25 Apr Taking Photos in a Foreign Land

Ron Tanner, chair of the Writing Department at Loyola College-Maryland, won a grant from the National Parks Service to help Marshallese college students preserve the oral culture of the Marshall Islands. He’s spending the 2008 spring semester (5 months) on Majuro to direct this pilot program, called the Marshall Islands Story Project. To get the full story of his personal experiences, be sure to check the archives to your left.

I feel like a creep when I do it. Call me tourist, ripalle, houle, gringo, vampire–who am I to intrude on people’s lives, aiming my lens at their talking with a neighbor, their grooming of a child, their cooking of a meal? The Marshall Islands is a gorgeous, thoroughly photogenic place–the people are attractive and interesting, their clothes and houses colorful, their islands otherworldly. I won’t be here long and I don’t know that I’ll ever get back. So I’m compelled to capture it all, every photo a firefly in a jar. But half the time I lack the nerve.

The phrase “taking a photo” is more accurate than we acknowledge. The truly good photo, we’ve been taught, is candid. So the truly good photographer is a voyeur. A sneak. A spy. Worse, he’s a thief. As I stroll through the neighborhood adjacent to my motel, my camera slug around my neck, I keep the camera turned on. When I stop, I pretend to be occupied with checking it, examining buttons, fiddling with the aperture. It’s a ruse. I’m stalling. Then, when it seems no one is looking, I raise the camera and shoot. Sometimes I’ll take a long shot, maybe from across the street, then extract the close-up at home. You can do that with high resolution. In any case, I’m stealing images from private lives. The usual rationale is that anything happening in a public space is fair game. But that’s not how it feels.

What I don’t want–what no self-respecting photographer wants–is the subject to see the camera. Then he or she will smile and all I’ve got is a snapshot. A hi-ya! pic. It’s worthless. Mind you, I love photos. When I’m pouring them into my Photoshop program, I’m thrilled. Always in the batch I find a shot that’s much better than my ability. It’s not simply that I want to document my experience. I want to capture something that may evoke interest and emotion in viewers. This is what makes photography an art obviously. Ultimately, it’s not about stealing a piece of somebody’s life, it’s about making something of a singular moment. So I should lighten up, shouldn’t I?

I’m working with a Nikon point-and-shoot. It’s a good camera but not professional by any means. A professional would find it simplistic. But I still haven’t figured out all it can do–in part because I don’t have patience for reading instructions. Just the other day I was sitting in a interview, where my jobwas to run the video-cam, the audio recorder, and take still photos. Taking still photos is an easy task. But after every snapshot, my camera made a mouse-like squeak to acknowledge its work. This went on for an hour–snap/squeak!snap/squeak!–at which point I decided I could turn off the irritating noise. After some investigation, I did.

Another time I was at formal ceremony where I had the opportunity to take a candid shot of some nuclear testing survivors. I chose a discreet setting, then aimed my camera. Suddenly the flash popped up and I strobed the side of my neighbor’s face. Which I’m sure he appreciated. Such experiences epitomize my relationship with this camera. I can hardly control the thing. Worst of all, because this is a digital camera, I have to wait for it to process the information–which might take up to 4 seconds, during which time I lose great shots. If I take a photo of someone jumping into the water, all I get is the splash, never the jump.

Last month I went out to gather photos as one might gather food from a field. I had yet to walk through this, my own neighborhood. It’s crowded, the plywood and cinderblock houses hunkered in the shade of breadfruit trees and coconut palms. Small children are everywhere, playing. Some pay attention to me, giggling as they succeed in eliciting a wave or a yokwe! from me. Others are too occupied with their games. I pass a sleeping hog under a bush. I hear the ocean crunching at the shore, just behind the houses to my right. But I can’t bring myself to take a shot.

Then the fast approaching shadows of two figures behind me tell me I’m not alone. These are two young ripalle men wearing dark trousers and white, short-sleeve shirts–and neckties. Yes, neckties. They’re Mormons. There are a lot of young Mormons on Majuro, I’ve noticed. We exchange pleasantries. Turns out I’m talking to Brother Chris and Brother Jones. They’ve been here two years. I ask, “Have the people been receptive to your message?”

“Oh, yes,” brother Chris says. “They’ve been wonderful.”

“It’s a very Christian nation,” I observe. “It may be the most Christian nation in the world. I’ve never seen so many churches.”

“As many churches as take-outs,” Brother Jones jokes.

