The trick to good street photography, explained the photojournalist leading the workshop, is in blending in to the point where you aren’t noticed by the people you’re photographing. For you, she said turning to address me directly, this might be quite hard. She wasn’t wrong – in a city with a population of 20 million Filipino people, and only small, concentrated communities of foreigners I tend to stand out a bit, and not least because I live
and work in an area far from the ex-pat and tourist haunts in the more upmarket districts. For me, blending in and going unnoticed aren’t really options – partly because of my height, my linguistic failings and my (apparently bizarre) insistence on walking places, but mostly because of the colour of my skin.
My ethnicity is something that in the UK I feel barely aware of – symbols and ideals of national identity permeate the media I’m most exposed to, but race itself is, for very good reasons, rarely a part of this discourse. This means that to suddenly encounter this as a marker of difference, and as one in the minority, can be a confusing and exhausting state of affairs. Confusing because of the constant barrage of responses one gets from local people when just walking in the street (in particular as a Brit I’m not used to being addressed directly by people I don’t know, and as a woman I’m exposed to significantly more than a European man would be), and exhausting for the same reason.
I’ve often met travellers who are enraged by the way in which they are lumped together as part of a single homogenous group by local people in the countries they travel to, sometimes even with a homogenous name, such as gringo (South America), wazungu (East Africa) or, here in the Philippines, simply “Joe” (a legacy of the American occupation), although this sort of grouping and stereotyping is in fact fairly common to both sides. In general I’ve found that the attention is largely innocuous and (in the Philippines especially) is often intended to be friendly, although that hasn’t always been the case – I once took a nasty hit to the head from a rock on a beach in Kenya thrown by some local teenagers who decided they didn’t like my presence there. Also as a European woman it can sometimes get a bit toofriendly – last week a security guard took my phone number from the sign-in sheet at a home for the disabled and decided to try his luck. My colleagues thought this was hilarious and the fact that they saw little wrong with his conduct revealed a lot about the cultural differences that can be less conspicuous behind the trappings of modern office environments. When you stand out
so much its always best to be on your guard, and often this becomes so tiring that there are times when I wish I could just be invisible for a bit. It also means that when I go to take photographs of people, rather than the arty black and white shot of every day life I was after, I often end up with something like this.
In a way, street photography is somewhat akin to anthropological fieldwork; to be a good street photographer you need to get to know the community within which you’re working – you need to talk to people, to ask questions about who they are and what they’re doing, and use the knowledge you gain to document what photographers refer to as the “reality of everyday life”. As Malinowski, a pioneer of participant observation fieldwork, famously wrote:
“as the natives saw me constantly every day, they ceased to be interested or alarmed, or made self-conscious by my presence, and I ceased to be a disturbing element in the tribal life which I was to study, altering it by my very approach” (Malinowski, Argonauts of the Western Pacific, 1922)
However at the same time the photographer is also a useful metaphor for the problems with this approach – the camera lens becomes the dark glass through which we try to understand other ways of life and the photographer necessarily never appears in their own account, even though by their very presence they have become part of the “reality of every day life” they are trying to record. The true reality, of course, is that an anthropologist (and similarly a photographer) can never be an invisible observer (much as early proponents of the discipline might have wanted to be), and often it is through their otherness – the very fact that they are so obviously out of place, and the changes that their presence inevitably brings – that their most revealing encounters are had and observations made. And so it is revealing that it is photos like this
that most characterise the reality of my daily life – shots that may not beautifully frame the activities on the streets in isolation, but rather that tell of encounters between the Filipinos who live here, and an English photographer who can’t make herself invisible.