10/31/2013: Reunion Island Blog and Photography Abroad

imageimageimageimageimageimageimage I’m currently in Reunion Island – a beautiful tropical island off the coast of Madagascar. French-owned, this place is like a piece of mini Paris placed in Hawaii, especially here in the city of Saint Denis. The food is delicious and unique, the architecture and museums are wonderful, the people are friendly and oh-so-proper (sometimes they give me “teenage-backpacker-go-away” looks, but never “I’m-going-to-take-all-your-money-and-maybe-knife-you” looks like in the cities of Madagascar), and I am very happy. I have to admit, it is incredibly comforting to be back in a western, developed place. Madagascar was an incredible experience, but, as sad as I am to say it, I missed the comforts of the developed world. After the niceties and up-and-coming feel of Thailand, Madagascar sometimes felt like a smack in the face. It very much did not feel up-and-coming. Reunion Island does. The city is already beautiful, it has a celebrated history, and there’s urban development going on here. Wonderful, wonderful urban development. I missed the sounds of construction equipment… Those sounds give a city the kind of atmosphere that tells you progress is being made, that the city is growing.
Anyways, today is my photography day (and Halloween, which they celebrate here!), which means I’ll be walking around the city and snapping photos for a good few hours this afternoon. (I’ll upload them when I get a USB connector for my iPad.) So, in honor of my photography day, I’m going to write a bit about the photography practices I follow when traveling.
When I first arrive in a new place, be it city, town, or village, I never begin taking photos immediately. Instead, I wait a certain period of time before I bring out my camera, the amount of time I wait depending on how long I’ll be in the place I am visiting. I do this because I want to fully experience my first moments in each new area I visit. Usually, when I start taking photographs, I get so caught up in wanting to capture every cool picture I can find that I forget to actually be in the moment and enjoy my environment. So, to have my camera out when I first arrive somewhere would be to completely miss out on the thrill of travel – that feeling of excitement, anticipation, and adventure you get as you enter a new place.
However, despite the fact that taking photographs often causes me to experience life through a lens instead of actually being there, it’s still important to me that I have quality photographs of each place I travel to, which will allow me to reminisce and reflect on my adventures after they’ve ended. So, after I’ve thoroughly experienced and explored the place I’m in, I allow myself a period of time to devote entirely to photography. Here in Reunion, this afternoon is my photography time.
In addition, it’s a good idea to wait to take photographs until after you’ve gotten a feel for the culture and locals of the community you’re in, out of both politeness and caution. For example, when I arrived in Madagascar, I quickly realized that whipping out my expensive digital camera and snapping photos of everything like the first-world tourist I am was going to attract unwanted attention from the droves of beggars and hungry, poverty-stricken people lining the streets. I had not yet acquired the cultural street-smarts to understand the appropriate times and places for photography, so I waited to take any photographs.
Even in a less dangerous city, it is classier to refrain from snapping photos immediately. First, focus on being polite and immersing yourself in the experience – try to enjoy, or at least notice, the sights, smells, sounds, tastes, and people of the new place. Take photos later. If I could make an analogy to further explain my point of view, it’d be this: traveling to a new place is like going to a cool new restaurant. Imagine someone entering an atmospheric, gourmet restaurant, ordering up tons of food and wine, and consuming it all quickly and noisily. Nothing says “I don’t belong here and I’m not taking the time to appreciate this” more than haste and the obvious choice of quantity over quality. (With the exception of certain, extremely touristy places, such as Disneyland. Disneyland is an all-you-can-eat buffet, not a nice restaurant. I’d feel free to snap photos from the second you arrive. Nevertheless, most places are not like that.) So, when I arrive somewhere, I opt for subtlety and enjoyment rather than overt tourism.
One more thing that I try to always keep in mind while traveling: people are not animals, and communities are not zoos. Especially in more exotic locations like Thailand and Madagascar, where the people are foreign-looking and often extremely poor, it can be very tempting to furtively take shots of locals you pass in the street. I am certainly guilty of this faux-pax (and pretty much every other one, too). However, like I was told at UNC’s Gap Year Orientation, think about how you would feel if a stranger walked down your street, into your backyard, or through your local grocery store, snapping pictures of you and your family doing every day things. Would it make you uncomfortable? It would make me feel awkward and potentially even hostile towards the stranger, especially if they were obviously wealthier than me. That’s one more reason I force myself to wait to take photographs; it ensures I won’t be tempted to treat people’s homes and families like exhibits put there for me to gawk at, as well as giving me plenty of time to get to know the locals I will eventually take pictures of. If I do want to photograph someone, I make sure to ask them first, and also ask them if I can post their picture on the Internet (Facebook, my blog, etc.). This practice was especially important when photographing the Buddhist monks I befriended in Thailand. Because they are religious figures and community leaders in morality and properness, they have to be very careful about how they are portrayed publicly. Most people, even if they aren’t monks, want to have a say in how others will see them online as well. And that concludes my list of rules and practices for taking photographs in foreign countries (and my own).
Okay. So next time you travel to a new place, I hope you’ll take this stuff into consideration, if you don’t already. I really think that adopting these practices will enhance your travel experiences, as well as allow you to take photographs of better quality and more personal significance – it certainly has done for me. At the very least, I hope you’ve enjoyed reading the post. I’ll check in again once I arrive in Madrid, for which I leave tomorrow. Thanks for reading!