Do you remember the first time you saw a photo of yourself? Digital cameras are amazing but it’s something some people in the world will never experience. I’ll never forget my first such encounter with a group of kids on an island off the coast of Malaysian Borneo. I had wandered onto their end of the island and stumbled upon some really interesting homes, and people, including this group of children. I crouched down to get to eye level and introduced myself to a few kids. I politely asked if I could take their picture, showing my SLR camera. Silence. I scanned the group one by one, stopping at the shy boy on the far right. 1st Boy: “No!” I almost left at that point, but decided to be patient.
The middle one, a girl, just shook her head (4th photo down on this post). It was looking doubtful at this point. The third one just gave me a blank stare, so at that point I either wasn’t communicating, or wasn’t welcome. After the longest five seconds, I started to get up when the third boy nodded. It’s important to note that basic mannerisms are different in every country, so you always need to learn what they mean in that country, island, or village, or at least be aware that they don’t mean the same as in yours. In this case I didn’t know, but I ran with it. I quickly flipped my setting for a closeup portrait in that lighting, lifted the camera to confirm buy-in from the boy, and this brave boy seemed on board, despite disapproving looks from the the others faces. I aimed, and snapped the photo.
Here’s the part that makes it all worth it… I slowly turned the camera to share the image. The boy’s facial expression suddenly went from stolid to elated! He lit up with joy. The other kids had a look of shock at his reaction so they squeezed in next to him to see the image. He started pointing at the camera, then pointing to his chest, then pointing to the camera, and then to himself. He seemed shocked at what just happened. I asked the girl if I could take her picture and this time she was ready. She imitated the first boys pose, as if that’s how you have your picture taken. Genuine excitement. At this point two other kids noticed the commotion and joined in. I took one of each of the other kids, and group photos. They tried different poses, and after seeing them on my little screen they’d jump up and down. Each photo produced more excitement! They kept coming up with different poses – it was a photo-shoot and they were rockstars!
I was on that part of the island to find lodging, and ended up staying in the little village in what everyone calls the “longhouse” (pictured below). These are basically homes built on top of an extended dock that keeps getting extended farther into the water to add extra lodging to rent out, a little at a time. I visited a few and found one to stay in. I stopped in the longhouse’s “hotel lobby” – which doubles as the living room, bedroom, kitchen and bathroom for the family of eight’s. All eight live in that same room. I was surprised to find that I didn’t see any mirrors. None! There’s no way of knowing, but if this is true, my encounter with the children could
quite possibly be the first time these kids saw themselves besides just a reflection in water.
After living amongst them for a couple of nights I got to know a few of them – such good kids, living in such a different world. They were so shy at first, but by my last day, they’d spot me and run over with more and more friends, asking for me to take their picture and even come up with their own poses. I love photographing wildlife, food, and architecture, but as this story demonstrates, nothing is more satisfying than capturing the human element. I love meeting and photographing people in little villages, and letting them see the photos. They don’t always speak any English, which adds to the challenge of communicating, but it’s worth it. I enjoy capturing how people live, but it’s important to keep a healthy balance of taking photos from afar so what I capture is genuine and not posed, and requesting permission followed by a portrait. Photos with apparent poverty can be powerful, but you never want them to feel exploited. I’m even more careful when it comes to children.
I was inspired by a documentary I saw on a photographer named Joey L, who strongly believes in the importance of going back to these little villages and giving copies of his photography back to them. Since it was unlikely I’d be back in the next few years, at the end of the trip I made a little slideshow of photos of them – and they all gathered around my little netbook to see it. I would have loved to leave it with them, but they don’t have computers and even if they did, they do exactly do email. Here’s a final shot of our favorite rockstars in Mabul Island, in Malaysian Borneo:
Great experience! It was one of the highlights of my trip. This is why I travel. – Todd