“No more photography please”
If you’re culturally conscious then you must have got an idea what I am talking about. If you don’t have any idea then let me elaborate the title bit.
Kutch region is culturally and environmentally very sensitive and rich district in Gujarat, a western state of India which is bordered with Pakistan on north, separated by the Great Rann of Kutch-a seasonal salt desert.
Since 2005 Tourism Department has started promoting Kutch, Gujarat on national and international level, using its cultural, historical and geographical wealth through tourism campaign and within last 13 years it has started receiving thousands of visitors every year from all over the country as well as increased number of foreign tourists who are visiting Kutch to visit some of those traditional communities who are known for their unique costumes and jewelries they wear, handicrafts they make, their villages, relationship with their cattle and everything which considered unique and rare when the larger population of the country is becoming westernized or have adapted urban lifestyles.
Due to this cultural contrast, it’s natural that many visitors are turning up here in winter (Dec-Feb) to see these communities and Kutch in general.
People like me who runs small home stays, tours, hotels, handicraft shops, taxi, etc are extremely happy and benefiting from these growing numbers of visitors. Local weavers, block printers, dyers, embroider, bell makers and many other local artisans/artists are also very happy because they are benefiting out of the growth in number of visitors.
But not everyone is happy to be honest.
Tourism supports local economy but sometimes at the cost of cultural and environmental damage. Not every visitor knows enough about cultural and environmental issues or challenges that the region and its people are dealing with.
Many visitors are here to ‘tick off’ Kutch from their travel ‘wish list’ because they have heard about this unique and off the beaten place of India while others are genuinely interested in learning about Kutch, their culture and traditions and their arts and crafts.
These days everyone is using cameras or smart phones and few new trendy gadgets to take pictures and share on social medias (such as Facebook, Instagram, etc) to get more likes, comments or followers. Fair enough!
But do they really know or care how their visits are affecting some of the local communities of Kutch? especially when it comes to Photography?
Some years ago, taking pictures was considered as memories that you can share with your family, friends and in future going back to those pictures would bring life to your beautiful past. It had very different meaning back then. Even local people were also excited for having their pictures being taken by visitors because there were not many visitors first of all, not many cameras or smart phones but now it’s a whole new world and thousands of pictures are dumped on internet everyday.
Pictures are taken to share on internet, not only limited to share memories with friends and family but also to the whole world. Everyone has their own reason to take pictures and upload somewhere because someone like me is promoting their tours; other are promoting their crafts, some their brands or labels, their various projects and so on… Who isn’t taking pictures these days? Everyone does!
When I see it from photographers’ sides, I see no harm in taking pictures and promoting their work, their business, their blogs, their books, etc but when I see it from the view of local communities who are culturally very sensitive, especially women from some of the ethnic communities of Kutch who in their everyday life, constantly intruded by one or other visitors and their pictures are being taken with and without their consent, I think photography is becoming a big problem.
Some of the photographers (general visitors as well as journalist, bloggers, fashion or textile labels) I have heard saying that they want to capture these communities before they completely disappeared and they want to share their stories with the world. Fair enough! But have you asked these locals what do they think of you and your pictures?
Some of the so called professional photographers have corrupted some local communities by paying for their portrait or posing in front of cameras, the way photographers want them to look, see, act… Aren’t we changing beautiful rural communities of India into models?
There are few very famous photographers who have been criticized by their fans/followers because some of the their best pictures were artificially created, set up. Some even justify their act of paying for pictures but when few are being paid and many others are not, they start demanding money from every visitors without knowing the difference between those who paid them for their own selfish reason and who can’t pay because they are not traveling for photography but for experience and they don’t want to support paid photography because it’s changing relationship between visitors and locals.
If your little money is changing mindset of such communities then I think paying for photography is questionable.
There is a clear difference between being a Guest and a Customer. If local starts seeing every visitor as potential customers not as guests, visitors wouldn’t be happy to be treated always as customers. Similarly when locals are seen as photogenic faces, not as person, then they won’t be happy to see you clicking with your cameras either.
Another explanation was given to me by some villagers that these days they also have smart phones and they can see how their women (mainly young and unmarried girls) are projected, how their local communities are gossiping about these women, how these photographs on internet are affecting their inter-community relationship and their social image among other locals. Some of conservative people think that all of these women are paid for being models for photographers and that is considered most unpleasant “Tag” for women in some communities. While some thinks it’s against their religious beliefs.
Someone explained to me that these photographs could be used, edited by notorious internet users for bad intentions which can’t be denied. It seems like that we have taken photography for granted and not much concern how it could damage the tourism industry and human values.
Women in traditional communities, who are looking after their children, household duties such as cleaning, cooking, taking care of animals, taking active parts in various religious and social events and having sometimes burden to earn enough to feed their children, contribute to their family needs and some occasional health issues they are going through, do you think how many of these women are genuinely interested in letting you take their pictures?
How can we disregard their daily duties and circumstances?
How our passion as a photographer can easily annoy them?
What are our responsibilities while visiting such communities and using cameras?
How gently we can approach these communities by using responsible local contacts in the region, in the communities?
How we can reduce our negative impact to these communities?
There are many questions in my mind that you can ask yourself before visiting such communities of India. If you’re unfamiliar with local communities and their beliefs, their cultural or religious sensitivities or their privacy or dignity, would you still use your cameras?
Even if they have nothing to worry or stress about anything mentioned in above paragraphs, how many photographers can they happily face per day, per week or per year?
Being a local person, I genuinely respect my local communities and their values. Fortunately many of my visitors are very polite, laid back and responsible and that’s why taking them to these communities is easier for me and they can access them with respect, harmoniously and without making anyone feel uncomfortable. And many times they have not even taken a single picture.
So where is the border line between visitors and locals when it comes to photography…? Is there are guideline? Well there are enough tips/advice on internet if one chooses to be a Responsible Visitor/Photographer.
Whether your pictures are important to you to share on internet to prove that you were here and you have beautifully captured the moments, local lifestyles, ethnic communities, their beautiful faces, outfits, jewelries, elegance, their social and cultural values, their stories with your cameras or respecting these communities and their rich cultural heritage and lifestyles by letting your camera stay inside your bags and witness everything and be respected guest/visitors and share Chai with them and try to have meaningful conversations, listen to their stories, write down your memories in your travel journal, perhaps taking very few pictures without disturbing anyone, in most respectful manner that they also feel happy with your visit and no one feel obliged, uncomfortable or disturbed in any aspects.
It is very important for me to protect local communities who are part of the tourism/travel industry now by speaking on their behalf, writing such blogs to make visitors think about their concerns, vulnerability, their cultural sensitivities or their circumstances of being traditional communities that are attracting visitors with cameras from all over the world and try to reduce/minimize our impacts as far as photography is concern which is one of the biggest challenge/issue Kutch is facing today and if not addressed and dealt respectfully, it could turn into big disaster.
It’s time to act wisely, travel responsibly and sustain ethnic communities all over the world because if we truly care and understand the importance of these communities and their contribution to the world heritage, their knowledge, their skills, their creativity, their simplicity, their harmonious existence, their wisdom… in one line “Their Art of Living” then we must be a Responsible Visitor/Photographer.
And believe me the best photographs are taken with our eyes, not with cameras.
Wish you all Love and Peace xx
Kutch Adventures India