Monday, 21 March 2011

Photography (without the photographs)

So the topic this week: Photo blog. At least that’s what I had planned: thousands of photos of little African children. Nothing sells a blog like cute photos.
BUT. I’ve failed again.
As it turns out, taking photos is not that easy – there’s a reason that Benin doesn’t figure highly on the Japanese tourist circuit. Cameras are not well received. Particularly big cameras. In fact, the bigger the camera, the poorer the reception. Which puts me at a disadvantage with the particular model I chose to bring out here….
Most people coming out here are aware of a cultural resistance to photography and put it down to Vodoun (aka voodoo) superstition. “They think it’s stealing their soul. Oh bless. How very primitive”, is basically the thought process.
I’ve only come across a Vodoun-related excuse when in a traditional village, and a procession of “devotee” women were walking by. They spend the entire adult life in a convent devoted to a particular Vodoun god, and only come out on these processions very rarely. They are considered very holy, so fair enough.
But leaving aside such particularly sacred examples, the major reason they give for their dislike of photography is money.
“You will take my photo, then go back to Holland,” they claim.
“I’m from ENGLAND,” I point out.
“Yes, Holland. And you will make lots of money”.
Yep, all white people with cameras are professional photographers who make their riches out of coming to Benin (for those who read my last blog “The White Man”, sorry this point should really have been in my “what the locals think of white people” list…).
“So if you want my photo, gimme money”.
Granted, this does allow me a way of getting photos. But it’s not exactly candid – what normally follows is that a group will get together and pose, badly. It’s awkward.
The concept of strangers photographing me doing everyday things is not completely alien to me. Back in my student days, our college would be packed with tourists, all desperate to take photos of students (particularly if you’re sat looking a little bleary-eyed outside the library during exams – apparently that makes for a great shot…).
And it did get grating. VERY grating at times. But the parallel can’t be drawn to the people here: there, tourists would visit to admire the splendour of it all, thinking us creatures of privilege.
Here, the “everyday things” are earning a living. Surviving through miserable economic conditions. I struggle not to think myself a little voyeuristic just strolling through an old traditional village.
You can justify it to yourself in many ways – it’s not the poverty; it’s the people, the colours, the shapes, the love of life, the beauty of it. But deep down you can’t shake that feeling.
For the people here, your very poverty is a tourist attraction, which at worst will be exploited by photographers when they get back to Europe.
And you react negatively. Or try to make some money out of it. You can be photographed, but on your terms. Fair enough. It puts the power of choice back in your hands. (But it doesn’t make for fun pictures!)
So there it is. I don’t take many photos, out of respect for those who might be in them. I hope I can learn how to effectively break down the barriers and have them be comfortable with my camera, but so far not much joy I’m sorry to say.

But I can't leave you completely empty handed...
Here's my new discovery: the Benin Marina hotel, in Cotonou. Pool, tennis, golf - very "Africa", don't you think....?

1 comment:

  1. Hey Gareth,
    I am a friend of the Mills family and Gail sent me your blog link a while back. I spent a year in Cotonou in 09' and have appreciated the flash backs your writing has provided.
    Grand Popo, the marina hotel (have you had a crepe there with ice cream yet??) mmm, heaven on earth I say...
    Please tell me you have been to hotel dulac? If not, head over, past the shipping port, past the awkward red and white catholic church on the right, over the bridge, just beyond the grocery store, and down a little side street. Order the humus plate and say "oui" after you place your order and they respond with "just humus?" except it sounds like 'hoomus' when they say it. Apaprently just hoomus is a strange thing to order at the du lac. Pair this with a half pitcher of house wine and well, you may never want to leave. Its a bit cozier then the marina, always was our favorite. Dinner on the balcony is also a must there.

    Anyways, I hope you have a good time for the rst of your trip. Sounds like you are seeing some great things and getting a taste of West African culture (how can you not though, lets be honest) I only left Africa a couple of months ago, but a day doesn't without me wishing I was back there.

    From one yovo to another,