Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Could you take my picture,
Cause I won't remember.
-- Filter, "Take A Picture"

In America, almost everyone takes photos of everything. With digital cameras and countless websites to upload photos, you no longer need to be famous to be followed by paparazzi. In an afternoon family picnic, the Chens can easily snap 60 photos. And that's without the relatives. We don't leave any moment undocumented.

Taking photos in Morocco has been more of an improvisational dance. On most occasions, I bring my camera. Some people love this. They know I'm the resident photographer. They strike Zoolander's blue steel and instruct me to start the photo shoot. Others lose their ability to breathe properly until I put away the AK-47-like weapon. They tell me the Koran prohibits taking photos of videos of individuals. It's haraam. Humans shouldn't imitate the creation of Allah.

To take a photo or not has been relatively easy to understand. After a year and half living among these women, I know their individual comfort levels with photos. And I respect their choices. I tuck away my camera around those who do not wish to be photographed. To those who want photos, I tell them to bring me a CD. They can bring the photos to the printer and pay for it. Simple, right? Not quite.

Last month, the Association organized its first outing. We spent a beautiful, sun-kissed day at a remote beach about 25 kilometers north of Agadir. A total of 33 women and 10 children loaded the bus, devoured over 100 pieces of bread and 12 chickens, and splashed in the Atlantic's crashing waves. I brought my camera and snapped away over 140 photos.

"Touria, print out the photos of me. Tell me the price and I'll pay."

If only printing out 100-odd photos for over 33 people were that easy. I didn't think it was realistic to take everyone's "order," collect money, print everything and distribute. Weighting their past inconsistencies of repaying me for photos, I decided to copy the day's photos onto a CD. I explained to the women that this would be shared among them. If you want a photo, take it to the printer yourself and select which ones. Once you've done that, pass it on to the next lady. This scared the women. Saidia immediately grabbed the CD and shoved it into her purse. I mistook this as her eager anticipation to see the photos. As she later explained, it to protect any possible hshuma (shame) that could result.

Suddenly, the community engaged me in a deeper conversation about picture taking, going beyond conservative or liberal. Hesitation about being in a photo also stems from issues of uncertainty and trust. Sitting down with several families, they all explained how boys love to photo-shop. "Imagine what hshuma can come out of that. Imagine if any of that got online." A fellow PCV once spent an afternoon teaching the paid city's artisana IT man, who had little computer skills, how to cut and paste face shoots onto dancing animal cartoons. Ok. I can see where they're coming from but...

"If you trust everyone, how could they get the photos?" I asked.
"It's not the women. It's the boys. The photos are on the CD, right?" the ladies replied. Then they begged me to print these photos on everyone's behalf. Don't worry they told me, they will pay.

I wasn't satisfied with the answer. After countless discussions, I still didn't find, what my cultural lens tells me, is a logical answer. To me, there's a huge jump from the photos being on the CD to in the hands of a bored and malicious boy. And how does me taking all the photos to the print shop any different? If the print shop doesn't erase it photos, a bored and malicious boy could just as easily twist our picnic memories. Furthermore, several girls have shown me beauty shots of themselves, without a scarf, dolled up and in somewhat revealing clothing. What's the difference? Can't that already hshuma photo slip into the wrong hands? I want to decipher their cultural logic but have a hard time doing so.

With each conversation comes two cups of understanding and three cups of confusion. It seems to me, they fear photos leaking onto the internet above all. "You put all your photos on your computer, right? When it's online, boys will see it. And you know what boys do." My middle-class America self screams inside my head. 1) There's a difference between photos being on my computer and online. To many women, they use the two words interchangeably. 2) I'd like to think that not everyone plays pocket pong to every photo seen online. With one porn site for every ten websites, wouldn't you think there are more suitable places to go?

They reminded me of Mina's predicament when she saw herself on Mushmina's blog. In fall 2009, the two sisters came to my site and ran a wonderful beading workshop. The women finally met Heather and Katie while gaining stylistic tips. They posted this on their website, demonstrating the grassroots development work their brand reaches. Months later, Mina saw this and initially cringed. What if her husband caught her photo online? To me, it's a blurry shot of her, fully covered and conservatively dressed. The benefits outweigh her unrealistic fear of being photo-shopped. Then, I remind myself to see things from her view not mine. From there, I can see the issues of access and control.

Honestly, I struggle with this last point. I think photos can be quite powerful in capturing aspects of my experience. Looking over my past posts, I've uploaded numerous photos. I didn't ask permission from the subjects. And quite selfishly, I don't want to take them down. Some do a great job as explaining moments I've enjoyed, my work and life here. I'd like to think that if I showed each women the educational value of a photo, they, like Mina, would overcome the fear of online imagines. I think it's one of the most powerful tools in achieving Peace Corps' goal three, namely to explain the host country and its culture to Americans. Afterall, a picture is worth 1,000 words... to us, that is. To them, a picture can mean a million other things.

As my days in Morocco count me down, I realize all the photos I wish I had- me crocheting alongside the women, morning aerobic classes, the women praying in unison, sheep stampeding in front of the mosque after a long day out in the fields. Most likely, I will never take these shots. But I hope I can remember.


faye cassell said...

Girls and women in my site have similar fears about photos of themselves being used for nefarious purposes. I used to find this paranoia a little much, until one day I found one of my students (one of my loyal, "respectful" students, mind you) had taken a group shot and cropped it to look like it was just me and him and was passing me off as his girlfriend on facebook. So perhaps many of their fears are justified. My photo store guys don't find it abnormal to keep all my photos saved on their computer, nor do they find it inappropriate to look at all the photos on my USB regardless of whether or not it's any of their business. I think it's just a different understanding of propietary ownership. For us, the photo is still ours, regardless of whether we allowed the photo guys to handle it in some manner, while for Moroccans it becomes open to the public once it's shared.

B said...

good writing, Joy! This is something I too feel so conflicted about. The younger women I know *love* to have their photos taken; it's the older women who cover themselves or turn away. What do they think of the younger generation, I wonder ...