Shigirir Ayele, a young guide who goes by the name of Shigo, strolls through the large field of dirt and patchy grass of the Key Afar market in Ethiopia’s lower Omo Valley. He wears dark jeans and a white jersey. He thinks he’s about twenty years old. (Shigo’s a member of the Banna tribe and they don’t recognize birthdays.) As he walks, he greets the vendors selling sorghum, coffee, and spices from cloth sacks, shiny gourds and small wooden carvings displayed on large squares of fabric. “You. You,” the vendors call, trying to get the attention of the American family trailing behind him. That’s me, my husband, and my two small children.
In a smaller, adjacent field, Shigo weaves between clumps of goats, sheep, and cattle available for sale or barter. The animals shuffle back and forth as far as their ropes allow and Shigo hoists my 5-year-old son, R., into his arms. A moment later, his prudence is justified when a young bull is stung by a bee and starts to buck and thrash its horns. We leave quickly, passing a group of young Banna men waiting under an acai tree. They wear brightly striped fabric to cover their slender hips. Bands of blue and red beads circle their arms, necks, and shaved heads. They are waiting for a ferenji to pay them to pose for a photo.
Ferenji is the term that Ethiopians use for “foreigners.” It is close to the word French in Amharic, the dominant language in Ethiopia, but to the people of Omo Valley, ferenji simply means “white people.” On this day, like most days, the white people in the market are holding cameras.
The Omo Valley is home to two hundred thousand or so indigenous people from a dozen different tribes. They have practiced an agro-pastoralist way of life, growing crops and raising livestock, for centuries. Each group has unique customs and ceremonies, styles of dress and hair, and ways of adorning their bodies. The Banna women dye their dreadlocked hair red with henna. The Karo people scar themselves and paint their faces and bodies with white chalk. The Mursi women are the most famous, among the tourist set at least, because of their lip plates. When they reach marrying age, a female relative slices their lower lip so it hangs separate from their chin. Using wooden plugs, they slowly stretch it out until it can hold a clay disk the size of a dessert plate, which they wear to serve meals to their husbands, during certain ceremonies, and when the tourists come to their village to take their pictures.
The going rate for a photograph is three or four birr in the market and five birr in the villages. (Five birr is about eighteen cents.) If someone is exceptionally beautiful or “colorful,” as Shigo says, she can set her own rates. The weekly market in Key Afar is a hotbed of color. Members of the Banna, Hamar, and Ari tribes come here to purchase the food they can’t grow themselves, or to buy or sell the livestock they herd for a living. Some walk from villages as far as thirty miles away.
Because of translation problems, the insufficiency of hand gestures, or because they think they can get away with it, ferenjis don’t always pay the requested price. In the market, guides must sometimes intervene during heated negotiations. Village men have been known to prevent the tourist SUVs from leaving until the account is settled.
The white people first appeared in the 1980s when a few European and American travel agencies started promoting tours to the region to experience the “primitive people” who were living “in a natural state” untouched by the modern world. A coffee-table book of photographs of the Mursi women and their lip plates, along with a related article in National Geographic, was published in 1991. Features in the travel sections of newspapers followed, and tourism in Ethiopia has steadily increased ever since, with nearly nine hundred thousand visitors last year. In high season, a Mursi village might receive up to fifty tourists a day, and in the Key Afar market, the ferenjis taking pictures outnumber the locals posing for them.
In her book On Photography, Susan Sontag writes: “A way of certifying experience, taking photographs is also a way of refusing it—by limiting experience to a search for the photogenic, by converting experience into an image, a souvenir.” This conversion is necessarily one-sided, its intentions mysterious to the subject. Indeed, tribespeople are often perplexed about why tourists want to take their pictures. A Dutch anthropologist named Jon Abbink, doing fieldwork in a Suri village in the 1990s, observed that the Suris resented being turned into souvenirs. They felt they were “being limited in their interaction as adult humans with tourists they thought were other adult humans.” Likewise, the English anthropologist David Turton, when interviewing some Mursi men for a 1991 TV documentary, was asked why the tourists just drive off after they take their photo. “Is it just that they want to know who we are, or what?… Is that the way whites normally behave?’”
