Photographing Children in Peru – A Hypocrite’s Tale

Posted on
Nov 14, 2011

Breaking Philip's number one rule.

My friend Philip gave me a great piece of advice many years ago, around the time that he himself became a father.

The rule, simply, was this: do not take photos of children you do not know.

If you think about it, it’s rather genius. No one wants to be the creepy photographer, standing in the corner, snapping photos of children that aren’t theirs. No parent wants to have that awkward exchange with a stranger (and yet, I am told, they will have it. And if they do, you’d better listen).

Over the years, I’ve tried to followed Philip’s advice. Even if I know a child, I try to remove as much identifying information as possible before putting photos of them online.

Because that child is not mine. I have no right to their image, no right to that infinitesimally small portion of their soul that I might have stolen on my camera. Philip’s words follow me when I travel. It’s one of the few rules I heed. (That, and “Don’t eat sushi in a landlocked state.”)

Recently, though, I broke his rule. And I’m not quite sure what to do about it.

We’d spent an afternoon in the Peruvian village of Pisac, shopping in the market. The morning had been sunny, but was slowly turning in to a cold, grey afternoon. The sky threatened to rain, the wind came down off the hills and whipped through the alleys of the ancient town in which we stood. Vendors scrambled to still their wares with every chilly gust, and I understood why, even in South America, everyone wears wool.

I wandered through the village in a state of shopping paralysis. It was too, too much. Too many vendors, too many llama wool hats, too many necklaces. If I had the chance to go back, I’d return with a suitcase full of treasures, but at that moment I could only look – wandering in a daze, occasionally snapping photos.

As I passed yet another display of scarves that could easily be found at Anthropologie for 50 times their current selling rate, I encountered a trio of little girls, elaborately dressed in traditional Peruvian costumes. They looked remarkably similar save for their sizes – little Russian nesting dolls of each other.

“Photo, photo, take photo,” the eldest said to me, in broken English.

Blissfully, I understood the game right away. I’d taken their photos, and pay them for the privilege of doing so. I pulled out my camera and took a few shots, feeling incredibly awkward as I did so. I reached into my pocket and pressed a coin into each of their hands.

Pretty sure I traded my soul for this shot.

And yes, I thought twice before posting these. I thought four times, actually.

“No!” the eldest said. “Un sole.” No. One sol.

I stood, confused. I had given her more than that. 2 soles, in fact. And another sole to her little colleagues.

“Un sole,” she said.

“Son dos soles,” I said, pointing to the coin I gave her.

“Nooooo,” she whined quietly. I wondered if perhaps she didn’t recognize the coin I had given her – it was definitely 2 soles. Mayber her parents had showed her a single sol coin, made her remember it, and that was all she knew. Or maybe she was shrewd as hell.

She pleaded with me, her eyes enormous, her voice high and whiney.

For the record, I do not do well with whining children. I will do anything to make them stop. Buy them presents, feed them candy, dance like a monkey. Whatever. I have no shame. Anything to stop the high pitched moaning and sniffling – to stifle it before the dreaded temper tantrum is unleashed. I would make an awful parent.

I quickly reached into my pocket and dug out some more coins, handing them to all three girls, and left. As I walked away, I saw the smallest one fighting off her older sister, who was trying to take the coin from her. It was one sol – the kind of coin the oldest had been asking for. I sighed heavily.

Later, sitting in our hotel room, I felt awful. Awful for taking the photo, awful for not having more money for those children (in the end, I gave them five times their asking rate, but the oldest kept repeating “No, un sol …”). Awful that, in the end, a child had bickered with me over money.

I sat on my bed and cried.

A day or two later, we found ourselves in the open air market in Cuzco. I saw an American woman stooped down, snapping photos of a child. I figured it was the same situation I had encountered before, until I saw the little girl. She was not dressed up. She was not asking for money. She was simply standing in the market, eating a bun. The woman was ridiculously close to the girl, not looking at her, but at the digital preview screen on her camera.

“Por que?” The little girl asked, again and again. Why? Why are you talking my photo?

“Por que es hermosa.” Because you are beautiful, the woman replied, never taking her eyes off her viewfinder. But the littler girl, wise to the game, was not soothed by this compliment. She was clearly bothered, and confused by what was happening.

My reaction to this was rather reasonable.

“Rand,” I said quietly, “I think I am going to go punch that woman.”

As I began removing my earrings and rings, Rand reminded me that violence is not the answer (“BUT SOMETIMES IT IS!” was my astute reply), and that I might not enjoy getting deported or spending time in a Peruvian prison.

I wondered if I could at least get in the woman’s face, and snap a few dozen photos of her. When she asked me why I was taking her picture I’d scream, “BECAUSE YOU ARE NOT HERMOSA!” and then I’d run off.

But I chickened out.

I chickened out, because deep down, I knew I wasn’t any better than her. Hadn’t I snapped photos of a little girl I didn’t know? Did an exchange of a few coins really make it all okay? On some level, didn’t I want to punch that woman because I was, in fact, angry at myself for having done the same thing? (Yes, No, YES.) I was a rotten hypocrite. And, as a colleague of my husband’s had so harshly and perceptively put it the other day, I’m a coward to boot.

I thought again of Philip’s rule – the one that sits at the top of my mental list of travel guidelines: Don’t take photos of children you don’t know. I’m considering adding another rule to that list. Something like: During your travels, don’t punch the annoying people you encounter.

But I’m not sure how effective that would be. After all, I’ve already broken one of those rules, and I really wanted to break the other. The good news? I’m pretty sure Philip would have forgiven me for popping that woman in the mouth. But for taking photos of those little girls? That might be a bit harder to forgive.

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