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A Blog About Culture

Recognition, Situation, Identity, Reality

I’m making my head spin. Sometimes I don’t know what I believe.

I read an article in Wild Junket Magazine called “The ‘When’ of Photography: Knowing Which Photos to Take During What Hour of the Day.” It was fine. Good. Informative. But I found myself wishing there was an article discussing not when but if one should take a photo. Many temples, for example, strongly discourage photography … yet here was this photographer saying, “Oh yeah, shoot them in the morning. The sunlight is just right and there will be a lot of interesting subjects.”

You mean… people. People who are just trying to go pray in peace. 

I remember feeling strange, upset, and commodified when tourists took photographs of my family as we were lining ourselves up for a reunion photo on the front steps of our house near Patan Durbar Square. I would have been happy to tell them about the occasion we were celebrating and its cultural and religious significance, but they didn’t care. They snapped and went, like we were the objects of their tourist experience. It made me feel helpless and consequentially angry about it. 

But the more I think about it, to them, I was just an object. I was part of an experience they were consuming. As I read more travel essays in this magazine, and I think about photography as documentation, and I think about any kinds of cultural commodification, the more I wonder how very limiting my own hesitant, traditionalist views are. 

Some people say that cultures are for sharing, for creating beautiful connections, and for growing and forging new, wonderful experiences. What’s an experience? A thing that happened. A thing that happened to you. I just wrote a post last month about how I feel that heritage is a construct of closeness and remembered history, and about how bereft I feel when it is appropriated. So, in the way of my own feelings, are tourists disallowed from experience? In another land, is that place hallowed and only able to be traversed (and even consumed) by permission of its longest-standing citizens? I think that is what I feel inside, and I think that sounds pretty stupid. 

Is experience an ownable object? If my life is my own, and if I am to have the freedoms to move about the world and interact with the places and peoples I choose, then are those experiences mine, too? And am I allowed the right to reify those experiences into documented forms? I guess I think yes. 

I think there are ethical ways of doing so, of course. I think the documentation needs to be presented through a reflexive lens, an emphasis placed on “this is my experience,” not a factual “This is what this place is.” I am not a fan of representation at all, as is obvious in this blog that I wouldn’t even give a proper name. And I guess that I insist that the process of documentation also be negotiated with the process of human interaction. It would be pompous and absurd to go around like “This is my life and I’m going to do whatever I want!” Wouldn’t it. 

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