My husband, our two children, and I are in our first country of a twelve-country trip around the world. My husband, a professor of comparative literature, had an academic sabbatical and we decided to take our kids out of school for a year, rent out our home in Brooklyn, and travel, with the general aim of broadening our perspective. Once we got to Ethiopia, the question of perspective took on a surprising literalness: how do we frame what we are seeing, either in the lens of our smartphone cameras or in conversations with our kids? We content ourselves with panoramic shots of the landscape and surreptitious shots of tribespeople when they aren’t looking.
The urge to take photographs is irresistible—not just as evidence for friends and family back home. “The very activity of taking pictures is soothing,” Sontag writes, “and assuages general feelings of disorientation that are likely to be exacerbated by travel… Unsure of other responses, [tourists] take a picture. This gives shape to experience: stop, take a photograph, and move on.” Because of our children’s young ages, we also know that our photographs will likely shape their memories of our trip as much as or more than their actual recollections. The question is, what kind of story will our photos tell about the world and who we are in it?
The late British sociologist John Urry, considered a pioneer of tourism studies, observes in his theory of the “tourist gaze” that there’s no inherent essence in sites that one can either choose to record or not. Our grasping of them is relational. The tourist imposes preformed notions about what a place and its people are like, relying primarily on other people’s images as presented in travel articles, tourism marketing, and TripAdvisor reports, which are further inflected by the tourist’s personal history and identity. In other words, the way we see things is programmed by forces that are often far removed from the people and places being seen. In turn, the tourist’s photos, ubiquitously shared on social media, shore up or occasionally complicate these narratives.
Jonas Larsen extends this theory to the “family gaze,” whereby photography, which typically functions in families to create an idealized version of themselves through the recording of holidays and important milestones, serves a similar mythmaking purpose during travel. We are happy, united, adventurous, intrepid, these photographs say. We are travelers who mingle with the locals.
Shigo offers us the chance to mingle with the locals. We spend the night in a Hamar village—more intimate than the photographic drive-by, we assure ourselves. There, we share a gourd of coffee inside a family’s hut. When the naked baby pees, the grandmother rubs the urine into one of the cow skins we’re sitting on. (This is what my 8-year-old, E., will remember.) Our five-year-old, R., kicks a soccer ball with some Hamar kids among the corrals of livestock that have been brought in for the evening. We all fall asleep in a tent under the widest night sky I’ve ever seen, to the sound of clanking goat and cattle bells.
We have only our iPhones for cameras, and we ask permission to take a few photos. “Take as many as you like,” Shigo tells us. “You don’t have to pay.” I snap away as some girls braid my daughter’s hair. One of them holds her hand out for money. I glance at Shigo, unsure what to do. He says something in the Hamar dialect and the girl laughs, turning her request into a joke. I gesture that I can show them the pictures, but they seem uninterested. I’m not sure whether they’ve seen their image so many times it’s no longer a novelty, or if it’s so strange they don’t have a frame of reference.
Shigo has warned us that some of the Hamar people might refuse to have their pictures taken because they are afraid. They believe that photos steal a little bit of their souls, which leads me to a dark thought. Given that some of the tribal villagers, particularly the more “colorful” ones like the Mursi people, have begun to abandon their centuries-old practice of agro-pastoralism because it is more profitable to pose for the ferenjis’ photos or to invent new customs, such as putting cow horns on their heads simply because tourists find it picturesque, perhaps their souls are slowly being stolen from them. What’s worse, maybe, is how these photographs artificially freeze the tribespeople in time. Photographs pin them to their “traditional” and “authentic” ways of life to satisfy the tourists’ nostalgia for a “purer” existence than they have experienced. The photographer gets to make the world appear more innocent than it is, which gives her the illusion that she has some control over it.
