As the local communities we visit become more and more prosperous, more and more of the people we go to photograph are acquiring cameras of their own. Take the case of the Vietnamese, who will be the last to be left behind in the information technology age. Almost every single member of my Cao Bang staff has a digital camera, and those without cameras have the more pervasive threat to privacy: the camera phone. Granted, their favorite subjects are usually themselves and their children in front of every edifice, tree, bush and landscape they pass. But when there isn’t anything left to entertain their lens in that bent, they are increasingly turning to another subject: us.
Vietnamese are ravenous tourists. They love visiting sites of historic and cultural interest to their country and to places of reputed beauty. And, in true tourist form, they often see the whole tour through the output of a three-inch digital LCD screen.
In my own visits to Vietnamese historic (and not-so-historic) places in the last several months, not fewer than ten times have I turned around only to discover a mobile phone or digital camera aimed in my own direction. I have been asked on an equal number of occasions if somebody could take my picture – sometimes even asked to pose with them.
My instinctive, gut reaction is to always and immediately refuse – or to duck behind something to foil the efforts of the local paparazzi. I am horribly camera shy, and often have to be coerced to pose in pictures with my own staff members. No way am I going to stand for a picture with a total stranger. Usually the requester is polite enough to accept the refusal, or at least take the hint when I say no and then hide my face behind something. But a few times they’ve actually been insistent – and who knows how many candid shots are out there floating around on Vietnamese mobile phones.
But each incident does give me pause. I’m generally equally camera shy about taking people’s pictures as I am about posing in them. And yet I love the up-close and personal pictures that really show individuality and can tell a story. Most organizations have rules about having to ask permission before taking a picture, but all too often that destroys a moment and makes pictures seem stilted and posed. And who hasn't wanted to capture the feeling of place – and record the oddities of the new place we’re visiting?
So, I suppose turn around is fair play – if we can take pictures of them, why shouldn’t they take pictures of us, awkward and strange looking creatures that we are, foreign enigmas wandering through their landscape? And yet, it still feels completely wrong when the subject of your next Pulitzer-prize winning photograph pulls out a cell phone and snaps a shot of you immediately after.
The fact is, the playing field is being leveled – don’t be surprised if the next time you travel, the “natives” you capture on your SD card turn out to have more GB and more megapixels than you. And they want your mug shot to prove it.