What I think about before I take a photo

Behind every snap, cultural, social and historical context needs to be considered.


I think about photography — and now videography — all the time.

I think about it when women in colorful skirts walk past colorful buildings. I think about it when old men in cowboy hats lean up against a building while devouring ice cream cones. I think about it every time I go into a market and the worn, leathery hands of the vendors contrast with the youthful ripeness of the produce.

Sometimes beautiful angles just occur, when the world so naturally aligns and a portrait emerges, so defined. Sometimes beautiful moments just happen, girls in flowing dresses dancing around a cotton tree, the sun’s golden light igniting pieces of their hair.

I think about taking these photos all the time.

But often, I don’t.

Why I refrain has nothing to do with the laws of whatever place I’m in, as someone on Instagram suggested to me recently, and everything to do with the complex cultural, social and historical considerations surrounding every snap.

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For starters, my camera is an automatic signifier of wealth in places that often lack many such symbols. (I never used to see myself as wealthy in my old life; my perspective on that has changed.) Because of that, it often acts as an instant separator between myself and the people with whom I hope to connect.

Beyond the financial weight of the equipment, though, I’ve learned, indelibly, that there are a lot of other things to think about.

For a multitude of reasons, many people simply don’t want their photos taken.

In some places, that aversion is based on long-standing cultural tenets.

In Guatemala, I quickly learned that many people of Mayan descent believe that each photo captured steals a piece of their soul. 

When I raised my camera, I grew accustomed to seeing turned faces, hands shading eyes. Once, while taking a photo of a street scape, a Mayan woman walked into the frame and I snapped — from 30 feet away, she cursed me angrily. I deleted the photo, but I still carry the moment with me.

Did I take a piece of her? I wonder.

Even so, showing Guatemala without its indigenous people is difficult and invalid, so when I could take photos from a distance, without much notice taken to me, I did. I took photos of kids after asking, even while knowing that children can’t fully offer consent. A few times, I offered to pay women to photograph them, and they accepted. I still don’t know how to feel about those exchanges — my willingness to participate in them or the kind of financial desperation necessary to put aside your beliefs for a few coins.

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Already, I was starting to get a sense of the complexity, but truly, it was only the start.

In most places in this part of the world, the distaste for photos and cameras has social answers, too.

Unlike many places in the U.S., Instagram isn’t widely used. No one is parading into restaurants and cafes, cameras rolling, or whipping out their phones to video interactions and conversations. So partly for this reason, most people here aren’t as desensitized to having a camera in their face as we are; to having all their moves and meals recorded.

In Belize, particularly Corozal, I made incredible, close friends. But still creating video for my project was difficult because everyone wanted to separate the on-camera moments from the real life — an “interview” vs. filming while we chatted and ate; a separate appointment vs. the barbecue or family celebration I was invited to.

And it was because they compartmentalized me, the person, in a different space than me, the videographer. It’s a beautiful concept, but one that made my work difficult.

When my camera went up, so did a wall.

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Perhaps what I’m most sensitive to, though, is the historical context behind strolling into a Central American town and seizing a bit of its culture in the form of photographs.

Places like Honduras, where I am now, are wrought with history of exploitation. By the Spanish, who abused and killed the native Lenca people en route to colonizing their land. By the U.S., who has helped place and sustain often harmful governments that benefitted their own national interests. By the coffee industry, which has long relied on the cheap, even slave labor of those harvesting the Honduran beans.

All over the poverty-stricken places of the world, white people have traveled to see the art, to feel the craftsmanship, to eat the food — only to recreate it for a mass market and the kind of cash windfall the original artisans could never dream of.

Now that culture is cool, “far-flung” travels act as the foundation for many blogs and social media accounts, including my own. And in that way, being a white person who wanders into a place and benefits from the people and culture I encounter doesn’t feel all too terribly different from the actions of my ancestors.

Here and there, people have actively asked me not to take a photo with them in it when they see my camera.

“You’re going to make money off it,” one man at a market in Belize grumbled. “And I’ll still be here.”

To that, I had nothing to say. He was right.

To show a place minus its people is to give a flat, impersonal account bereft of the unique energy and experiences that makes it special. 

But to take this man’s photo, to take photos of others in the market with the harvest of their labor, their skill, their tradition, is to take a piece of their culture for my own financial gain — to curate a popular Instagram account, to illustrate my paid stories, to allow the Western world to gape at the difference in our lives, to literally profit off of their faces.

It’s a complicated pursuit; it’s something I wrestle with constantly.

I’ve long believed that the common lines in our faces, the sparkle in our eyes, the curves of our smiles connect us across time and space, making us feel closer. But lately, I’ve started to ponder whether that’s something only a white person could think — as if our one-sided reaction to a photo is what is meaningful. I’ve questioned what really comes from us feeling closer, whether it leads to any betterment in my subject’s lives — in terms of action or money — or whether those are simply words to make us feel warm and fuzzy.

I’ve begun to wonder whether its possible to make great art in this way while also keeping my own humanity firmly in tact.

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Last week, I walked over to Gracias, Honduras’ market street — a vibrant, joyful stretch of vendors with baskets of sweet breads, dried fishes, blocks of tamarind paste and thick cassava tubes in tow. Pedestrians haggled. Children ran around helping their parents. Squatting on the sidewalk, the merchants chatted and shared apparent gossip.

But as I lifted my camera over and over to photograph the street, the people, their goods, their laughter, I instead caught scowls, turned faces, shielded eyes.

In my attempts to capture the ambience, I had changed it.

Stumbling, again, in this dance between art and exploitation, I trashed my photos and left — returning later, to simply look with my eyes; to buy some totopostes; to be a human first.

I clearly don’t have all the answers for how to navigate such a complicated push and pull. As evidenced in this article, I’m far from perfect in my attempts to be both respectful and realistic. I’m still figuring it out, slowly and painfully. I’m still conflicted. I still wrestle with it constantly. 

And I still think about photography and videography all the time. But it’s my goal think about the people in those photos and videos even more.

4 thoughts on “What I think about before I take a photo

  1. You have probably already thought of this. Isn’t it almost certain that the man in the market who said you would make money from taking his picture has benefited from the market getting business from journalists and tourists who have come to take pictures? I doubt that I would have thought to ask this in the moment, but after having time to consider the situation it seems like a valid question. What do you think the answer would be?

    1. Well, in the particular case of Corozal (as well as other places I go), I highly doubt it because there aren’t really tourists or journalists to speak of going there … and in general, I could see how those benefits (money directly in my pocket, at least in his mind vs. the hope of more business as the long-term result of my photo) could be difficult to see as equal.

  2. Great perspective. While you might feel conflicted at times while in the moment of taking a photo or video, consider the knowledge and insight that you are sharing with people through your posts, many of whom rarely go beyond the typical tourist outposts. I hope you consider sharing your stories with school kids when/if you decide to return to the US. This is the stuff not learned in text books.

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