On Traveling Respectfully

I recently participated in a weeklong photography course held in Oaxaca, Mexico. For a week, the six students (myself included) spent dozens of hours working with families from surrounding villages. We ate meals together, played with their kids, and helped with housework–all under the supervision and assistance of bilingual teaching assistants who both acted as translators and instructors.

It was an incredible experience–I’d never been to Mexico, and had never had the opportunity to practice documentary photography. I returned with a broadened sense of the world, a large portfolio of images crafted during the week, and several questions hanging on my conscience.

The instructor for the course, Stella Johnson, has been traveling to Oaxaca for 35 years, and has known these families for much of that time. She’s also (perhaps obviously) fluent in Spanish. Yet, the six participants in the class were essentially tourists: We didn’t speak more than a few sentences of Spanish, though some of us tried to learn more during the week itself.

Now, these families were hardly blind to the dynamics of the week. They’d hosted students from classes like these for many years (decades, in some case), and perhaps appreciated the opportunity for their kids to interact with Americans that weren’t on television or the news. The kids, for their part, were largely too young to identify the oddness of the context–they were more interested in playing basketball or climbing trees than questioning what had brought us to Mexico.

The result was an odd mixture of extraordinary hospitality (by the families) and deep unease (personally). I’d like to think that I impacted the family in some way: By the end of the week, another student had given a spare laptop to the kids, and I’d loaded it with educational videos and translation apps so that they could learn English, math, and science to complement what they did in school. I helped to split firewood, pick up around the yard, and teach English to the kids. Yet, throughout the entire week, I felt like every interactions was passed through the filter of photography. I put my camera away at times, or let the kids use it themselves (resulting in hundreds of blurry shots of random objects), but even simple play was tinted (in my mind) by being an observer of their life, to whom a camera and international flight weren’t prohibitively expensive, and who would jet out of the country in a matter of just days.

I appreciated the trip immensely, but I think it is incumbent upon any photographer (or more broadly, human) to think about what responsibilities one has in situations like these.

I’m not sure what makes someone transition from an intrusive tourist to an involved documentarian. I’d say that committing an honest effort to speaking at least some of the local language (Spanish, in this case) is a critical first step. I also think that spending with the families before even taking a camera out might reshape the dynamic: If the first two or three days had been spent helping with housework or homework, and only then had I brought my camera out, I’d imagine I’d feel less like an outsider looking in.

Of course, much of this was constrained by the brevity of the course. In the span of a week, we had to acclimate to a new city and different language, all the while finding time to hone our skills as photographers. I give great credit to the instructors for crafting an excellent course despite these limitations, and I’m deeply grateful for how welcoming I only wonder what more could have been accomplished had we, the students, had more awareness of these challenges ahead of time.