This brings to mind the reality of what they’re doing here. Let me be blunt: if these well-meaning young men are in a thoroughly Christian country, then why do they bother? At bottom, they’re nothing more than pitchmen striving to get the locals to switch brands. I could start a Church of the Modern Day Saints and compete with them. How about a Church of the Living Saints? the Wanna-be Saints?

The two Mormon men gently inquire about my circumstances. I quickly reveal that I’m a teacher from a Jesuit university. Translation: don’t mess with the Jesuits.
They nod appreciatively. Then we’re at their car. I’m surprised they have a car. In the States, they’re usually riding bicycles. I ask to take their photo. I should note that sometimes I DO ask people if I can take their photo, especially people who are doing work. Brother Chris says he needs a minute to wipe the sweat from his face. I tell him not to bother. We’re all sweating.

After the Mormons drive away, I feel determined to get some good photos. Compared to how intrusive these fearless proselytizers are, what harm can a geeky tourist do? For every five great pictures I see–a teenaged girl reading a book as she reclines against a lime-green wall, a small child on his back playing with a puppy, a mother braiding her daughter’s hair, a boy wrestling with an umbrella, a group of girls playing volley ball–I get one, if I’m lucky. Try as I might, I still don’t have the nerve to stand and gape, much less frame a photo, focus, then shoot.. I get off some good shots nonetheless. The Marshallese are so damned nice about it. They simply smile when they catch me tip-toeing through a yard or stumbling on one of their gatherings. Inevitably we exchange a greeting and a friendly nod. In another life, I will come back as a bug in a little boy’s jar, I am convinced.

But here’s a lesson to consider. I was pedaling home from the college one wet afternoon when I saw a huge sea turtle overturned in somebody’s front yard. I didn’t have my camera with me. So I pedaled on. Then I turned my bike around. My camera was just half a mile away in my office at the college. Didn’t I want a shot of this unusual sight? Nah. It was kind of depressing and I was eager to get to my dinner. So I turned around again and resumed my pedal home. But then I thought: wait, when will I ever have the opportunity to capture such a sight? It wasn’t a pretty sight, but that’s what made it interesting. If nothing else, it was culturally authentic. All right. So I turned around yet again, pedaled back to the college, fetched the camera, then returned to the yard.

I was sweating profusely when I dismounted finally, camera in hand. The overturned turtle was huge–over two hundred pounds and as big as an office desk. Though I saw no wound, he seemed to be dead. An old man with a cane stepped from the house. I asked him about the turtle. He said it came from an outer island and was caught either when it crawled ashore or was found idling in the shallows. What I didn’t know but would learn later from Newton is that an overturned turtle in someone’s yard signals a traditional feast for a very special occasion. The old man not only spoke English fairly well but seemed quite articulate. I decided he could make a great contribution to the Story-Telling Project, so I introduced myself, briefly explained what I was doing on Majuro, then asked him if Newton and I could talk with him about his life. He said that’d be fine. I wrote down his name (he showed me his driver’s license), then I took a photo of him with the turtle.

I was startled to discover that the turtle was very much alive. As the old man touched it with his cane, it flapped its flippers futilely. He said it would be baked in the ground. The sight of the ancient, overturned creature broke my heart, but I wasn’t about to betray my sentiment. And don’t you dare get sentimental either–unless you’re willing to stop eating hamburgers and chicken nuggets and pepperoni on your pizzas. It’s not like everybody on Majuro has a giant overturned seat turtle in his front yard. This is a rare sight. As I continued talking with the old man, he revealed that he is an irooj–a chief. A bead of sweat dangling from the tip of my nose, I told the chief that I was honored to meet him. I was thinking, holy cow, wouldn’t it be great to get an irooj interviewed for the project?

After I returned to my room, I phoned Newton and told him I’d met an irooj. “That’s our irooj,” he informed me, “the one I’ve been trying to get to for permission to visit Wotje!” Ever since we decided to visit Wotje–which is in the eastern, “Sunrise” chain of islands–Newton has been talking about securing permission to take this field trip. If you want the full cooperation of the people on an outer island, make sure you have permission from their chief. But the man I met is no ordinary chief. He happens to be a high chief: chief of the entire Ratak chain. Newton hadn’t been able to approach this high chief because Newton isn’t of sufficient rank, so–thanks to my urge to steal yet another photo–I was able to make contact with precisely the man we needed to see and we have since secured his permission to visit Wotje atoll. He’s going to send his nephew with us. Now we have to convince the chief to give us an interview.