Travel Photography and Rampaging the Temple


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To get all serious up in your collective grille for a second, I want to discuss a dilemma I face. As one can tell from a cursive glance at this blog, I enjoy taking many, many amateurish photos. When I travel, I generally have my camera on me at all times: while I try to keep it stowed for at least a while in each of the places I go, so that my entire experience is not through a lens, I like to have it with me, in case something particularly intriguing compels me to take a photo. But in a foreign country, especially one where I’m not fluent enough to cogently ask the question, what am I allowed to photograph?

Maybe too many years of studying religion towards my useless Bachelor degree has left me over-sensitive, but I’m especially leery whenever I’m near a place of worship. Temples, churches, mosques, mandirs… these are places that I generally start to dwell in my own head and doubt myself every time I reach for a camera. Is it okay for me to do this? I want to capture the beauty that I get to see, to share it with friends and with the internet at large, and to help enliven my own memories in years to come. I want to try to communicate about the space I’m in, and visual aids are handy, but I worry that this want becomes invasive.

I could get into a long discussion on the nature of the sacred and the profane and probably make raised-pinky references to Jung and James, and also maybe about Buddhist conceptions of maya and how taking stupid shots of big statues kind of falls right into it, but that’s weird and would make me write an even longer post than usual. Often, in the moment when I’m about to click the shutter, my thoughts are more towards the people.

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I went to Seoul last week and travelled to Jogyesa, the largest Buddhist temple in Seoul and the major religious site for members of the Jogye sect of Buddhism in Korea. It was, to put it lightly, stunningly gorgeous: serene, sombre, remarkably still, despite roaming tourists. The main temple was surrounded by additional, smaller structures, a house for an enormous ceremonial drum, a towering fountain. Throughout the grounds there were the sounds of chanting, of instruments, of worship and meditation. And also cowbell.

As we approached from the street, my camera floated up to my face level mostly of its own power, and I began taking shots. I photographed statues outside, the fountain, a statue of an elephant in sunlight. I photographed the murals of Bodhisattvas, and of the collections of shoes nearby. But after a slow circumambulation of the main temple, I saw the inside: three towering, golden Buddhas, smiling benevolently, hands in lotus position. The walls were covered in Korean and Chinese script scrolls, and all around were more statues. People climbed the steps, removed their shoes, entered, and suddenly I was in a private context.

It was there that my desire to capture the image permanently wrestled with my overwhelming desire to be respectful, particularly of others’ sacred and religious spaces. I watched quietly, trying to absorb it in my mind instead. When in these sorts of situations, I’ll typically either ask, or approximate the behaviour of those who look more local and thus, in my mind, bestowed with more expertise on the matter than I. But even here, the two sources of info competed. At a previous temple on Ganghwa, I asked a Buddhist nun if it was all right to take photos of the interior of the temple, and she reported that it was not; but at Jogyesa, I saw numerous Koreans stooping low with their hulking, behemoth DSLRs, setting up tripods, and taking a strobe-like amount of flash photography.

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It is more difficult here, especially, because I feel as though I don’t have the knowledge or the ability to even ask the question. While in countries in the West I had little problem snapping pictures in fancy churches, it was often because I felt I knew, to a large degree, what would and would not be okay for me to photograph. As a general rule I’ll never take a photo where I might capture someone worshipping, but in the West, I’m confident I can delineate what is acceptable to capture, and what should be left undisturbed. I feel as though I could maintain a similar degree of respectfulness and knowledgeability in your standard mandir or mosque, although any experience there is still academic in nature.

In Korea, and in Buddhist temples, I’m left to guess work. And when there’s no one around to ask, I have to turn to my own sense of the situation. I have to feel out, for myself, what I think would be okay for me to photograph, to take away, to keep in a small, frozen token. Typically I’ll put myself in the shoes of Johnny EveryBuddhist: if I were here, taking off my shoes and going about my worshippin’ time, would I be cool with honky snapping my photo? If yes, away I go. If no, the camera takes a nap.

Sometimes I push it further: around the main temple at Jogyesa is a raised, concrete platform that you ascend to before taking off your shoes to enter. I wanted desperately to climb up and get a closer look, just with my eyes, but it seemed like a space just for people coming to actually make use of the temple in the religious sense. I stifled my desire to poke around relentlessly. In churches in Europe, I tried to avoid the places seemingly set out for prayer and services, and stuck mainly to the well-trodden naves and narthexes where the other tourists were already stomping.

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This issue sometimes drifts into regular life, especially as I like to capture some of the day-to-day in Incheon. The other week, during Chuseok, a friend and I explored a Korean cemetery, and every time I took a photo, or even looked too long at something, I felt like maybe I should move on. Most of the people there were easy-going about our presence, but I occasionally had the creeping sense of being an intruder. We saw one family resplendent in a picnic with a dead relative: sitting together on a blanket around the mound, chopping up Korean pears, I stopped in my tracks and wanted desperately to photograph them, but knew it was too invasive, too stupid to capture such a loving and private moment, and began to walk on. As we approached, they happily waved at us and wished us a good day, only reinvigorating my desire to stop and shoot.

The major problem, of course, is that whatever line I draw in the sand is arbitrary. I would never try to make others feel bad about taking photos where I wouldn’t, because they might have their own internal, silly lines about what is and is not okay to photograph. I’m coming at it from my own perspective, and I can’t expect others to bend to my frame of mind, so typically I just shut up and put away my camera, and move away when others want to take pictures of things that I don’t. When I have no external guidance on the matter, I rely on my gut: these gut feelings, honed through a Bachelor in religion and also ultimately meaningless, are all that I’ve got in this scenario.

So whenever I happen to stumble upon signage that tells me that no, I cannot take photos or yes, snap away, you drooling, fat tourist, I rejoice a little. It’s like a tiny permission slip from Buddha himself, or a stern head-shaking from Jesus and Shiva, that tells me what I need to do, or what I am allowed. On this matter, deciding for myself makes me neurotic.

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7 thoughts on “Travel Photography and Rampaging the Temple

  1. Wow, very well written and I know exactly where you are coming from. When I have travelled in Europe and Asia I have always grappled with this problem. Usually I end up not taking photos, particularly where – as you say – people are worshipping or using the site for their actual religious reasons, rather than tourism. In areas that feel like nothing more than a tourist location (some very famous churches gave me this impression) I think that taking photos is fine, but when encountering the still, holy feeling of a truly religious place I can never get myself to take photos. Especially in small or local places as opposed to massive cathedrals and temples.

    • Yeah, I feel much the same way, and I think you put it right: I can’t bring myself to take the photos. I’m not particularly religious by any means, but I have a decent sense of that quietness, especially the ones that people of that faith cherish.

      On the massive cathedrals, too. I always feel much more easygoing taking photos there. Especially when they have giftshops. If it has a gift shop, it’s inviting me to be a tourist.

  2. Pingback: Chuseok Holiday: The Literal Translation « Stupid Ugly Foreigner

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