Havana, Cuba

 

brief encounters

wonderful faces in wonderful places

There is an intensely personal side to travel - namely the people you meet along the way. Sometimes it is for minutes, sometimes for hours if you're lucky but all too often just for seconds and yet they remain unforgettable and heart-warming moments which stay with you forever. Brief encounters but a lifetime of memories.

There's the obvious sensitivity with which photographers need to treat their subjects. There's an unwritten contract of trust placed in them that their image will not be misused or misrepresented. Photographing a foreign person as a tourist passing through is, therefore, loaded with politics. What is the intended use of the photograph? Where will it be shown? Is there a power imbalance involved in the transaction which makes it exploitative? Photographing people is fraught with a danger and complexity which makes it hard to execute well. It was for this reason that, when hatching plans to create this page, I was worried that I had too few photographs to warrant it. Trawling through thousands of travel photographs - nearly two decades' worth - I was more than pleasantly surprised with what I had managed to accumulate - in spite of the politics of the lens.

As a traveller, my requests to take photographs of people have been met by all shades of reaction - from the laissez-faire to perturbation and everything else in between. Some people wave you away, like the man in the fish market in Kuwait City ("this is a place of work" he shouted at me in broken English). Others seek to get something back for lending you their image like the fruit seller in Muscat who beckoned towards his green mangoes after I'd taken my shot, insisting I bought some. In Tajikistan's second city, Khojand, I got a reaction I never expected. In fact, I didn't even have to ask. Within minutes of being in the city's Panchshanbe bazaar people were asking our guide where we were from. "Anglea", "Anglea" (which I'm assuming is England in Tajik) she bellowed back to seemingly a dozen different stallholders who'd asked the question. ā€ˇStallholders were genuinely pleased and curious to see us. Two stallholders in particular begged to be photographed posing at their stalls with their breads and spices ("he wants you to take a photo of him and his stall", our guide said on two occasions). In sixty countries-worth of travel, I have never been asked to photograph someone in this way. It was a refreshing and, thus far, unique experience in my travelling career. I did what you should always do when, as a tourist, you've taken a photograph of someone - show them what they look like! Our guide popped into a sausage shop inside the bazaar to collect and order she'd made ("she wants to speak with you", said our guide about the shopkeeper). We were made to feel rather special by the people in the bazaar. It's amazing how you find friendliness and warmth in the most unexpected of places - often from people with so very little. Panchshanbe was the undisputed highlight of our trip to Khojand, Tajikistan.

In India, in a bizarre turn of the tables, it was us as tourists who were being asked for photographs! Indian and Bangladeshi tourists regularly requested that we have our photograph taken with them - I am assuming because we were white-skinned? Initially thinking they wanted us to take a photo of them, it soon became clear that 'of' was actually 'with' them. It was an episode which would happen at all of the great tourist sites we visited in northern India: the Taj Mahal at Agra, Amber fort outside Amber, the Red Fort in Delhi. I didn't know whether to be offended or flattered: it was odd, but fun and got us into basic conversations with people we wouldn't have otherwise spoken to. Quite why people want photos of random whites in their holiday snaps is beyond me. Still, I suppose it was nice to repay the photographic compliment for a change.

Here is my selection of brief photographic encounters with local people where it is the humans who've taken centre stage for a change. I make no apologies for the majority of these being drawn from my trips around the Middle East and Asia. All photographs are offered here in full respect and appreciation of the people who allowed them to be taken.

 
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