May I Take a Picture of You?

  • Marcela Torres
  • 10 October 2012

This article was originally published by our friends at Southern Cone Journeys, who have agreed to its republication here. View the original article on their blog.

Meeting people from other countries and cultures is part of the magic of traveling. We often encounter charming people that share their traditions with us and we can’t resist the temptation of capturing that moment with our photographic cameras. This enthusiastic impulse, however, may sometimes cause an unexpected negative reaction.

Quechua weaver in Cusco, Peru

This Quechua weaver in Cusco, Peru, occupies a space in a prominent square in front of a church to sell her handicrafts to the many tourists visiting the site. She’s used to being photographed but is still shy about it. Photo courtesy of Marcela Torres

Several authors warn against the danger of the “tourist gaze.” What are they talking about? Sometimes people from the local community may feel they are being seen as objects, something weird or amazing that must be observed.

In addition, it is no myth that several tribes and indigenous cultures in Latin America reject photographs for several reasons, including the belief that these would steal their soul. From northern Mexico to southern Chile, there are many accounts of communities that fear or distrust cameras and the intentions of the people that carry them.

Local woman selling traditional herbs in downtown Talca, in central Chile

Local woman selling traditional herbs in downtown Talca, in central Chile. When I asked if I could take a picture of her she said yes, but then looked away. Sometimes people are shy or they’ll say “yes” just to avoid seeming unfriendly even though it makes them uncomfortable. Photo courtesy of Marcela Torres

A professional photographer remembers the time he arrived unannounced with some friends at a small town in the Sierra Central in Mexico and was suddenly surrounded by children who were attracted by their “curious” garments and attitudes. But the party ended the moment he took out his camera and aimed it at the children, who ran away terrified.

At Ciudad Perdida (Lost City), in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in Colombia, due to religious and cultural reasons, people of indigenous origin avoid having pictures taken of themselves, their homes and their objects. Tourists are warned not to insist in order not to make locals uncomfortable by invading their privacy.

Mapuche women, Pucón, in southern Chile

Mapuche women in their hut nearby Pucón, in southern Chile. They are very relaxed and friendly. And they did not break the photographer’s camera! Photo courtesy of Turismo Pucón Chile

The Mapuches, who live in southern Chile and Argentina, also reject photographs. To them, an image has a spirit and if someone captures it then that person takes something away from them. This belief has presented a challenge to documentary producers, who always must give signs of respect in order to gain their trust and obtain their footage. Nevertheless, artists often just shoot photos or videos, promising to come back and give a copy, but never show again. It is important to understand that the Mapuches will always ask (and sometimes demand) a token of the time they gave away a piece of their soul. On a few occasions, people have been so offended by being photographed that they have broken tourists’ cameras.

Jason and Sativa, Monterey, California

I ran into homeless Jason and Sativa, his lovely cat, every day when I went out for breakfast while attending the recent ESTC in Monterey, California. Being a cat person myself, I finally had the nerve to get close and ask if I could pat her and if I could take a picture of them. Jason was full of interesting stories and I ended up finishing my tea with them and sharing one of the most significant experiences I had during the entire Conference. I wish them both the best! Photo courtesy of Marcela Torres

The case of Italian scientist Guido Boggiani is, no doubt, the most extreme. Boggiani lived many years with the Caduveo tribe in Paraguayand was obsessed with body paintings and tattoos, shooting more than 500 photographs that he developed in the middle of the jungle. He was murdered in 1902, when he was 40 years old, and although it is not really known for certain, it is believed that the motive was his photographic activity, since the expedition that went looking for him found his remains buried with his camera in pieces. After his death, a colleague of his published a series of 100 postcards of this Paraguayan tribe, which included a selection of 12 nude photos especially captured for scientists.

Of course, nowadays it is highly unlikely that anyone will threaten you with death just because you took a picture of them, but it is still worthwhile to avoid an unpleasant situation and show respect for the other person by asking a simple question: “May I take a picture of you?”

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Marcela Torres

Marcela Torres is a journalist born in Santiago, Chile. She has lived in the United States, Costa Rica and Australia, where she earned a master's degree in tourism. Following her passion for travel, she has visited most of Chile, Peru, Brazil and Argentina. She is co-author of a guide to Chile’s national parks (in Spanish), a blogger (click Read More Here) and founder of Southern Cone Journeys, a responsible tourism operator based in Chile.
Marcela Torres
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Argentina, Chile, Colombia, indigenous culture, local knowledge, opinion, personal experience, responsible travel, South America,

One Response to “May I Take a Picture of You?”

  1. Laurie says:

    Great post. I think same most people are amazed you would want a picture with them. (normal people on talking about) Love you picturers

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