Photography, Random Run-ins, and Cousin Cookie

6 Nov

Back in 2003, I, along with 22 other intrepid students, went on a year long expedition around the world, learning about politics, economics, ecology, feminism, and all sorts of other things. More than anything, though, I would say that we learned how to be proper human beings. We learned what it meant to go into other people’s countries, other peoples homes, and understand that we were guests there. We had to learn to suspend our own cultural norms in an effort to try and fit, as best we could, into our new and extremely different surroundings. This proved easier in some situations – Cambridge, England, for example, where our biggest concern was remembering that in England the word “pants” is actually synonymous to the American “underwear” – than in, say, Zanzibar, Tanzania, where in incredibly hot temperatures we kept our heads, shoulders and knees covered in an attempt to be respectful towards the majority Muslim population there.* I’m sure that as a group of 22 American, and one super awesome Bulgarian, students traveling through England, Tanzania, India, New Zealand and Mexico we unintentionally offended some people but the point is that we tried. We asked questions of our hosts and attempted to understand local norms and customs as best we could so as to represent ourselves, and our countries, to the best of our abilities. Overall I think we did a pretty good job.

One of the things that we learned about, and something that I have kept with me ever since, involved photography. We were taught that in certain cultures, people believe that when their photograph is taken, a piece of their soul is taken with it. Whether or not we believe this to be the case, it is important to respect the beliefs of those around you and so we were taught to always, always ask permission before photographing anyone. Consent is key. It might mean that sometimes you don’t quite get the photo that you hoped, but who the hell cares, really. There is something sort of fucked up about taking photographs of people without asking them first, especially when we are surrounded by those who have lived incredibly different lives than us. To me, it reeks of voyeurism. I know that when I have been traveling and have caught people taking photographs of me I have felt somewhat dehumanized. These people don’t know me, don’t know my name, where I am from, what I am about, and yet they want to capture this image of me and what? Show their friends? It’s this idea that an image of me could be in someone else’s home and I could have no idea that always makes me think twice about snapping a photo of someone I don’t know, someone who didn’t consent to it. The idea that a part of our soul is taken every time that flash goes off starts hitting a little closer to home.

Let’s maybe take this down a notch in seriousness, largely because I haven’t had enough coffee yet and this is making my brain hurt. So in New York City you come to find that the longer you live here, the smaller and smaller this town becomes. Partially that is because as we live here longer, our personal map of the city changes. There are certain parts of the city that we know nothing about  – for me it’s just about everything above 34th street and most of North Brooklyn – and then other parts where we can practically dictate the store fronts in order. The city just becomes smaller and the more we circulate within the territory of our truncated maps, the more people we end up seeing until the point when you go to the grocery store and run into about 12 people on the way home, all the while Toffuti Cuties are melting in your environmentally conscious shopping bag. In your own neighborhood, and especially when you are a neighborhood bartender, this is pretty normal. But it is always super fun and exciting when you run into people randomly in other parts of the city that you rarely frequent. Like that time I ran into some girls I went to high school with on the 6 platform in Manhattan, or the time my mom came to visit and we saw her massage therapist, who works in New Jersey, on University Place. I mean, really, what are the odds?! And every time this happens I think to myself

“Self, mere seconds in either direction, one different decision, one missed or caught light, and I never would have run into that person.”

And then I start thinking about all the people that I probably just barely miss. And then I think about how if my life were a sitcom, which I sometimes like to think it is, the audience would be like

“No! Turn on that street! That guy that you made out with in college is walking this way and it might be a love connection!!!”

And then would come the sad, prerecorded

“Awwwwwww….”

when I proceeded on course and missed what could have been the love of my life. Or some other bullshit. Anyway, back to photographs. So on a similar theme, have you ever thought about how many times you might be in other people’s photos? Like, just walking along and you get in the background of some group picture or something? Now, this is something I think about a lot, like, how weird would it be to go to someone’s house and look at an awesome family photograph on their mantel and then see yourself casually walking through the background? Mind blown, right? I mean, you could be on someone’s mantel right now! And not even know it! And they might notice you one day and be like,

“Huh, I wonder where that person was going on this day that is forever remembered as the day that Cousin Cookie drank too many pickle back shots and hasn’t been able to look at cucumbers the same way since.”

I don’t know, it’s just a thing I think about it. There was a This American Life on it a few years back but I was thinking about this long before I heard that episode. It just made me realize that other people think about it too and maybe, just maybe, some of you, dear readers, also think about it.

So this post totally just went on a really weird adventure from the ethics of photography to random run-ins and Cousin Cookie. Funny thing is that I was going to write about this weird thing that happened at work the other day and see what you guys all thought about it but now I have already written over a thousand words so it doesn’t seem the best time to ask you to read much more. So, that’s a post for next time. I guess just remember this: ask permission to take other people’s photos otherwise you might end up on the mantel of some family in the midwest that gives each other nicknames based off their favorite snack foods.

* I know that’s not that difficult but I haven’t had enough coffee yet so it’s all I could think of. Also, there were some people on vacation there wearing short shorts and tube tops and it was really, really inappropriate. Like, wildly.

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