Tag Archives: travel

But What About Vivian Maier?

My post this week for Role/Reboot about not taking pictures of strangers is getting some traction. I’m always grateful for that kind of attention not only because it stokes my ego (stoked!) but because the more people who read something, the more likely it is that I get asked some tough, interesting questions. Shocking, I know, that I didn’t think of everything.

To refresh your memory, on the off chance that my words are not indelibly etched in your brain, I argued that the modern habit of snapping photos of strangers in public (at the beach, on the train, behaving badly, etc) and posting them online to mock is tantamount to bullying. I hinged my argument on permission (as always, consent is sexy), suggesting that if what you’re doing is complimentary (i.e. street style galleries, etc), you’d be comfortable asking permission of your subject. If you wouldn’t be comfortable asking, you’re probably being a creep. Note: Not a criminal, but a creep; this is an ethical argument, not a legal one.

So what’s the counter argument?

BUT WHAT ABOUT ART????? 

1954, New York, NYWhat about art? What about photography like that of Vivian Maier, the little known, recently discovered photographer who left her nannying job in Oak Park every weekend to come into the city and take photographs? Many of her photos are of average citizens waiting for stoplights, smoking on corners, or, like Instagrams of today, dozing on  buses. Some are head-on portraits that imply willing participation of her subjects, but many are clearly not.

December 2, 1954, New York, NY

Why is Vivian Maier’s “art” more valid than the ‘grammer on the train capturing the guy picking his nose and hashtagging it #digdeep? Can we call one nonconsensual stranger photo art and another harassment? Aren’t both equal invasions of privacy? Our modern age gives us tools to share our invasive “art”, whereas Vivian’s photography lay dormant in boxes for decades. But don’t we think that had Vivian been alive in 2014, she’d be Instagramming along with the rest of us?

In my post, I made a blanket rule “Don’t take pictures of strangers without their permission,” and many people pushed back that, if obeyed, my rule would eliminate the work of artists like Maier.

Yes, it might.

April 7, 1960. FloridaBefore we continue down this path, let’s weed out the dickwads who are straight-up bullying on purpose; we can all agree that their intent is to mock.

But many of us fancy ourselves capturers of beauty or longing or the human experience or whatever; we don’t think we’re bullies, we think we’re artists. The only way to justify our invasion of someone else’s space is to convince ourselves that the thing we’re producing is more valuable than that person’s comfort.

Let me give you an example: I just got back from Chile. In the many hundreds of photos I took, there are a few in which I am intentionally taking pictures of strangers without their permission. A handful are of performers, people on stages or performing in parades; though I’m still a little uncomfortable with that, let’s even discount those as potentially justifiable. But what about this one:

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This guy is just hanging out, watching the parade from his house. He didn’t wave at me, we didn’t acknowledge each other, he in no way, shape, or form gave an OK for me to take his photo, much less post it on FB*. Which I did. Without even thinking twice. Am I mocking? Teasing? Shaming? Not intentionally, no. But, as we discuss all the time, I don’t get to decideMy intention taking this photo is not what makes it ethically sound or not; his perception of me is. Does he feel like the gringa is abusing her privilege? Does he feel patronized or reduced or mocked? Does he feel like he’s being treated as a Chilean prop I’m using to commemorate my travels? I don’t know, I didn’t ask. Although I didn’t intend the photo to be any of those things, in this case I’m equivalent to the cat-caller/harasser/privacy-invader/slur-slinger who “didn’t mean it that way.”

So what now? Let’s say you believe that the world is better with Vivian Maier’s photography in it. I sure appreciate it. I’m pretty uncomfortable with how we got it, but let’s say there actually is small portion of art for which we are willing to make ethical compromises. We do it all the time, right R. Kelly fans?  Picasso fans? Hemingway fans? Roman Polanski fans? We separate our appreciation for art from how it was made or the crimes of the people who made it, especially when those crimes contribute to how it was made (you think when R. Kelly sings about panties and pussy he’s always talking about women over 18? Really?).

What percent of nonconsensual pictures of strangers are worth the ethical compromise? A very, very, very, almost microscopically small percentage. Which ones? Whose bar are we using? Well, obviously, I don’t get to decide, and neither do you. The question is, is the photo you’re about to take one of them? Is the photo I took of the Chilean man in that microscopically small slice of pictures worth the queasy feeling that someone’s privacy is being invaded? Hell no.

The question is, do you think you’re Vivian Maier? If not, then knock it off.

*I’ve since taken it down, ditto any other non-performance pictures of strangers. 

Related Post: My memoir will be called “Is My Optimism Really Just White Privilege?”

Related Post: When you’re feeling attacked, you’re probably just having your privilege challenged.

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10 Days in Chile: A Not Remotely Exhaustive Gallery of Valparaiso Murals

The sunburn faded. My delicate stomach is back to its natural equilibrium. My suitcase is unpacked and back under my bed. It’s kind of hard to believe that less than a week ago, I was here:

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The glacial lake at Cajon de Maipo, outside of Santiago, Chile

I spent 10 days in and around Santiago, from Valparaiso to the Valle de Elqui, traveling with a dear friend and making some new ones. We saw sea lions dozing on harbor rocks, hiked snow-covered peaks, ate sopaipilla upon sopaipilla and palta upon palta, gazed at the Milky Way through the clearest sky in the hemisphere, and even took a yoga class in Spanish (turns out Sanskrit is Sanskrit wherever you go).

In the Museum of Memory and Human Rights I listened to Allende’s last address to the country while La Moneda was bombed around him. In the Salvador Allende Museum of Solidarity and Resistance, I saw works of art by Miro and Picasso donated to the people of Chile. In the homes of Pablo Neruda, salt and pepper shakers were labeled Morphine and Marijuana, water tasted better in red and green glass, and merry-go-round horses were repurposed into living room decor. In the Chilean Museum of Pre-Colombian Art, I saw Mapuche grave markers, Andean weaving, and Inca quipus (knotted string accounting tools).

And then there were the murals of Valparaiso. Chicago is not known as a city of great street art (though we do have a few notable exceptions), and so I always find myself stunned by the simple joy of paint on walls in other cities. Not that this is just paint on walls, no, it’s anything but your average scrawled signature or fuck-the-man anti-establishment tagging. This is gorgeous, moving art that nestles itself between buildings, becoming part of the architecture of the city instead of merely hanging on the side of it. A few examples, but believe me, I could go on:

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Related Post: Bringing back lady art

Related Post: On the Inca Trail

 

 

 

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America, According to Simone

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SdB + NA FOREVER

I just read Simone de Beauvoir’s travel journals, America Day by Day, a chronicle of her 1947 three-month journey across the US of A. From New York to San Francisco, LA to New Orleans, DC to Boston, de Beauvoir travels solo on a tour of college campuses and along the way occasionally reunites with her lover Nelson Algren, Richard Wright, Marcel Duchamp, and other famous and semi-famous writers and artists of the era.

De Beauvoir’s discovery of America is a strange mix of attempted conquest, intellectual competition, and condescending observations on American “simplicity” overlaid with the conflicted envy of an outsider looking in on a party she’s not even sure she wants to attend.

America, according to Simone de Beauvoir:

Here the creams are creamy, the soaps are soapy: this honesty is a forgotten luxury.

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I drink Scotch docilely because scotch is one of the keys to America.
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Men remain bareheaded, but many of the young people stick fur puffs over their ears fixed to a half-circle of plastic that sits on their hair like a ribbon–it’s hideous.
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There’s always some holiday going on in America; it’s distracting.
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In America, the individual is nothing. He is made into an abstract object of worship; by persuading him of his individual value, one stifles the awakening of a collective spirit in him.
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America is a box full of surprises.
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Americans are nature lovers, but they accept only a nature inspected and corrected by man.
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But in the end, people are always faced with what they wanted to escape: the arid basis of American life– boredom.
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How I regret being unable to love more unstintingly a country where the reign of man is affirmed with such magnificence, where the love of one’s fellow man seems at first sight so easy to achieve?
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All human problems are posed here on a gigantic scale; and to a greater degree, the solutions they find here will illuminate these problems, retrospectively, in a moving way or swallow them up in the night of indifference.
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America is one of the pivotal points of the world, where the future of man is being playing out. To “like” America, to “dislike” it–these words have no meaning. It is a battlefield, and you can only become passionate about the battle it is waging with itself, in which the stakes are beyond measure.
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And just for kicks, de Beauvoir on Chicago:
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It’s hard to breathe in the lobby [Palmer], which is permeated by a stifling heat and the thick scent of dollars.
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At least I had a glance behind the painted set. I saw a real city, tragic and ordinary, fascinating like all cities where men of flesh and blood live and struggle by the millions.
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And one of my favorite descriptions:
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He also writes about gastronomy and world affairs. The last piece was entitled “Mayonnaise and the Atomic Bomb”
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Related Post: What does one need to watch to have really watched everything? Recommended viewing.
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Talkin’ Harassment & India on the Radio

tumblr_static_13_vocalo_tumblr__4_Yesterday morning I joined Molly Adams, Brian Babylon, and Siri Bulusu on Vocalo’s morning program to discuss last week’s brouhaha about the CNN iReport article on India and harassment culture. Remember that brouhaha? It was before the Miley brouhaha. We should make a calendar to keep all the brouhahas straight, don’t you think?

If you recall, the issue here is decidedly NOT questioning the author’s personal experience in India, but rather questioning the tone and context of her article. Questions to think about:

  • What are our obligations to contextualize our suffering on the scale of greater suffering? 
  • How much do we need to call out our own privilege to avoid sounding off on the “plight of the white woman”?
  • What can we do to condemn harassment, sexual assault and rape without stereotyping an entire nation of men?
  • How do we acknowledge the particular problems of one country while simultaneously recognizing that we have similar problems of our own?
  • Is it appropriating to relate the trauma of other people who do not have access to the megaphones we have in order to justify our own trauma? Is there a way to do that gracefully and justly?

As always, I enjoy my time with the Morning Amp crew and look forward to future discussions of tricky issues in gender and media.

Related Post: Discussing Lean In on Vocalo

Related Post: Discussing Jerry Lewis and the responsibility of celebrity on Vocalo

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Complicated Feelings about Tourism, Harassment, Gender, Other Buzzwords

Screenshot_8_20_13_1_24_PMI have been thinking about this essay [trigger warning] about a white woman traveling in India a lot. Have you read it yet?  It’s making the rounds, but because I share her alma mater, it’s been tearing up my newsfeed. The gist of it is that the author, a college student studying abroad, was traumatized by the culture of sexual harassment, objectification, and assault that she experienced first and secondhand during her travels. She has since been diagnosed with PTSD. A sample:

I covered up, but I did not hide. And so I was taken, by eye after eye, picture after picture. Who knows how many photos there are of me in India, or on the internet: photos of me walking, cursing, flipping people off. Who knows how many strangers have used my image as pornography, and those of my friends. I deleted my fair share, but it was a drop in the ocean– I had no chance of taking back everything they took.

I’m having all kinds of feelings, so let’s do it this way…

On the one hand… This woman is entitled to her experience. I have also traveled in India as a single white female. I had a very different experience than the one she describes. Although I also had my picture taken a million times, had inappropriate questions asked, was stared at, and received two marriage proposals (which I politely declined), I did not experience any physical harassment. I felt that the stares were primarily based in curiosity, at my looks and at the audacity of a woman of my status to travel alone, not objectification.

When I first read this essay, I was tempted to roll my eyes. That’s a lie. I did roll my eyes, and I am now embarrassed that I did so. Part of me wanted to tell her to toughen up, brush it off. I am embarrassed by that response as well. Her experiences were different than mine (as mine are different from yours) and even if they had been similar, she is allowed to feel differently about the experience than I do. This seems obvious as I type it, but as I was reading, I was having an immature, judgmental, condescending reaction to her words.

On the other hand…She’s not a soldier. She’s not an aid worker. She’s a tourist. She can leave, so leave. She has all of the resources to stop the source of her trauma. She doesn’t live in India. She is not a resident who contends with the threat of rape and assault on a daily basis without the benefit of a return flight. Her harassment might be amplified by her red hair, but as recent tragedies would suggest, Indian women and girls are in no way immune from the the treatment she received. She is now back in the United States receiving treatment for PTSD. Her essay doesn’t acknowledge that this is a perpetual state for many; is PTSD even an acknowledged illness in India? She is lucky, as am I. We get to globe-trot, we get to explore, we get to be the solo lady travelers. We live in countries where we can vote and drive and have sex without being stoned and wear what we want and live alone and call the police when we need help and work and so many other things.

On the other hand… Sexual harassment is never okay. When one travels, there are obviously customs that are different in the countries you visit and, within reason, it is healthy and respectful to try to observe them. You should not travel expecting to recreate your experiences at home wherever you go; a Big Mac is not a Big Mac in India, it’s made of chicken and it’s called a Maharaja Mac. There may not be hot water. There might be bugs. It will smell differently, etc. etc. etc. But, sexual harassment and assault are not acceptable, even if they are more common in some parts of the world than others. While a “When in Rome,” attitude is usually a plus, “When I’m in Rome, I’ll get groped on the train,” is not cool.

I’m ashamed that I shrugged at her experience. I almost threw her the most insulting, patronizing response to her trauma, “What did you expect?” WHOA, Emily, NOT OKAY. You’re wearing yoga pants, what did you expect would happen? You’re drinking and dancing, what did you expect? You’re pretty, what did you expect? The “What did you expect” is a close cousin of “You were asking for it,” and we know that you are NEVER asking for it and that that is a line for the weak and the cowardly.

On the next hand… I can’t help but think about my own experience traveling in India and elsewhere. My experience has been overwhelmingly positive with a few blips of shittiness here and there and consequently my instinct is to declare that this makes me a “better” traveler than the author. My second instinct is to call bullshit on myself. Differentiation–“she’s not like me”–is the classic first step in victim blaming. If she’s not like me, then she’s somehow responsible for what happened to her, which would never happen to me,  because we are fundamentally different, and on and on. It’s a common defense mechanism to help calm the fear that it could happen to anyone (because, intellectually, we all know… it could happen to anyone).

There are at least three other hands to consider … (please feel free to add in the comments!), but I’m tired of talking about this. I am sympathetic for her experience. I am irritated at the essay’s “plight of the white woman” vibe. I am even more irritated that I identify with it. I feel pretty helpless in the face of the level of harassment and assault in India. If I’m honest, I feel pretty helpless in the face of harassment and assault here at home too.

So yeah, there’s that. 

Related Post: What to do when you lose your wallet.

Related Post: Pro tips for solo-traveling ladies

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S(Monday) Scraps 108

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1. AUTHORS: 50 places every literary fan should visit, according to Flavorwire. I’ve been to one…

2. OITNB: If you are not watching Orange is the New Black I don’t even really know what to say to you anymore. Anyway, Autostraddle has an in-depth look at the differences between the memoir and the show.

3. RACE: After Don Lemon’s awful advice to black people (pull up your pants!) Jay Smooth takes him to task on the Ill Doctrine and explains how pulling up one’s pants does diddly squat to solve institutionalized inequality.

4. PRIVILEGE: Doug Muder’s The Weekly Sift very articulately picks apart the “distress of the privilege” with examples from Pleasantville to Chick-fil-A.

5. BRAZIL: Suketu Meta (author of Maximum City) writes for the New York Review of Books about his experience traveling in the favelas of Brazil.

6. ADVICE: George Saunders, who I love, gave a stellar commencement address to Syracuse about kindness.

Related Post: Sunday 107: Millennial worry, mermaids, Amanda Palmer, etc.

Related Post: Sunday 106: Dustin Hoffman, sex education, Rob Delaney and more

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No Wallet? No Problem.

Excited to share my second piece for travel site Go GirlAs you know, I lost my wallet while adventuring around Peru. In the twelve hours of panic before I solved my problem, I learned a few things about being money-less and credit card-less. Where to go? Who to talk to? What are your resources?

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P.S. That picture’s obviously not in Peru. That’s me at the Lodhi Gardens in Delhi, but this advice is cross-continental.

Related Post: My first Go Girl piece about the Inca Trail.

Related Post: 5 Pro-Tips for Women Traveling the World (for Thought Catalog).

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