I truly wonder about the future of travel photography as it becomes increasingly difficult to record lifestyles in the developing world.
Camera equipment has always been a prime target among the poor citizens of developing countries and after more than twenty years of travel photography, I was expecting my number to come up. But I was caught off guard when a knife was pressed between my ribs in The Gambia.
I’d just taken some pictures of a fisherman pedalling along the broad Atlantic beach. Until now, it had been an exhilarating walk -blue skies, few hustlers, no tourists until finally I had the stretch of sand to myself. Sitting down on a log, I took a soft drink out of my bag which also contained a classic Pentax, veteran of travels to more than fifty countries, a jacket and my bikini for a final swim. With the crash of the surf, I didn’t hear the men creeping up behind me. An arm grabbed my camera-bag, the knife was withdrawn and before I could say “good morning” the thieves were sprinting off.
Having protected my gear in Nairobi, Havana and Jakarta (all notorious spots for thieving) I stood up dismayed. Not only had I lost my old mate, but they had taken my notebook recording every photo I had taken.
Were the robbers locals, or did they come from the dissident region of the Casamance in southern Senegal? The only certain thing was that apart from my equipment, my watch and around 700 dalasi – about $70 – they were now the wealthiest men in their village.
Like everyone who came to hear of my misfortune, the police wanted to know why I hadn’t taken a guide? But after two weeks of paying a boy to accompany me, I had grown tired of the patter – could he have my address, could I take him back to London and would I marry him (!) that I had decided to spend my final day alone.
It was a lesson well learned, but what can one do, about such countries dependent on tourism? I should be able to provide an answer, but the truth is, I do not know.
What I do know is that the problems of the developing world: foreign debt, AIDS, unemployment and the effect of inappropriate tourist behaviour, are impinging increasingly on the photographer. In my own case a commission to photograph a text book for a well known UK educational publisher.
You’ve only to see the numbers of western women walking hand in hand with local youths to understand a of respect. In Egypt I was propositioned by a driver taking me to Luxor airport at six o`clock in the morning! And ‘Go to hell!’ shouted a boy when I said no thanks, I didn’t need another guide.
Tourists have also thrown so much money around the markets that it has become impossible even to photograph a basket of peanuts without being asked for baksheesh.
And while the problem reaches a peak in winter-sunshine destinations in Africa, many people in developing countries promoted by western tour operators, now earn a living exclusively by posing for pictures.
Don’t think the Ifugao women wearing national costume in the Philippines are sitting on a wall above the rice terraces for the sake of nothing to do. They are waiting for a coach to pull up and for tourists to take their pictures, the financial reward being split with the driver.
Pretty children playing flutes in the Andes, Masai ‘beach boys’, fishermen in Zanzibar – what photographer has not been terrorized by water-sellers in Marrakesh who are convinced they’ll appear on a postcard and want a cut of the profit.
Even my own project – to photograph primary schools in The Gambia – made no difference to some people.
‘I don’t care what you’re doing. You’re making money out of us!’ screamed a woman selling cassava in Banjul central market.
While tourists are wrong to consider it is their divine right to photograph local people, it is sad and worrying that confrontation has reached boiling point.
Underlying the problem is need and supply but the travel photographer moving quietly about, and in my own case often spending a lot in local restaurants and on guides, is the one who suffers when the coach-door slams and the group moves on.
Travel insurance enabled me to replace my equipment, but I still lament the loss of my notes. If someone had been able to translate them, the thieves would know that as well as my picture captions, I had the addresses of people who, instead of demanding money, had asked me to send their photo: a schoolboy who had shown me the stone circles near Georgetown, the chief of Juffure, the village made famous by Alex Haley’s novel “Roots”, a woman winnowing groundnuts and a group of men who had allowed me to photograph them playing bao under a baobab.
To them I am now the photographer who broke her promise and they’ll never experience the thrill of getting their picture in the post.