My sister recently posted this link on facebook. The images are haunting and incredible. They are so beautiful but in a way tragic. When I looked at these photos, I was so overcome by emotion. The photographer captured the different tribal communities with such grace and power and I wish I could print them out and hang them around my apartment.
These pictures are reminiscent of photos that my husband, Espen took while we were abroad. Although his pictures were never staged portraits, they bring a sense of wonder and nostalgia to me. They remind me of all the incredible adventures we experienced in the last year.
For the unconnected observer, these photographs are pieces of art. The difference, though, is that the subjects of these masterpieces are not paid models. Instead, they are real people, from indigenous tribes that are in great danger of extinction. With over 400,000 likes on facebook, I wonder what effect publicizing these photos will have on these people. A once untouched civilization, isolated from modern living, has been thrown into one of the most public places in the world today; the Internet. And while these pictures are important because they educate us about other cultures and lifestyles, I can’t help but ask: Did these tribes know the ramifications of posing for this photographer? Did they know they would be “liked” and “shared” online, on display for the world to see?
Seeing these pictures reminds me of my own experiences taking pictures in Asia and witnessing others photographing the “local culture”. Espen and I moved from a place of discomfort, where if we did take a picture, we would sneak it, to a place of determination, where we got that perfect shot of a local. I have to admit, looking back on some of those shots gives me pleasure because it helps me remember. It reminds me of the amazing people we met, the foreign and beautiful faces, the poverty, and the wealth that we encountered on our trip. In some cases, it makes me long to return to Asia, to revisit places we’ve been, to explore areas we didn’t get to, and to take more pictures. But should these pictures, like the photographs of the indigenous people, really be taken, and then posted on a facebook page for our friends and family to see?
In Thailand and Myanmar, I found that invention and popularization of a digital camera, had detrimental effects on local people. The Kayan people, aptly named the “Longnecks” for their altered appearances, are an indigenous group whose women and girls practice the art of slowly extended their necks with brass coils. While traditionally, female members of the Kayan tribe extended their neck, or really lowered their shoulders, for purposes of beauty or to protect themselves from being enslaved, the continued practice has been questioned by members of the tribe itself.
In the Western world, this practice might be seen as violence against women, especially since the brass coils can be painfully heavy. However, it is the West who pursue the Kayans, signing up for trips to visit local tribal villages to get a glimpse, and yes, a picture of these strange people. This practice, to me, is barbaric and it grieves me to see members of my own country, through curiosity and ignorance, go out of their way to get a glimpse of the Kayans. In a way, we tourists are enabling a practice we would not allow our own children to endure. And for what? A picture? A memory?
Another incident that shocked and disturbed me when I was traveling was when I witnessed a group of Europeans video tape a nursing mother. My husband and I were taking an old, rickety train over the very famous Gokteik Viaduct in Myanmar and paid an extra $4 each to ride in the first class car. We were accompanied by a number of Western tourists traveling alone and in tour groups.
One group in particular, was especially boisterous and excited about the train trip and took video the whole way. When we traveled across the bridge, a couple people in the group leaned so far out of the open train car door to get a picture of the bridge, their guide was even worried for their safety. I could understand their excitement at being in a foreign country and experiencing exotic scenery. I, too was pretty pumped about going across a very old, very high, and very long bridge.
However, my amusement quickly changed to disgust when we stopped at a train station in rural Myanmar. I hopped out of the train to buy some goodies that the locals were selling including samosa-like dumplings and sliced fruit. After I finished my transaction, I turned and witnessed disgraceful behavior. Two of the Europeans were standing around a nursing mother, her breast exposed as she tried to feed her baby. With their expensive video cameras, they thrust their lenses toward the woman’s chest, eagerly trying to capture every second of the baby’s feeding. Embarrassed, and trapped under a basket of food, the woman looked extremely uncomfortable and started to tap the baby in the face to stop her from sucking.
The Europeans were unfazed by her reaction, only interested in the video they were taking. They humiliated and dehumanized her, stealing from her an essential and important moment she shared with her child, and bringing it home to probably show to all their friends. Like the Kayan women, she was no longer human.
I do not condemn the act of photography or portraiture. Like I said, I love the pictures Espen took. I have also accepted the fact that I appear in stranger’s photographs. In China, Espen especially was asked to pose with locals in front of a monument or in a garden.
However, I wonder how the indigenous people are affected by these pictures. I wonder what they were given for their portraits. I sympathize with these women who are ogled and captured behind a lens. Is it worth the dehumanization of a few to educate the many? Perhaps. But in a way, it is true that a piece of their soul is taken. And their lives will change forever.