Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Snap and Go in Morocco

Some takes on making pics cross-culturally....

New Convert

I've never been much of a picture taker. I've always prefered to replay events in my mind rather than through photos or videos.

Visual memories stored in your mind get layered with emotion and interpretation and all kinds of other good things that turn them into a pretty rich mixture. Photos or videos sometimes seem too literal a medium for satisfying memories.

I'm a medievalist in some ways and I freely admit it.

But I've been getting more into picture taking recently. The only explanations I can give for my change of attitude are my ageing brain and digital cameras.

The problem with rich and layered visual memories as you get older is that they get stuck in some inaccessable corner of your brain where you can't get to them. All you soft lens contact wearers will recognize the experience of one of your dried-out contacts folding up and disappearing somewhere underneath your eyelid and around the corner of your eyeball.

That's pretty much what happens eventually with visual memories. You can't remember what people or places look like anymore. Sometimes--as you get into your 40's--you can hardly remember what you looked like at 20 as you stare into the mirror and wonder who this old guy is standing in the bathroom wearing your clothes. So pictures and videos can be a pretty good reminder that jump starts all that layered good stuff again.

And digital cameras just make the whole thing so easy....

Cross-cultural Pics?

I travel a lot internationally and picture taking in the two-thirds world is a whole different thing.

My work gets me into overseas slum communities. When I'm there I generally avoid taking pictures. Carrying a camera tends to create a certain distance with my hosts. Most people in the developing world associate picture taking with tourists or journalists and that's the last thing I want to communicate. Understandably, too, people living in urban poverty aren't normally thrilled about having folks snapping pictures of their difficult circumstances.

But aside from the connotations of tourism or poor folk's discomfort with photography, people in a lot of cultures just don't like to have their picture taken, period. Not everybody loves the camera as much as Americans do.

Quick Pics

I just got back from Morocco. People there frown on taking photos of people. And forget about getting easy pics of religious buildings of any kind.

That's a pain because religious structures are pretty much the only interesting architecture among the miles of butt ugly buildings in most developing world Islamic cities.

Some of those social restrictions are due to current Morrocan culture and some to the long-term influence of Islam which forbids human representation in art.

So if you're going to get some pictures of people (I just avoid religious buildings altogether in these kinds of places) you've gotta be stealthy and quick and ready for a lecture or two when you get caught camera in hand.

I've developed my own little idiosyncratic method for just such occasions.

Once you see what you want to photograph, you figure out the shot in your head. Then you turn your back to it with camera concealed under your crossed arms. You get the camera ready and get your finger on the button and ready to shoot. Then you quickly spin clockwise--if you're a right hander--in order to face the object or person and all in one motion bring the camera up to your face. Sort of like the motion you'd use to throw a frisbee except you keep your elbow in a lot closer to your body.

Line it up quick and bam! snap the shot.

Then quickly swing the camera behind your back and move off at a brisk pace.

With a little practice you can do the whole thing with one fluid motion in 3 or 4 seconds.

Yes, I agree. It's pretty embarrassing what a grown man will do sometimes to get a picture.

And like I said, no matter how careful you are to avoid offence, once in a while you'll face the judgment of a local. Just after I took the picture of the vegetable and fruit souk (market) above I headed quickly through the crowds thinking I'd gotten the shot off with no fuss or muss. But an older woman about twenty yards away must have seen me and she gave me her two dirhams worth in Arabic. I'm glad I couldn't understand her, though I'm guessing it had something to do with knuckleheads and Americans....

Strike a Pose

In contrast to the cultural consensus in these places, some locals make a living being photographed. Since it's hard for the average tourist to get good pictures of local people they'll pay a premium to snap one of these "professional voguers."

Usually the "peevees" wear some kind of colorful indigenous clothing or do something "exotic." In Egypt these guys dress up like some romantic Bedouin Sheik and ride a camel. In Morocco they wear traditional Moroccan footware--kind of a pointy slipper deal--and "charm" snakes and strike a 1001 Arabian Nights pose.

The snakes are highly venemous cobras, though skilled handlers suture their mouths shut with medical filament just before showtime. Some tourists don't know that and I saw a few fearful and panicky looks on people's faces.

If you whip out your camera these guys are on you in a second speaking good English, Spanish, French, or German and demanding a fee for service. Once you pay up and take your shot, they jump on you again and coax your camera away from you so they can take a shot of you with the snakes in the background. After they snap the shot they double dip you and demand a further fee.

Not a bad joint.

Maybe lean and pacifistic European tourists in the U.S. would pay for pictures of "exotic" American voguers striking a pose with greasy fast food in one hand and a legal assault rifle in the other. I'm surprised nobody at Venice Beach has done that take for cash :^)

Pro Vogueing


Blogger stevenW said...

your pics on cross cultural shots are very nice. I am from Malaysia and we have many races living together quite harmoniously. They are mainly Malay, Chinese, Indians, Eurasians and many other ethic races.
You may want to travel to our country and take some pics for your album. You will find many cross cultural activities all the time.



8:45 PM  
Blogger jon said...

My technique required a lot more luck but was somewhat stealthier (mostly for taking pictures of people without them knowing). I would walk around with my thumb hooked in my pants pocket, camera tucked in palm. I practised taking pictures with it so I would get used to the angles and to aiming it. When I saw the person I wanted the picture of, I'd carefully position the camera at my hip and get it in exactly the right angle, pointed backwards. I'd then walk past the person and stop and snap when the distance was right. It was great for candid shots and times when I didn't want to embarrass anybody. I got a good picture less than half the time, though.

1:24 PM  
Blogger Wordcat said...

That's hilarious! I'll have to try that next time. Maybe I can avoid the wrath of (Grandma) Khan....

1:55 PM  
Blogger Dave said...

You are a braver man than I. An American in the Islamic world might as well be tattooed with a big red bull’s-eye. And then to get on their bad side with a camera??

You must make clanging noises in your shorts when you walk. I wouldn’t have the balls.

4:29 PM  
Blogger Wordcat said...

May have more to do with a lack of brains than a surplus of huevos....

5:02 PM  
Blogger jon said...

Always true!

7:15 PM  
Blogger anhomily said...

I am more of a stealthy shoot-from- the-hip kind of guy (a seemingly contradictory combination of self-consciousness and brashness), after abstaining from photography for a few years. I still haven't decided whether it is worth it to me to capture the meaningful moments in picture form, at the risk of alienating and angering others. I have been on several missions trips where people were taking so many pictures, they just ruined the experience by trying to commodify it. I recently overruled my inhibitions in an attempt to make a short film about ramadan, but I hired a local cameraman, so I was not actually present for most of the filming, which at least helped me feel less weird about it. I am still not sure if the result will be what I was looking for, but who knows. I really want to find out more info about hidden camera type things as a way of capturing life in foreign environments in a less obtrusive way. For now I am mostly keeping to imperceptible shots, though...

7:28 AM  

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