In the market in Key Afar, there are other Ethiopians whose dress does not show any affiliation other than to the tribe of poverty. With the installation of a massive hydroelectric dam, the Omo River no longer overflows its banks to irrigate the surrounding lands for farming or cattle grazing. It doesn’t fill Lake Turkana, which lies on Ethiopia’s southern border with Kenya, and upon whose fish some tribes rely to feed themselves. A 2017 Human Rights Watch report concluded that many of the valley’s residents are threatened with starvation.
The clothes of these marketgoers are stained and torn, and the children especially are often without shoes. These children grab our hands and point emphatically to their feet, saying, “You. Shoes.” The shoes in the market are very cheap—most are plastic, made in China—but Shigo advises us against buying things for these children or giving them money, because, he says, it encourages them to beg rather than to attend school. He also is troubled by the practice of paying money for photos, especially to the Mursi. When the tourist season is low or when it falls off, as it did as a result of political unrest in 2016, these Mursi are left without a way to earn money, since they’ve abandoned farming and herding. Shigo said that many resort instead to stealing beehives from other villages and selling the honey at the market.
Sometimes children slip into the ferenjis’ photos of the tribespeople. They wait until the last minute to step into the frame and then hold out their hands for their few birr. One of the photographers, a Spanish tourist, is wise to this game. He lowers his camera and gestures with his hand for them to get out. The children move away reluctantly. Sontag writes: “To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them that they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed.”
But in this instance, not to photograph them feels like a violation too. Our unwillingness to participate in the photo-for-birr aspect of the tourist economy makes some tribal people angry. In a Karo village, the head Karo man who accompanies our tour keeps pointing out women and children with the white chalk designs down their bodies, the men with the symmetrical scarification on their chests. When we refuse again, he dismisses us with an annoyed wave of his hands. In a 2011 documentary short about the practice of tourists photographing the Mursi tribe, Framing the Other by Dutch filmmakers Ilja Kok and Willem Timmers, a Mursi woman named Nadonge says: “We pinch the bodies of tourists who stare at us and don’t want to take a picture. We make them give us money.” I see Shigo take the Karo head man to the side, his soothing hand on his back as he hands over extra tips.
As we leave the Key Afar market, two children cling to E.’s hands, one on either side. We have held fast in our refusal to buy them anything, even as they have trailed us for the last hour as we haggled with vendors while buying souvenirs. Shigo intervenes once more, telling them that we have enjoyed their company, but they must let us go. They look crestfallen as we walk away. As we drive off, E. says, “I don’t think those kids know they’re poor. It’s just normal life for them.” She might be telling herself this as a way to feel better about the encounter; she might be trying to see things from their perspective.
I have no idea whether we have done the right thing in coming here. But our pictures will tell a story of a verdant landscape right after the rainy season; large caches of grain and coffee beans for sale at the market; intimate scenes inside huts lined with animal skins, and E. and R. chasing a soccer ball across a dusty savannah with a gang of bare-bottomed Hamar children in pursuit.
India is the fifth country on our trip. Our first day, we take the subway to Chandni Chowk, the main bazaar in Old Delhi. The clothes and spices areas of the market lie between two stops, and we exit onto the street to find ourselves in the hardware and plumbing section. Since these streets were laid out centuries before automobiles existed, they are too narrow for anything bigger than pedicabs and carts. We watch a man with a toilet strapped to the back of his motorbike maneuvering through the traffic. Clinging to my husband’s arm, E. startles dramatically at a particularly loud horn, which makes the shopkeepers laugh. She begins to startle even more dramatically, trying out the role of possessor of a delicate sensibility.
Many of our hotel rooms contain full-length mirrors, and I watch E. notice herself more and more in their reflections. She pulls faces, performs dances moves, tries on different attitudes: fear, sultriness, surprise, hilarity, and what we call her “mean face,” which she has taken to offering to my requests to pose for the camera. She gazes unsmiling with narrowed eyes and a world-weary expression that is an uncanny imitation of the young, thin models in high-fashion ads. If we were home, this experimenting would take place in the privacy of her bedroom, so I try not to pay too close attention. But it feels like E. is working something out: as if different parts of her being are competing as she tries to get her whole self into focus. These sessions coincide with a sudden onslaught of strangers who want to take her picture.
