On [Taking] Photos

[Confessions of a hesitant photographer]

photo 1

I have a confession: though I am a photographer and an avid traveler, I make a terrible travel photographer. I daily take myriad mental snapshots, savoring the light and texture and color and feel of my surroundings, but it is with great reluctance that I actually pull out my camera. In fact, the sheer foolishness of lugging 30 lbs of sophisticated machinery around the world if I am never to use it is often what forces me to take it out in the first place, though its weight in my hand is matched by anxiety in my heart. When I do take it out, eight times out of ten I have it trained on tiny flowers or textured walls or other innocuous, inanimate objects. For someone who has a high appreciation for the beauty and stories of people, I am laughably reticent to photograph them.*

Perhaps this is because I am aware of the barrier all that glass and metal puts between me and those around me. Perhaps it is because I am sensitive to the balance of living versus documenting and would rather err on the side of experiencing and relating than recording and capturing. Perhaps it is because I know the feeling of being the spectacle on the other side of the lens. It has happened at least a dozen times during my travels – I look up from my walk or cup of tea or conversation with a friend to find myself looking into the camera lens of a stranger. The circumstances have varied but the feeling has always been the same: like something has been taken from me that I never consented to giving.

It has made me consider the ways we use photography – and the subtle violence evidenced even in the language we use: we take pictures. We take the images of others so often not for their benefit, but for ours – to gain likes on Facebook or hearts on Instagram. Or worse, we use photos of people already used and exploited to make or raise money. We reduce people and their stories to a commodity for our profit or praise, and it robs us both. Instead of knowing them, we document them. Instead of building bridges of relationships, we build walls of screens and lenses. Instead of giving, we take and make them trophies on our news feeds or poster children for our causes…and I just. can’t. do it. So I leave my camera at home and stick to exchanging smiles and handshakes and sketching mental images.

photo 3So when I was invited to join the small population of people allowed to bring their cameras to Sari Bari, I panicked….I mean a full-on, sweaty-palm, beating-heart, why-did-I-sign-up-for-this!? apprehension. How was I to document the work of these women who know more than most the economics of taking? I had spent six weeks knowing, loving and being loved by these friends, and I was terrified of altering those relationships by taking their images.

The day I began making my rounds intent on telling the story of a “Day in the Life of Sari Bari,” something beautiful happened. My documentary shifted to an ongoing portrait session as I spent several minutes with each woman, celebrating the beauty of her work, her hands, her smile, her eyes, her sassy pose, her shy giggle, her boisterous laugh. Individual portrait sessions gave way to flourishes with this needle and that thread, poses with friends, impromptu expressions of love and friendship between them. This happened not because of me, but because of an important conversation.

I ascended the stairs to the upper room of ladies stitching quietly and asked if I could take some photos. The fiery manager looked up from her inspection of a recently-finished scarf and queried, “are these for you to take back to your country?”

“No,” I replied, “these are for Sari Bari, and if you want them, they are for you as well.”

That pivotal moment changed the course of my camera time – because I was no longer taking photos, I was giving photos. These were not for me, they were for them, and with that simple shift, they shed their inhibitions and came alive in ways I had not yet seen. I thought my relationships would be altered by my camera, and they were – but not in the ways I had feared. I was instead invited in deeper, welcomed in more warmly, embraced more fully. My simple gift of photography was reciprocated with the gifts of trust and friendship.

In our final days with Sari Bari, Andrew and I handed out nearly a hundred envelopes with prints of some of the most beautiful portraits I have ever had the honor of photographing. Those portraits will never be used for anything else – Sari Bari carefully protects the identity of their employees and does not use photos of their faces in any publication, and I will never post or publish them either. Perhaps someday you and I can sit down to a cup of tea and I can show you a few as I introduce you to women who have become dear friends. But until then, they rest safely in the hands of their true owners, the women whose beauty they bear.

 

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*It is much easier when you run a photography business and people not only request and invite you to photograph them but also pay you to do so!

 

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