When you travel the world with a camera in hand, you spend a lot of time trying to take pictures of people. But sometimes the tables are reversed: people see you with the camera, approach you and boldly ask you to take their picture.
It doesn’t happen that often, but I’ve had it happen several times, everywhere from Europe to the South Pacific. Mostly it’s happened in Latin America, where people seem to like having their picture taken. And if you think all native people believe that photos steal their spirit, my experiences with the Quechua people in Ecuador prove there are many that don’t.
Why do people do this? Maybe they want to see how they look in a photo. But amazingly, even in the digital era, I find that often when people ask you to take their picture, they run off without even looking at it. Maybe they like having a foreigner point the camera at them so they can feel like a movie star. Or maybe they just want their image to exist somewhere far away from their familiar world, to last in the memory of someone they’ve never met.
Here are some people I’ve met across the globe who figured it was time for their close-up.
In the city of Riobamba, Ecuador, I climbed up to a prominent outlook spot around sunset to take photos of the city and the steaming volcano beyond. As I walked around with my camera, looking for the best angle, two young girls approached me. “Take our picture,” they said in Spanish, and struck a pose. I did, and they walked off, satisfied. This was a few years ago, when digital cameras weren’t that common, so maybe they didn’t even realize you could see the photos right away.
In Bali long ago, I went to a restaurant around sunset to get some food before an overnight bus trip. At first there was no one to serve me, but soon this lovely young woman appeared, and instead of just taking my order, sat down to talk. As we chatted she kept looking at my camera, and when I asked if she wanted me to take her picture, she looked embarrassed. Then she said, “I go wash my face!” and ran off. She returned a minute later wearing her pink waitress uniform to pose for one of my all-time favourite portraits.
I was walking down the street in Istanbul, on my way to the bazaars and looking for a bite to eat, when I wandered into an area full of small restaurants. Out front of one stood a fellow whose job seemed to be steering people into the restaurant in the picture. He smiled when he saw my camera, then demanded that I take his photo and struck this casual pose — his idea of cool, I guess. Don’t remember if I ate in his restaurant, but his memory remains.
In most places if you point a camera at a woman she shies away or puts her hand over her face. If you do the same in Panama, she poses. This woman was returning from the beach at the Royal Decameron Resort on the country’s south coast when she saw me coming down the hill to take some shots of the resort. She immediately left her friends and posed like a fashion model. When I’d taken the shot she took a look, snorted, and walked off. I guess I’m just not cut out to be a fashion photographer.
Near Guayaquil, Ecuador is a beach resort called Playas where the local go to eat in rustic beach restaurants and relax on the beach in rows of candy-striped cabanas. As I walked down to the sand, two young boys ran past on their way to play soccer. When they saw my camera they came straight up to me. “Take our picture,” one of them said boldly, and they proudly struck a pose with their soccer balls. I tried to show them the photo in my monitor, but it was hard to see in the strong sunlight. They shrugged and ran off to play.
Outside of Kathmandu, Nepal, I had my driver stop so I could take some pictures of the stunning scenery all around us. As I walked down to a little outlook, a young girl, no more than five or six, came running up to me. I don’t know where she came from — there was nothing around, and no parents in sight urging her to go and make some money. But there she was, and in a curiously deep voice, she said one word: “photo”. I raised my camera, she took a bashful pose, and the picture was taken. I gave her a few rupees, and without another word she ran off, to wherever she had come from.
Finally, In the city of Otavalo, a major market town in Ecuador’s Andean highlands, I hired a local Quechua man named David to show me the local towns. He took me to his village and introduced me to his son, who lived in a simple concrete-block house with his wife and children, one of whom was disabled. In the main room stood a loom where his wife wove cloth, like most Otavalo natives, to make money to pay for his daughter’s special needs.
As we were preparing to leave, David’s son stopped us: “You must take our photo,” he said. The group was quickly assembled, including David in his signature Quechua hat, but his son disappeared. A minute later he came back, proudly sporting a t-shirt that said “I am Canadian”. And we made the photo you see at the top of this post.
A few moments frozen in pixels, a few faces remembered from long-ago travels. And since you’re reading this, maybe these photos did serve a purpose for these people, putting them in your mind wherever you are in the world. Did they capture a bit of their spirit? Who knows …