In Asia, the situation is the reverse of our experience in Ethiopia: now we, and particularly the kids, are the spectacle that the photographers wish to capture, often against the backdrop of their own country’s tourist sites. At mosques and forts in India, at amusement parks and lakesides in Vietnam, at gardens and historical monuments in South Korea, at temples in Thailand, Myanmar, and Cambodia, natives of these countries, typically young and wealthy ones, pull out their smartphones when they see us. “You?” they inquire, pointing at the kids. “Photo?”
On the steps outside the Red Fort in Agra, where the Taj Mahal is located, a man grabs E. and R. by the shoulders to hold them in place, while calling to his own kids and wife to come over and stand beside them. As I stand a few steps below, I watch for both sets of kids to exchange commiserating glances at the universal annoyance of parents making children pose for photographs. E. and R. smile politely, waiting for the father as he snaps a few photos and then changes places with the mother to take his turn at posing. The Indian kids, on the other hand, seem completely perplexed by this fuss. They must be cajoled or threatened into smiling themselves.
In India, where the requests for his photo began, R. arranges his body and expression into natural, pleasing lines, even moving through a few poses to give the photographer different options. With big brown eyes and exceptionally long eyelashes, he has a face that the camera loves, and the feeling has been mutual. E., on the other hand, stiffens in front of the camera. She has light blue eyes set off by pale skin and blond ringlets, but she shrugs off any compliments about her looks and must be tricked into looking natural. “You better not laugh,” I tease her. “Don’t you dare smile.”
In Thailand, the photo requests continue, and it doesn’t take long for R. to grow tired of them. He still spends much of his time lost in a dreamworld where he plays the tireless hero vanquishing villains. He walks through the night market of Chiang Mai, swinging invisible swords, throwing karate chops, and performing spinning kicks, muttering, “Take that!” and “A-ha!” under his breath. When someone wants to take his photo, it pulls him out of his game.
But as R. demurs, E. becomes bolder. As she is photographed over and over, she grows more comfortable in front of the camera, never preening exactly, but smiling naturally and graciously. At the same time, the sessions in front of the mirror continue, but now they take on a slightly more self-conscious air, as if she were posing for an invisible audience.
At the Temple of Literature in Hanoi, a Vietnamese woman in her thirties holds out her smartphone and points to the kids. E. steps forward, and the woman’s companion, a younger woman, stands beside her, curving her arm behind E’s shoulders, as if they knew one another. My husband counts in Vietnamese: một, hai, ba, which makes E. and the woman smile. The phone clicks, E. and her new friend separate, and E. turns to her and makes a little bow, perhaps in recognition that their images will be forever entwined in some way. But the woman has already moved on to peer over the other woman’s shoulder to see how the photo turned out, this souvenir of the blond-haired, pale-skinned foreigner.
I start to photograph the photographers, standing behind or to the side of them, placing them inside the frame along with my children. Turning these spectators into a spectacle feels like a small act of protection on my part, a protest against Sontag’s description of the photo as a violation, “turning people into objects that can be symbolically possessed.”
A couple of weeks later, in Ho Chi Minh City, a Vietnamese woman in an amusement park gestures to take R.’s photo. He shakes his head and hides behind me. I shrug my shoulders. I can’t make him cooperate. As we walk away, I ask him why he refused to pose. “She didn’t even have dark skin,” he says. “Why did she want my photo?”
I feel both aghast and vindicated. I’ve been worrying about how E. and R. are understanding this interest in photographing them, particularly because I don’t understand it myself. Like all parents, I think my kids are beautiful, but I know that’s not the reason for these requests. Many of the requesters are themselves tourists, visiting important historical and religious sites in their own countries. What projections do they bring to E. and R. when applying their own “tourist gaze”? Is posing with these foreign-looking children against such culturally significant backdrops a way of making themselves and their countries appear more cosmopolitan and important? Or is their motive for taking the photo more sinister—a way to possess E.’s and R’s whiteness, symbolically, at least?
