Sunday, June 13, 2010


Today, Gisenyi, the paved street off of the beach: My friend B’s phone is stealthily sneaked out of her pocket.

She doesn’t notice until too late.

B and S and I stand dumb, look hopelessly in circles, try to try to find something to do to track down the little boy thieves.

The little boy thieves: By then far far far away gripping her phone, giggling and grinning over it. And maybe feeling a little guilty deep deep deep down beneath their adrenaline. Or maybe not.

While B and S and I stand there helpless, several foreign army men (Indians? Bangladeshis?) come up to us and ask to take a photo with us.

Us in our beach gear.

As if we are all three of us Britney Spears? Whiskey Tango Foxtrot?

“But just one photo? Come on. Why not just one?”

Conclusion: They don’t get a posed photo of us, but they do get a photo of us sneering, shaking our heads, telling them “No”.

“Creepy,” says S.

"Yeah, creepy," I say.


Foreign army men like to take photos of me and my other white friends on the beach. Once I was climbing out of a kayak in my swimsuit and three foreign army men snapped my photo, and I got so mad! and then my friends F & A, who rent out the kayaks and the catamarans, saw me so mad! and they were mad, too! mad for me! and they grabbed the men’s camera & searched through it & deleted photos.

My dear heroes, they are.


Also today: A white man I know is swimming in Lake Kivu with his two little boys, two and four years old. Several foreign army men call and wave and ask him to get out. Ask him to bring the boys out. So that they, the army men, can take photos of themselves next to his little children.

The man does not move from the four feet of lake that he is standing in. The boys, with their blond hair and tiny white baby teeth, giggle & cling to him. They are oblivious, splashing in the water.

Creepy, right?



Because then, there’s also this: So many acquaintances of mine travel to so many villages and play with the dusty little lovely mischievous “African” children, pose with the children, take photos of the children, snap snap snap the children. They show the children the photos on their camera and the children scream with laughter and clap and the acquaintances take more photos of the children laughing. And then they post the photos on Facebook. New profile pictures! Cute big deep “African” child eyes! Curly soft brown “African” hair! Breastfeeding “African” mama cuddling her tiny “African” baby!

That’s not thought of as creepy. Those new profile pictures make my acquaintances look adventurous! exciting! mysterious! international! multicultural! COOL!

But how are those photos of “Africans in the village” any different from the photos of “white women and children on the beach”?

They’re so not.

(Except that the "Africans in the village" often don't have access to cameras to snap snap snap photos back.)


And me? I have taken photos of the foreign army men, their olive colored hands gripping their guns, their brown waves of hair crammed under blue helmets. I've done that, a little in love with the guns and the helmets and the idea of protection and danger and adrenaline and life life life. That's a little creepy.

So maybe none of us is creepy. Or maybe we all are.

Maybe we are all just curious about each other, one another.


Anonymous said...

why I stopped taking photos for the most part, unless I know people enough to feel like we are friends. I can't get past my weird feelings about it.

Rachel said...

Me either, I can't get past it. And I often feel so uncomfortable looking at other people's photos of strangers.

But then -- there ARE photographers like Scarlett Lion, who takes the most beautiful photos of people she has just met -- I often will look at one of her photos of a stranger and feel like I recognize them, like they ARE my friends! Quite a talent.

ABM said...

What a wonderfully insightful post, told in what could be the perfect way: sometimes it can be hard to take a step back and realize you may be part of the problem. That said, when I was assisting at an orphanage overseas, the girls loved having their photo taken and said as much, not discriminating as to who was snapping the picture.

An interesting project looking to create "photo diplomacy", where you leave the photo with the person, rather than snapping it and giving them a 10 second viewing:

Rachel said...

Hi ABM, thanks for the comment! :o)

I did used to let the kids I knew in my neighborhood in Northern Uganda run around a bit with my camera and take photos -- theirs are some of the best photos I have to remember the place and the people I lived with (and I gave copies -- take a photo, give a photo!). I just had a cheap digital camera but it was pretty hardy (which is lucky, cuz kids dropped it a lot). Kids do love cameras -- you're right... I do think, for me at least, it makes all the difference if I know the person or not...

Anonymous said...

I think there's a difference between developing a relationship w/people for a photo shoot, and acting like you are at a tourist spot! :-) Scarlett Lion does an amazing and professional job of it. The intimacy she creates shows in the photos. Quite different than snapping, snapping and especially snapping without asking permission like many do. Or snapping the most vulnerable and shocking shots. It's really a complicated thing. I have tons of photos of me in the middle of a group of 'brown' people, who asked me to take a shot with them. I know what our relationship was, but no on else will tell from the picture. It will look like another one of those "look at me, the white person in the middle of the brown people". All in all the photos can carry so many unwanted connotations that it takes real talent and focus to make them work!

Rachel said...

Linda!!! This is a little off subject, but you still haven't posted an overview or outline of your Children/Youth/Media presentation (have you?) for those of us with ridiculously poor internet (thanks, movie-downloading colleagues!) and nasty firewalls.

I think that one can treat one's fellow bloggers as DJs and make song requests, and I hereby formally request that.

s said...

i know it would have been embarrassing to be in a situation like this.I have bben taking pics of people in congo of and on.sometimes discreetly and some times where people are friendly.Although one feels guilty after taking these discreet pics but i console myself that I am not using them for any public use or display or commercial activity.The act of these people who took your snaps was despicable and very un soldierly

s said...

i have although always made sure that no such pic is taken that the person feels uneasy or embarrassed or its vulgar/obscene in any manner.

Rachel said...

S!!! I'm so sorry I haven't gotten back to you, I've been SO BUSY. Even on Sunday, I was at the beach WITH MY COMPUTER working.

Please, please, please let's get coffee soon (or something) and please don't think I've been ignoring you. Just crazy-busy.

s said...

you may see the mail i have sent you recently.May be this week on working day you may join us for dinner as your sundays are busy.By the way I still havnt managed to go to volcano despite all the efforts.ICCN is not agreeing for giving permission.

Rachel said...

This week is very busy with work and dinners, but this weekend or next week, if I'm not up North, would be great...

And you're KIDDING me about the volcano?!?! I know other people who haven't gotten permission, but that was because of iNGO security rules, not the ICCN... I'm so surprised!!!

s said...

friday/saturday,let me know.

Esteyonage said...

great post. the constant dilemma of when and who to snap and why. its a tough one.

Rachel said...

Esteyonage, thank you so much for your nice comment! :o)

S, again, I'm so sorry. Next week will be much calmer for me. I've been so so busy and bad at communicating!!!

s said...

saturday evening and sunday morning?