Ethiopian Culture / Immigrant Life / Teaching in Wenzhou / Travel: China

Photonappers.

Anyone knows better than to provoke a bride on her wedding day, and anyone knows better than to take an unauthorized picture of her. Unless you are the hired photographer, family or an invited guest, you know better.

But if you are an Arab or White guest of the Addis Ababa Sheraton – one of  the chosen in the chain’s Luxury Collection – you somehow (or for reasons of ancient history) consider yourself exempt form the above rule of common sense, decency, and basic good manners.

To you, the sight of a beautiful Ethiopian wedding party – bride, groom, groomsmen, bridesmaids and the little ones – dressed to the Western nines, is just as exotic as a Thomson’s gazelle roaming in the Serengeti. You would no more ask the bride permission to take her picture than you would the gazelle.

You make no effort to be discreet about your soul-snatching, either. You walk to within yards of where the photographer is at work. There is no concealing the fact that your flip phone (you have to skimp somewhere, I guess) is aimed directly at her, the bride, as you snap numerous pictures to your satisfaction. Does it matter to you that you might be in the pro’s way? Likely not. You simply must have your piece of exotica to take home and regale your friends with over a glass of brandy, against which the lights of your slide projector will flicker and flit.

“I saw a real live couple of Ethiopians getting married, taking pictures at the Sheraton Addis.” Funny that there isn’t a trace of “traditional” about the people you’ve photographed. We couldn’t be more Western, more color and style coordinated, savvier in attitude, if we tried.

So what makes your story worth telling, you who have ventured into Africa? What made you turn thief for an instant, whilst parading in the civilized glory that is the Third World Luxury Collection Sheraton Addis?

In any other city, better yet, in your own city, you would immediately be considered suspect in the sickest sense if you call a little flower girl over to you across a hotel lobby and have your picture taken with her. Here, though, you feel entitled. She’s just an object of curiosity, not someone’s child, not the cousin of the older bridesmaid who just sprang to her four-inch heeled feet with every intention of blasting your head off.

I suppose one could choose to be flattered to be, on your wedding day, the object of random passer-bys’ precious digital memory space. With permission asked, with permission granted, with a solid reason given for the intrusion and with the taker being of a similar mind as you, it would be tolerable, enjoyable, yes. But with the taker being of a race who is too comfortable with the role, the blatant, uninvited participation in your special day is infuriating, objectifying, and taints a precious, private moment.

What is it that makes you stop and pull out your camera? That the couple is locals in the Sheraton? That you suspect the bride, who is so light-skinned, is perhaps an Arab? That the couple is locals who look so damn good? That the couple is locals? That the couple is?

Perhaps too much is being made out of nothing. To date, the bride herself is not heard to have commented on the incident of the random photonappers. Even if she had, much as she had on her mind, her response would probably be no more than “how rude” or “so rude”, give or take. Perhaps the average response – depending on your level of vanity – is to be flattered, or slightly annoyed or just not bothered.

Having been the object of stranger photonappers in Wenzhou, however, your own perspective is necessarily and permanently altered.

No odder feeling probably exists than having random strangers in a city – a country – of random strangers approach you and, in sign language or no language, ask to take your picture. No good reason exists for the request, other than the obvious one that you are a strange, rare, possibly once-in-a-lifetime sighting and they want to have a record to show their friends and family (in the short term) and their grandchildren (in the long term). For you live in a city where foreigners will certainly be rare sightings even at the time of the grandchildren of the current photonappers.

Suggestions have been made that these photonappers should be charged a nominal, or perhaps not so nominal, fee for the privilege of your image. Twenty Renmibi, say. Fair enough, you say, and plan to put the idea into action.

But what of those who don’t ask you, who surreptitiously, stealthily, sneakily, try/succeed in photonapping you when they think you’re not looking or cannot sense them? It’s as if they don’t want to scare the wildlife, or provoke it. As if they want to catch it in its’ most natural state, if not in its’ natural habitat. It is those who most dehumanize you. Or, rather, make you feel most dehumanized. Of course, it’s impossible to literally dehumanize anyone. Even the momentary setback leaves a slight impression, though. There is no stranger feeling, no more alienating feeling, than to be the unacknowledged central image of someone’s chosen image.

Others, though, will make a fuss of being even someone’s unacknowledged background image, the unintended filler, so to speak.

Ethiopians are a camera-shy people by nature – blatant wedding day posing by the new generation in the Sheraton gardens aside – except when they are performing. Then, well, it’s a given that you can photonap away, provided you pass them a little something every now and then, to show respect.

What to make, though, of the random azmari-bet guest, sitting on the far wall, who decides to pick a row over a tourists’ photonapping of the singers and dancers? He can be said to have taken offence at the fact that one of his own – many years and experiences removed from the homeland, no question – should choose to turn a piece of her own culture in to an object. When he springs from his seat, crosses the narrow room, and looms over her in all his drunken, poverty-stricken, beer gut distending indignation at her picture-taking. What is he really mad at? Is it because she’s a local? Is it because she’s a local taking pictures? Is it because she’s a local from abroad taking pictures of what should be fellow locals? Is it because she is?

Each thing that you choose to preserve in some sort of permanent external memory is so because you chose to give some value to it. Irony alert: the value you give, or think you give, can just as easily be a form of devaluing. The professional photographers’ work on the bride values her and all that she has done to reach that moment. The intruders’ work on the bride devalues her and reduces her, despite all she has done to reach that moment, to an exotic object in an unexpected setting.

Interestingly, there haven’t been any requests for my photo in several weeks now. Not even the covert photonappers have been sighted/sensed. Can they tell that I’m not so new anymore? Is it in my walk? My talk? Or has news of my arrival already made the rounds in this tiny-by-Chinese-standards city of 2 million, and been relegated to the archives?

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