But they aren’t white, at least not completely. My own father was mixed: a Creole from New Orleans, although he was light enough to pass for white and did. I didn’t find out about his racial ancestry until I was twenty-four, right before he died of prostate cancer. To have my children’s whiteness extracted and celebrated feels like a violation of everything I have done in an effort to embrace the identity that my father kept from me: I moved my family to a mixed neighborhood; I send my children to school with students who don’t look like them; I interact with people raised on the other side of the world in hopes of finding some moments of common humanity. I tell R. that the woman wanted his photograph because he is different, not because of his lighter skin. “And you’re cute,” I add.
But after Vietnam, as we travel through Cambodia, Myanmar, Korea, and Japan, R. refuses any further photo requests, crossing his arms in front of his face and even hurling a soccer ball at a group of Cambodian teenagers trying to take his picture at an English-language school in Battambang, Cambodia, where we are volunteering. I don’t know if this refusal stems from a sense that his looks are something to be prized and he is tired of giving them away so freely, or if he is refusing the implicit hierarchy behind these requests, or if he is simply tired of being the spectacle, the one who is different, and he just wants to be left alone.
Back in the United States, our first stop is Los Angeles. It’s a startling reentry. We marvel at so many different people in one place after being in so many places where we were the only different ones.
At “It’s a Small World” in Disneyland, we climb into a boat, surrounded by people whose variety suggests a rather wide world indeed. Chinese, Korean, and Mexican families file in around us.
The ride starts in “Europe,” a place full of happy children at play, singing against a vivid backdrop of blues and pinks. Blond girls in dirndls hold sheet music as they bob back and forth, boys and girls circle a pond in perpetuity, a band of little drummer boys beats its instruments cheerfully in unison. Windmills tilt on every hillside, and farm animals sway to the grating beat.
My daughter leans over to me and whispers, “Why does everyone have blond hair?”
We turn a corner to glide into “Asia” and the palette darkens. Flying carpets ridden by turbaned boys weave above us, girls peek from behind their veils, a troupe of dancers moves jerkily in imitation of Balinese dancers, while a Chinese dragon floats overhead.
We hear “Africa” before we see it—the jungle soundtrack of drumbeats and monkey screams. The animals outnumber the children. Dancing elephants and giraffes, more monkeys hanging from the ceiling. The dolls of the African children nestle amid the animals’ backs and trunks, in tune with these wild beasts. Their uniform Afros look like wigs, as if some other dolls had been repurposed for the Africa section with brown paint and hairpieces.
Asia and Africa, we learned in our travels, are the largest continents in the world. We float by the images of them in less than five minutes. On to “South America”! The “South Seas”! “America,” with tow-headed girls balanced on haystacks and boys twirling their lassos! Then the final scene, where all the world’s children promenade together harmoniously.
We have barely exited the boat when the children start cataloging all the ways the ride got it wrong. “We didn’t even see any jungles in Africa and lots of countries have monkeys,” E. scoffs. “There’re no flying carpets in India,” R. chimes in. There aren’t so many blond people in the world either, they agree. More people have dark hair.
They are outraged by the falseness of these representations. They fret that other children who take this ride will not only form a wrong idea of what the world is like, but one that peddles the stereotypes about jungles and snake charmers that they held before they saw these places for themselves.
We could tell them that this ride is straight-up 1964. We could describe it as a hopeful fiction about world peace, produced by Pepsi for New York’s World Fair in a time of great uncertainty following the Cuban Missile Crisis. We could say that the world peddles its share of fictions too.
But we don’t. We’re proud they’ve seen through it themselves. Perhaps their perspective was widened during all those months of watching their parents struggle with how to frame what we were seeing and how we were being seen. Or perhaps this is an illusion, another picture that we’re taking. I hope that our trip nurtured in them an ability to look at things critically, and to know that in life, as in photos, there is more to the story than what meets the eye. Returning home, where we show the pictures we took and tell stories of our trip, I realize I may only know one thing for certain: our children are watching.