had will have to rely on hearsay to regale. And those kind enough to listen to my retellings will in turn have to rely on their own imaginations to construct their own images in their own mind’s eye.
Everyone has heard about how Native Americans allegedly at one time believed that a picture steals the subject’s soul. And I can relate. Certain aspects of the process of photographing a human being seem strange to me. The posing, the performance. An amount of objectification and fetishization must go into it. The subject ceases their volition and becomes a…subject.
A pertinent article at a sociological website http://thesocietypages.org relates interesting anecdotes from the perspective of a medical student participating in ‘voluntourism’ missions to Africa. Boldly, she even includes a photograph of herself, an Image of her surrounded by little impoverished Ghanan children that she staged to ‘get likes’ on Facebook while on one of her trips. Then she continues on to critique her own behavior, saying:
The girl is me. And the photograph was taken on my first trip to Ghana during a 10 day medical brigade. I’m beaming in the photograph, half towering and half hovering over these children. I do not know their names, they do not know my name, but I directed a friend to capture this moment with my own camera. Why?
This photograph is less about doing actual work and more about retrospectively appearing to have had a positive impact overseas. Photographs like these represent the overseas experience in accordance with what writer Teju Cole calls the “White Savior Industrial Complex.”
I commend her willingness to turn the microscope on herself. That takes guts.
On these trips, we hide behind the lens, consuming the world around us with our powerful gazes and the clicking of camera shutters. When I directed this photo opportunity and starred in it, I used my privilege to capture a photograph that made me feel as though I was engaging with the community. Only now do I realize that what I was actually doing was making myself the hero/star in a story about “suffering Africa.”
These feelings of discontent I can relate to and mirror my disillusionment with Hollywood and film making in general. An image can objectify, while also making its object into a subject of the photographers own (often narcissistic) agendas. The camera separates the photographer from, and thus also mediates the relationship with, the subject.
I have personally been the subject of many photo shoots, most of them self initiated on behalf of my now discarded acting career. In those hundreds and hundreds of images, with hours spent sifting through them, I recognized a pattern. The posed shots, where I stood or sat still, ‘broke the fourth wall’, and looked directly into the camera, did not look good to me. I almost always felt unhappy with them. The best shots of myself I found were the ones where I was walking, moving, in action. Perhaps there are more reasons people a century ago frowned on film than simply long exposure time.
On my next trip I plan to take photos, but they will mostly consist of environments and places. Still life I encounter on my urban explorations. I also highly value candid action shots, glimpses of how people work and live their daily lives in other cultures. And certain anthropological subjects such as primitive fishing techniques and traditional watercraft particularly fascinate me. But posed images? Staged images? No thanks. They just don’t interest me.