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Responsible Photography in the Land of No Surnames



As a professional photographer I carry a STACK of gear.  The general rule of thumb I’ve discovered as I enter my tenth year in this industry is that the amount of gear you carry increases at a directly proportional rate to the decrease in airline luggage limits.  I’ve become very practiced at keeping a steely smile on my face as I lump my heavy camera gear into the overhead luggage lockers.


When I’ve travelled in countries and worked with countless indigenous people, I’ve always been mindful of the greater impact of my actions upon their lives.  Taking photos of people requires skill and a genuine level of affection.  Superficial friendliness won’t cut it in a world where people live very real lives.  Photographing indigenous people involves a level of understanding, an extreme sensitivity to cultures and customs and the ability to leave everyone smiling from the experience.


I’ve been blessed to work with some of the most endangered cultures of people in the world.  Having never classified myself as a portrait photographer, somehow it is a genre that I absolutely love when I am traveling around native people.  When I work with them, I always ensure that I ask before I take their photos.  If they say no, then I’m happy with not getting the shot and walking away but I will always, without fail, research the people I am working with beforehand to ensure that my photography doesn’t impinge on any cultural sensitivities.  If I am given the go ahead to take shots, not only do I feel immensely privileged, I will always try to take down addresses of the people I’ve worked with to send them printed images when I return home.


So what happens when you travel in a country where the births and deaths of its citizens don’t hit any registrars?  When you ask that person about their birth date and they sheepishly answer with their version of “I don’t know”.  Where the great majority of people have neither a fixed address or even a surname?  This is what Tibet is like.  Even if all of those factors existed, the mail service is so regimented, there is no guarantee that person would ever hear from you again.  How on earth do you ever repay someone for their incredibly generous and kind hospitality after they have let you photograph them?

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On the Western Tibet Expedition, I took the liberty of taking one of the best things with me that I’ve ever travelled with.  I took a modern day polaroid camera!  The camera itself cost me less than USD$100 and a pack of 10 film exposures cost me $10 .  I took five lots of film on the expedition with me.


This tiny polaroid camera turned out to be one of the best items of kit I have ever travelled with.  We met tribes of nomadic yak and goat herders in the middle of nowhere on the Tibetan Plateau.  People who loved meeting us as much as we loved meeting them.  If we were enjoying our encounters with them before I pulled out the Polaroid camera, after I brought it out I was literally mobbed with requests for photographs.  For people who carry neither a mirror with them or have perhaps never even seen a camera, it was an incredible thing to be able to give them the photo I took of them straight away.  My only regret in hindsight was the fact I didn’t take more film with me.  That camera was an absolute ice breaker and a source of tremendous amusement for everyone that we met.


Of course, for some of the people I met I have been able to send photographs to friends in Kathmandu who are currently delivering them in person to my Tibetan friends in Lhasa as I write.    For those who don’t I hope that images I left them with from that Polaroid camera remain with them as cherished memories of the crazy, tall, blonde girl who sat on the ground and giggled with them as we shared tea.


5 thoughts on “Responsible Photography in the Land of No Surnames

  1. Beautiful, inger… Superb portraits, great idea re Polaroid! Xx

  2. Tania Leiter says:

    What a great story and photos. I remember commenting on your post about you showing the prople the photos you took of them and had they ever seen a photo.
    Well done

  3. Rob Geraghty says:

    Great idea, Inger! It’s great to know that there’s still a reason to carry a film camera. I just had a quick look to see if there’s a portable printer that would do a similar job, but couldn’t find one that was as cheap and compact as the instant camera option.

  4. Lynn Jenkin says:

    Beautiful images Inger and brilliant idea. You’ll know next time – more film (Isn’t that always the case, more film, more cards, more weight in the overhead !)

  5. Katy Noone says:

    Hey Inger
    I love seeing your adventures do keep them up! Portraits may not be your specialty but you have such an eye for detail keep it up, I think any photo of a Tibetan always looks amazing as they have intriguing looks and always wear such bright colours,
    I envy you.

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