I’ve been in Việt Nam for almost a month, and I have yet to take a single picture. I find myself 100% incapable of even taking my camera out in public, and even if I did, I know that I’d never have the guts to actually point it at anything.
I had this same problem when I lived in Germany. Ask anyone in my family about my time in Hamburg, and they’ll probably rant about how the only pictures I ever posted were of graffiti. I never took pictures of monuments, parks, natural wonders, anything that normal tourists take pictures of. Instead, all my photos were either of run-down buildings, tags, pieces, or sidewalks.
Why do I suffer from an inability to take pictures – at lest normal pictures – in public? The simple answer is that I don’t want to look like a tourist. Most people – except those who live within a 2-block radius of me and therefore see me all the time – already assume I’m a tourist, since I’m obviously not Vietnamese. I make a point of answering every question directed at me in Vietnamese, even if it was asked in English, to further distance myself from the “tourist” label.
But my camera-phobia is more complicated than that. Besides not wanting to look like a tourist, I also don’t want to “be the gaze.” That’s how I think of it: “being the gaze.” If you’re a woman who has walked down a street in, oh, the past decade, you probably know what I’m talking about. Likewise if you’re a minority. Especially if you’ve ever walked in a “white” area of town. You’ve felt “the gaze.” Feeling “the gaze” is different from merely being looked at. Anyone can look at anyone. Great. Fine. But when you feel “the gaze,” it’s different; those who own an area are evaluating you, a person who does not own an area, and their gaze upon you demonstrates their de-facto ownership of you because you, the intruder, are in their space. Women’s bodies are gazed at this way all the time, as though their mere existence in a man’s space makes them just another kind of property.
I am – as always – reminded of a fairy tale. It’s called The Twelve Dancing Princesses, and it’s by the Brothers Grimm. It’s a simple enough story: a King wants to know why his daughters wear out their shoes so quickly. The tale needing a little pep, the King declares that whoever finds out the secret will get to choose a bride from among his daughters, but whoever fails to find the secret will be put to death. Ooo, drama. So a smart soldier decides to give it a try, gets some help from an old lady to avoid falling prey to the princesses’ sleeping potion, pretends to fall asleep in their room and but secretly watches as they all descend underground to what sounds like a really awesome night of dancing. He follows them, invisible, and staring, taking trophies back with him for proof. After the third night of watching, he tells the King, who gives him one of his daughters as a reward and puts an end to all this frivolous underground mayhem.
I’ve actually always found the story very disturbing. The soldier, after all, does *nothing.* The old woman tells him how to outsmart the princesses. He just follows them. And watches. And is rewarded for doing so. Merely by being present he demonstrates ownership over them, over what their bodies can and cannot do. He has to be the most passive non-Disney hero in the history of ever. All he had to do was be male, and stare.
Which brings me to another point: even if you do not technically own a space, you can still demonstrate your ownership of it through the way your “gaze” is positioned. This works best if you occupy a space of social dominance, like the solider in the “Twelve Dancing Princesses.” He isn’t smarter or more powerful than the princesses. But he demonstrates ownership over them merely by being a male observing them. The same thing goes for being white. White privilege, as a phenomenon, is a tricky business, because of course I can’t help having been born white, and neither can any other white person on the planet. But being white – or in my case at least kinda-sorta-maybe white looking and ethnically ambiguous – does mean that one should become aware of white privilege. Acting in a way which demonstrates ownership over another culture’s space – through use of the gaze, or otherwise – is something which I try really, really hard not to do.
For example. We’ve all met obnoxious tourists. Not all tourists are obnoxious. But some are. I have met many. Their attitude issues go something like this:
Wow, look at this cultural/historical thingymabobber! Huh, I guess it’s ok. Wish it were better. Maybe if it were snazzier? Yeah, and with some better food. This food sucks. Why can’t they just get it right? Also, when I tried to explain the food-that-sucks-problem to our waiter, and yelled at her in English, she got mad at me! These people. They just don’t get it. Don’t even have the decency to speak English. Why can’t they just learn and grow up? Wait, what was I doing? Oh right, gotta take a picture of this damn thing. That way, people will know I was here.
This is a caricature, but I’ve heard way more obnoxious things than this. The picture-taking, of course, is not the problem here. Picture-taking in and of itself is fine. It’s great! Being interested in other cultures is awesome. Wanting to remember trips to foreign lands is a worthy goal. However. I have seen way, way too many people who act like the Hypothetical Being above. Everything they survey has to conform to their worldviews. Things that are different are bad. Everyone should speak English. Every location should take care to be the perfect, snazzy, Western-oriented tourist experience. And if it’s not, that is just so backward and terrible.
I am not these people. Most people are not these people. But until I really feel that I know a place, I don’t want to behave in a way that even remotely connects me with these people. And yes, that leads to ridiculous actions…like not taking pictures of all the fantastic things Việt Nam has to offer. Like the Reunification Palace. I really want to take a picture of the Reunification Palace, and someday I will. I just want to make sure that when I do, I do it in a way that shows respect and appreciation for – not judgment or appropriation of – a piece of Vietnamese culture.
All of this is to say: I over-think things and am neurotic about photo-taking. However! If you *really* want to talk about evil appropriation, may I suggest turning your “gaze” on the Evil Picture below: