Cultural Attitudes Toward Photography

Photography is everywhere, but that doesn’t mean that we are always comfortable with it. Imagine a stranger coming up to you on the street and asking to take your photograph. What would you say? I’ve noticed something interesting about the photographs that I’ve taken in Rwanda: few of them include people. Those that do are often of schoolchildren or of people I’ve photographed from behind while walking on a sidewalk. It only took me a few days in this country to sense that the culture here is very reserved and private. Requests I’ve made to take a photo are not met with bashful smiles and giggles, but sometimes an unapologetic “No.” Allowing your photograph to be taken seems to be a sensitive subject. As a result, I have become somewhat camera-shy—not in the traditional sense of being embarrassed to have my photo taken, but afraid to accidentally offend someone by taking their photo.

Which is why it was important that I met this morning with the parents of the teenagers that will participate in our first photography class in Rwanda. We will loan cameras to the youth in this class and ask them to take photographs in their homes and communities of the people, places, and activities that are most important to them. These students are patients at an HIV/AIDS clinic, and one of the goals of this photography program is to help them expand and express their senses of identity beyond their HIV status. They will become the photographers of their own lives and their families will have to adapt to the new presence of a camera in their homes.

But I was surprisingly pleased to see that all the parents were not only receptive to this idea and happy to have their children participate, but even inquired about whether additional photography classes would be offered after this first one concludes. It seems that our students’ parents are warmly open to the goals of our photography program. Far from having a stranger taking photographs in their homes, this will be an opportunity to see their world through their children’s eyes.