|Photo credit: Jonathan Ekka|
“You can take a picture,” she said, pausing with her hands on the loom, looking up at me expectantly.
She had been showing me how to weave the colorful woolen scarves that filled the walls of the women´s micro-business, pumping her feet and passing the loom´s shuttle quickly back and forth. It took her three days to finish weaving one scarf, she told me. And then she paused so I could photograph her.
I hadn´t brought my camera, so she turned back to the scarf, deftly weaving a few more rows before getting up to show me bracelets she had made. When I left the business, two beautiful woven headbands in my pocket, what she had said continued to play in my head: “You can take a picture.”
It was what our guide had been saying to us all morning: “We´ll stop here so you can take your picture,” he would say, or “There will be great pictures up ahead.”
When we arrived in the Mayan village, children swarmed around us trying to sell us cornhusk dolls as their mothers watched from nearby houses. “Let us sing the National Anthem in (Mayan) Chorti,” they begged us, and finally I said, okay, and the children burst out into a lusty rendition of Honduras´ Himno Nacional.
“You can film them,” our guide said and the children nodded as he repeated: “You can take their picture.” I didn´t, though if I had a camera, perhaps I would have. I reached into my pocket for my smallest bills and the children took them and ran off.
“Say thank you,” the guide reproached them, and they did, but they knew what I knew – that it had been a commercial exchange.
Tourism is built around the assumption that we will want to photograph what we see, that we will want to pause in front of monuments to be photographed next to them, and that we will want to capture somehow the roguish smiles of the children in torn clothes or the weaving woman with the tired face and deft hands.
In the land where their ancestors made towering statues in their images, these people are in the business of selling their own images, exchanging a photo for the purchase of their handiwork, or a few pennies for a snapshot of a song.
The permission they give is transactional. A flash, and their image is mine to keep, to save, to use to tell the story I wish. This is not for me to condemn. How could I condemn a way of surviving? But it is for me to be aware of, to guard against seeking out pathos with my camera – to focus the lens on the woman´s face when I had not even asked her name.
I thought I would write my way to an answer, but I have none. Just the memory, unrecorded, of hands darting back and forth, a perfunctory smile, and in quiet Spanish: “You can take a picture.”