We have circumnavigated the great moat around the Golden Temple and are simply basking in the atmosphere. The sounds of tablas echo over loudspeaker while deep inside Harmandir Sahib, old men sing verses in quavering voices. Pilgrims are everywhere: bathing in the holy waters, sharing in the communal langar, bringing offerings into the temple. Sikhs come from around the world to pray and join together here, in Amritsar. It is calm and still, and the white marble is cool below thousands of bare feet.
A man approaches us, throws his arms around Ty and I, and smiles wide for a camera held by his wife. They take five photos with enormous grins. There is no preamble or permission, though he thanks us and his son sweetly tries out some of his English on us. Not that it’s a big deal. It’s about the fifth picture we’ve had taken of us today.
Another time, we are splashing about in a waterfall outside of Luang Prabang. There is a rope swing and a perfect place to take a leap into the water, which I do after nervously vetting the pool below for jagged rocks that I might eviscerate myself upon. A tour bus lets out, and a crowd of Chinese tourists begins to pass in one great orbit, but they are caught, as though stuck in some gravity well. Ty and Faith are inching along a tree branch to a rope swing, he enormously tall, and Faith blonde and sporting a pretty serious leg tattoo. We are weird looking, probably, but we are not quite prepared for the wave of excitement that overtakes the crowd, as they shoot hundreds of photos of us leaping into the water (though we do not perish, which would have probably made the photos a lot more interesting). Several of the tourists later approach Ty and happily share the photos with him, which he admits are immaculately shot and make him look pretty adventurous.
We were not bothered by these requests, per se, barring those people who tried to stealthily sneak snapshots of us from great distances, or who would run up and photobomp their own pictures with our very existences. Having lived in Asia for a few years, we developed a fairly tuned sense of objectification: we could tell when people saw us as enormous pink zoo chimps for pointing and staring. We could comfortably discern those genuinely curious folk who asked for a picture nicely from those who stalked out from the dark, 22-inch telephoto lens crooked suspiciously below their arm, to blind us with a camera flash and take terrifying shots of our prone forms.
And yet in those instances where we felt cheery and at ease enough to pose for a photo, we wondered what purpose these pictures could possibly fulfill for these excited people. We imagined the family slideshow after the vacation where they told their relatives, with passion distinct and clear in their voices, how and where they met these strangers, and how they were too flustered to ask our names, our countries, or really anything about us. We imagined scrapbooks entitled “Foreign people doin’ things!” We imagined really strange Facebook profile photos.
Most of these shots couldn’t possibly be good photos, and we’d been travelling for months at this point and were beginning to look rough. Our clothes were dirty and torn, our skin ravaged by sun and mosquitoes, our posture racked by carrying around backpacks. You may think you want a photo with these slouching, filthy vagabonds, but once you see the results, you’ll probably regret it.
But wherever we went, we were well documented and hounded to take photographs. We were happy to oblige, as we too took plenty of gawking, stupid photos of people doing probably tedious, humdrum things. But often these photos were taken within visual distance of some of the most amazing sights of the world.
We began to grow concerned. Was this a vestige of imperialism, some echo or modern manifestation of white privilege around the world? Did most of these strangers just want a picture of the lady with the weird golden hair and blue leg and the giant monkey man and his tubby friend, to frame like a snapshot from a safari excursion? Was there something sinister afoot, some growing collection of mementos of our faces lingering up on a scary cork board, predicting our future kidnapping? By about halfway through India, Ty had forsworn all photos of himself, and refused all queries for group pictures, glamour shots, or long-distance stealth snaps taken with camera phones. By Kolkata we were averaging about 10-20 picture requests per day, and it was beginning to wear us down.
Even still, we did not want to assume the worst of everyone. Occasionally a photographer would make his intentions obviously icky: a man slithers up to me and requests if he may have a picture with Faith. When I assure him that it’s not my permission he needs, his words slip greasily from his tongue. (Faith, later: “What the hell is he going to do with that photo?” Me, later: “Either a) happy private time or b) ‘Hey dudes check out this foreign babe I slept with.’”) But the rest of the time, the requests have been so innocent or so pleasant we feel nearly duty-bound to acquiesce. On a train platform in Bihar, 70-odd middle schoolers in the army cadets swarm us to practice their English, to talk about their training, and to commiserate about the long wait times. After speaking with us for nearly an hour, one of the recruits sheepishly asks if they can get a photo with us. Refusal barely even crosses our minds.
I remembered, suddenly, a day back in Gyeongju. We had all just finished lunch and were headed back out to frolic in the cherry blossoms, which was the point of our trip. Sitting outside astride a wheelbarrow were two Korean grannies, in local work clothes, taking a break. They stood before a great, open field, filled with an ocean of grass and bracketed by the blossom trees, the sun high and warm and springtime golden. They had on work gloves and enormous visors, traditional ajumma garb. Satisfied smiles rocketed across their faces, and they looked completely at peace. Given that I thought they looked cool, I approached and asked if it was okay if I took a picture. They told me, essentially, to cram it with walnuts and so I retreated abashedly.
But I imagine now them trying to piece together why I would want a photo. Here they were, possibly on a break from work, and up comes some strange doofus inquiring if he can capture them in a photo. “Us?” they probably thought. “Boy, we’re just standing here.”
And I think of everyone else I’ve ever shot, and the dilemma they face being identical to mine. “What the hell is he going to do with this picture?” they wonder, hoping like hell I don’t have a creepy folder on my computer somewhere filled with wide-grinned portraits of uneasy strangers. They look down at their everyday clothes, at their everyday friends, at their everyday activities, and wonder what is so terribly interesting. Everyone on the other side of the lens has to sit and wonder why they’re the subject.