In my last article I speculated on the unwritten rules of travel photography – how travellers with a camera should respect locals’ rights to refuse to be photographed or to ask for payment in return for our snapping.
But is it reasonable or realistic for us to expect the same consideration?
On my last trans-India trip, my travelling companion and I jumped off the train at Agra to visit the Taj Mahal. It’s a truism, but the prized Unesco site is a glorious work: the marble domes and minarets majestically rise up from the mirror-ponds like snow-capped mountains, filling you with a genuine sense of awe.
Of the three million visitors to the Taj each year, only around 200,000 are foreign tourists, so it was lovely to see predominantly Indian families excitedly photographing each other in front of the iconic 17th-century mausoleum.
Some handed me their cameras, asking shyly if I’d take their picture. Of course, I said yes. Some even asked if I’d be in their photo; I was happy to oblige. But the requests kept coming, and soon a queue of Canon-toting Indian families had formed. I politely made my excuses and moved on.
Witnessing this scene was my travelling companion – a professional photographer. Used to cajoling locals with a camera himself, he found it highly amusing to watch Indian tourists now cajoling me in the same way.
Off exploring the Taj, I was lost in the intricate designs on the main gate when a flash prompted me to look around. There stood 20 Indians, all politely smiling as they repeatedly took my picture. By now I’d had enough; I wanted to be left in peace. And I was doubly disconcerted: I had absolutely no idea why they were taking my photo. The other Western women were being ignored; it wasn’t as if I was decked out in a leopard-print bikini – I was modestly dressed, my hair covered.
I made a beeline for a secluded corner of the manicured Mughal gardens, but the families followed me. More joined. Soon I was cornered by an Indian tourist scrum; children were passed over the heads of the crowd for me to be photographed holding.
Still I had no idea why any of this was happening. I felt increasingly freaked out and angry. Why were they doing this? How could I get them to stop? Why wouldn’t they leave me alone?
But the same sensibilities that make me a considerate tourist also made me feel that I couldn’t ask them to stop. I didn’t want to be rude; I didn’t want to commit a cultural or social faux pas, and I didn’t feel I had the right to impose my world view on theirs.
So I fled.
I never did learn what made me such a fascinating subject. What I did learn is that, in the world of travel, cultural consideration is not a two-way street.
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