The Ethics of Travel Photography

In the film Before Sunset, Helene talks about her boyfriend, a photographer.  They were walking and saw a homeless man, and it troubled her that while her reaction was sympathy and empathy, her boyfriend lined up a shot, even adjusting the man’s collar so it would look better. 

I took only two pictures in the trash city of Cairo, the Zebelline.  I have almost no pictures of street children or people who begged for money.  Part of the issue is that when things become second nature, you forget that they’re worth capturing.  The other part is that sometimes, it just seemed wrong. 

Whenever I ponder this I am reminded of the Pullitzer Prize-winning photo of a starving child in Sudan.  While the photo of the beyond-emaciated child raised much awareness, the author, Kevin Carter, later commited suicide.  Do you have a responsibility, as a photographer/journalist to capture the scene but leave it untouched, unhelped?  What about the people who look for the worst of things for their pictures?  I definitely could have manipulated my Egypt pictures to make the place look more wealthy, poor, western, urban, rural or exotic. 

There’s also the logistics of photography.  Some people never come out from behind the lense, never enjoy themselves.  Some of my best, most interesting, most National Geographic-worthy moments are not captured on film because I was too busy living them.  I don’t have a picture of swing dancing on a fellucca boat on the Nile, or dancing in a street wedding in Alexandria.  I didn’t take any pictures in the Khan el-Khalily market because I wanted to seem like an ex-pat who knew the drill, not a dazed tourist who would pay triple. 

Somehow, for me, having a better quality camera takes you from tourist to photohrapher, and makes it all seem more artistic than exploitative. 

Do you ever feel uncomfortable taking pictures?  Do you feel like having a legit camera makes it more acceptable?  Is it messing with journalistic integrity to help the person after you click?  What about as a humanitarian–do you risk jeoprodizing your research status to help someone?  Or do you leave them in hopes that your continued ability to research will help more people in the long run?

Blogging is, like, hard

Tumblr was first described to me by what I can only assume was a very vapid and intoxicated young woman as, “like, blogging that’s like easier.  So like everyone can do it.”

Um, yeah. 

Pardon me, internet-using public, but I thought the whole point of blogging was that it is easier than say, writing a book or landing a column in print.  Blogging is for everyone.  Sure, I assume those who write good ones and those who write more regularly have a harder time.  But it’s not like there are rules and standards for Joe Schmoe blogs.  Post however much or little you want, or be like most of America and start a blog to which you will post nothing. 

Is this where we’re at, internet?  Making shorthand for our shorthand?

I may sound like the internet equivalent of a print journalist, griping about how the moronic masses will steal from a legitimate art, but come on.  There’s twitter if you feel the need to micro-blog, or facebook if you feel the need to do that but be incapable of understanding what you’re doing, and have it not work as well. 

Tumblr is essentially a home for brain farts, as Mr. Carroll used to call them.  It’s a home for your ADD.  Ahh i like this song.  and this picture.  and complaining for two seconds.  But I don’t really like words.  Done and done, you are a tumblr master. 

Chances are, if we’re friends, you already send me the random links that float through your brain.  And if we’re not, I don’t really need to see them in uber-truncated form. 

So do the internet a favor, and if you have something to say, say it.  If you don’t, please stick to the already wildly popular forms of expression the internet has afforded you: twitter, facebook and im.

A Lesson in Window Dressing from Mr. Carroll

In my Freshman year of high school, in Mr. Carroll’s class, I suddenly found myself getting yelled at.  For yawning.  I hadn’t even realized I’d done it, cuz I was tired and fourteen, but I immediately started arguing back, citing a study I had recently read about come people’s predisposition to yawning (to the point where just reading the word triggers it).  I yawned involuntarily several times the argument, as well as this paragraph, whcih didn’t help matters. 

He looked at me, with that look he gives, and said “You know you can dance circles around me all you want, and you’re probably right, but that’s not the point.  There’s a way to do it, and there’s a way to do it Harrington.”

And he was right.  My gesture was truly thoughtless in the purest sense, but it doesn’t change the fact that it was insulting.  A year later, on the first day of school, a different history teacher threatened to jam a nalgene bottle into a student’s jaws if he ever yawned like that in his class again.  A little intense, but keep in mind this is a man who bit his dog back in order to teach him a lesson.  (No, the dog never bit him again.  Unfortunately, he didn’t employ the same technique to teach his child.) 

The way you do something matters.  The other day a woman I work with came in and asked me to do a favor.  A whole bunch of crazy landed on her that day, and she didn’t have time to get something done.  “So, even though I know this is way below your pay grade, would you have time to do this for me?” she asked. 

And I gladly did.  She acknowledged that I was doing her a personal favor, and that she knows I am both capable of and paid to do more complicated tasks than photcopying and mailing. 

She found the right way to do it.

House of God

I never realized till I went to France just how comforting I find houses of worship.

We were wandering around Rouen (allegedly “touring”) and I was a homesick mess.  I had left the US almost directly from the junior prom with my boyfriend and I knew he wouldn’t be there when I got back.  I had  only slept 7 of the previous 57 hours by the time I got to my first day in France.  It was colder than I thought and I didn’t have warm enough clothes or blankets, I had eaten a baby cow without knowing it, and I had been forced to eat congealed orange coconut something or other out of la politesse.  Finally, no one seemed to comprehend my need to sleep or my unintelligible, sleep-deprived French.

