Making photos, not taking photos

Years ago when I was backpacking I remember I always used to chuckle when Dutch travellers asked me to make a photograph of them. You don’t make a photograph, you take a photograph, I used to think (although never say!). Today I tried not to take photos.

imageUp a red dusty track on the north east tip of Phú Quóc island, in the Southern reaches of Vietnam, is Peppercorn Beach Resort. This is where I have come to unwind before the ‘doing’ bit of my holiday starts. A quick glance at these photos will tell you all you need to know about the initial appeal of the place, but want I also liked was the contribution the resort makes to the nearby fishing village of Ganh Dau. The school has been renovated, families have received help to reroof their homes, support is offered during the rainy season when the fishing catch is low and, of course, there’s the employment opportunity.

imageAfter 72 hours of loafing around and not moving more than a few hundred metres, I decided to see if my legs still worked and take a stroll into the village. I was expecting it to be sleepy and a little quaint – how wrong I was. I didn’t spend 90 minutes wandering anonymously through a fishing village, I spent 90 minutes wandering into and through people’s lives. The village is in fact one long walkway just a couple of metres wide, hugging a bay packed with fishing boats. All along each side are hundreds of homes and businesses. They face inwards on both sides and each one is open-fronted so neighbours both next door and opposite are quite literally touching distance apart. Televisions and radios are constantly competing with each other, creating an ever-evolving but blended noise as you walk down the street.

All life is lived together. At first glance you see a neatly arranged cafe of red plastic tables and chairs, then you spot the double bed nestled amongst them. You marvel at the garish packaging hanging in a shop doorway, wondering what the product is, and then realise you’re inadvertently staring at a family eating lunch. And there were so many amazing photographs to take: the ironmonger sat amongst piles of blackened metal eating noodles; the group of old men playing cards for money in the midday sun; the piles of beautiful fruit and veg with an old lady sleeping in a hammock above them. But I didn’t take any of them.

Everyone was perfectly friendly: older people smiled; shy school children said hello; a not-so-shy little boy smacked my bottom! I’m sure if I’d asked, some people would have let me take their photos, but I don’t think the smiles would have been quite so relaxed. I’m a stranger and more importantly I haven’t earned the right to point my camera at their lives. It was an odd feeling because at Mile 91 we’re frequently in communities like this for just a couple of hours. But they’re expecting us, they’ve agreed in advance to have their photos taken and be interviewed, and we’re working with local colleagues who translate for us so we are able to quickly build rapport. I could have built rapport here of course – if I’d come into the village daily I would have become a slightly familiar face, or if I was here for a couple of weeks I could come down early in the mornings to watch the catch coming in and have breakfast in the local cafés. But I am here for four days and I’ve spent most of that time on my veranda admiring the view of the bay next door.

So today I didn’t take people’s photos, I made some pictures. I captured some images of things that will hopefully remind me of the life and colour of the community. And I was given the thumbs up to take a picture of the new school building. Nobody’s perfect though – the woman raking what must have been MILLIONS of prawns was just too good to resist…she did (quite rightly!) fix me with a proper frown when she spotted me. Well, would you want someone sneaking up and taking your picture when you were working?!

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