So in this state of mind, I looked at old french things and tried not to fall asleep or kill anyone.  I also tried to eat a butter and ham and butter and cheese sandwich.  Then we went into l’Église Jean d’Arc, or Joan of Arc church.

The church is made with pieces from the old stone cathedral combined with both new and old wooden parts.  Given the damage from the first world war, the citizens of Rouen feared for the safety of their architectural and religious wonders and so dismantled them for reconstruction later.  The inside looks like the inside of a boat, with fishing allusions everywhere.  The pews (benches for the heathens) are curved pieces of wood carved whole.  I just sat there and soaked the place in, and felt the beauty and the familiar, despite being an ocean and a language away from home.

That was the first time I realized that being in a church calms me down and makes me comfortable.

But the serenity I feel is not limited to churches.  Some days, I wander in to St. Cecelia’s or Mission Church, better known as the place where Teddy Kennedy’s funeral was held.  But in Egypt, one of my absolute favorite places was the Citadel and al-Azhar Mosque.  We were there when it was rather quiet and empty, and entirely serene.  I’m told it’s not usually like this, but I loved it.  You could just tell it was a holy place.  I walked around alone and barefoot, comfortable (despite the heat) in the several layers it took to be dressed appropriately.

We conversed in hushed whispers and looked out over what we knew to be a harrowingly chaotic city, but everything just felt like an exhale.


Paul Grew currently holds the title of Family Linguist, but I think I come in at a close second. 

Many people look at foreign languages as insurmountable and, well, foreign.  So here are a few tips from someone who has done pretty well for herself with language. 

  1. Don’t be afraid to sound like an idiot.  You need to speak in order to get better, and you will inevitably sound like a child.  Get over this and you will improve rapidly. 
  2. Look for cognates.  The better your english vocabulary and grammar is, the easier the other languages will be, especially if you go with a Germanic or Romance language.  Don’t worry if you’re bad at grammar, I’ve seen and experienced greater understanding of our own grammar concepts after learning the same one in a different language. 
  3. Pay attention the first time around.  I have been able to retain all those years of high school French avec Madame because I really learned and understood the concepts to begin with.  Now, when I review, it is just that. 
  4. See number one.  Yes, it’s that important that you speak often.  I came back from France a much better speaker than many of my friends because they were timid, so I was always the one ordering our food, asking for directions and trying to find the changing room.  Those who didn’t speak barely got anything out of the trip, linguistically. 
  5. Expose yourself to the language as much as possible.  This means movies, television shows, children’s books, music, whatever.  Your ear will get faster and your accent will improve. 

What’re your sure-fire tips for picking up/keeping up a language?  I know some of you are abroad now (Jackie) or will be soon (Miss Sarah) and some have had to deal with trying to maintain fluency after returning (Michelle.)  There are also a whole bunch of you who speak foreign languages (Aunt Sue, Dad, Kev) just as well if not better than me.  How did you do it?

¿Por Que?

I realize that the previous post adressing this topic never fully answered the question, but it was also a finished piece of writing. 

So here, in list form, are the reasons I’m going to Cuba:

  1. Practicar mi español.  I’m not worried about ever losing my French, and while I do worry about my Arabic, I have plans for that too.  NU can’t offer me competetive language courses in Boston, so elsewhere I shall go. 
  2. Economics.  There aren’t enough bleeding hearts in economics because classical economics is for assholes.  Sorry, but it’s true.  I will not be deterred, because I think Muhammad Yunus is a rockstar and that economics could be the key to eleveating many of the worlds problems.  That’s the connection between me and economics.  Do I need to make the connection between economics and Cuba?  No?  Good. 
  3. I need something to write about.  Yes, my self esteem is way too closely tied to this blog, but that’s not what I mean.  If you read what I had to say about Cuba being illegal as well as why I write this blog, this is a direction I want my life to go in.  I care about educating people and I think this is my best shot at it.  I have the priviledge to go to school where I do, travel to unusual places and posess the language skills to communicate with the local population.  It is my duty to pass on whatever I can from those experiences. 

Finally, there’s the biggie that I keep finding myself saying: I can’t say no.  If you had this opportunity, would you turn it down? 

That’s not rhetorical. 

Have you ever had the opportunity to travel somewhere (or do anything, reall) that you turned down?  I’ve had a couple, which I’ll talk about later, but I’d love to hear from you guys.


Many people have asked me “Why Cuba?” 

Most often, my answer is, “because it’s illegal.”  I’ve been told that this sounds childish.  No Kidding. 

In part, I am joking.  There is a certain appeal to going somewhere you shouldn’t, but there are many logical, acceptable reasons for me to go to Cuba. 

Then there’s the part of me that’s not kidding.  I do want to go places that are illegal and/or unlikely.  Why?  Because that’s what I want my life to be about.  So many Americans will never go to Cuba or the Middle East or a whole bunch of other places.  A big part of why I blog is to educate those who will never have this opportunity. 

I mean really, how often do you get to read a first-hand account of an American in Cuba? 

So perhaps I’m not being childish after all.  Perhaps I think it’s childish to be afraid of a country because of a decades-long and decades-old grudge.