When I’m travelling, like most, I adore taking pictures of the local people. There are some fantastic faces out there which seem to capture the essence of the country in a smile and I want these photos. But, I don’t believe in clicking like I’m a paparazzi on assignment. I have two rules when it comes to taking people pictures.
Rule #1, whenever possible, ask for permission.
Rule #2, be forthcoming and respectful.
There have been a few people whom I have requested permission to take their photo and have been rewarded with more than a smile. I’d like to share one of these occasions, when I had the pleasure of getting to know the person behind the face. But before I do so, I will give you a little background about my fascination with monks.
I remember my first monk sighting at Siem Rep, in Cambodia and feeling much like a child poking my companion in the ribs with an excited whisper, “There’s one. There’s one.” You’d think that the novelty of seeing monks would have died down after 6 months of travelling through Buddhist countries and 17 days at a Thai Buddhist meditation retreat but—it didn’t. I am as captivated as ever—in awe of their peaceful life style, their serenity. Even the gentle swishing of their robes, as they appear to glide rather than walk over the earth’s surface caused me to stop enthralled by their every step.
Now, I am not the only one who is charmed by monks. I have seen many tourists putting their digital cameras to good use trying to capture monks as they go about their daily routine. Whether it be on the sweltering streets of Bangkok, chanting in a candle lit temple in the darkened depths of the Bayon Temple in Cambodia, sitting cross-legged on the back of a motorcycle on a dusty side street in Luang Prabang, Laos or reading under a shaded tree in Yangon, Myanmar. Some of the pictures I have taken are candid while others have willing posed upon request.
This brings me back to my point about being rewarded by more than a smile. Out of all my monk pictures I have a favourite and it’s not because it’s the perfect backdrop, great lighting or a flawlessly posed subject with their eyes open. It’s perfect because I had the pleasure of getting to know the person in the photograph before I enacted rule #1.
While visiting Pha That Luang pagoda in Vientiane, Laos a novice shyly approached me wanting to practice his English. He was 17 years old, very self-conscious, lean and had a shaved head which was darker in the spots where the hair would soon require another shave. His face was almond shaped, his eyes as dark as chocolate and there was a kindness and a calm to him.
As we spoke, it soon became apparent that conversing in English required a great deal of effort. He spoke very slowly; carefully pondering each word. When he couldn’t recall a word his eyes shut, lips pursed in intense concentration—sometimes both hands would come up and rest on his cheeks in an effort to squeeze out the right word. He was adamant at trying to figure it out for himself and if he couldn’t only then would he ask for my assistance. I’m not sure if the gratification that lit up his face when he remembered or, learned new vocabulary was more rewarding for him, or for me.
His veracious appetite for the English language extended to the world beyond what was familiar to him. He was interested in me, in my life, in Canada. He wanted to know…if I had parents, why did I have only one sister? Did my parents really only want two children? What was like to be a teacher? Did I like teaching? What’s it like in Canada? What does snow feel like? What do you wear when it’s cold?
I also wanted to know about him and his life and how he came to the monastery. And, here’s what he told me. He was from the south and lived in a bamboo-stilted house and was the youngest of four boys from a very poor family. He came to the monastery when he was 10 because his mother had been very sick and died and his father could no longer care for him. He told me with tears in his that he still missed his mother. He missed his father, and he missed his brothers and the life they had together. He went on to further share, “We were very, very poor. But we were very, very happy.”
Of the hundreds of people photos I have taken, I am saddened to say that I usually don’t know a lot about the person behind the smile. And, now over a decade later, as I sit here and look at his picture I am reminded that all of the faces in our travel photos have a story. People are more than just a face who we’ve deemed interesting or intriguing—a face that is picture worthy. Although, many travel pictures often happen on fly there are occasions--such as the conversation with the novice, when I had the pleasure of getting to know the person in my photograph. And, for me this is what travel is all about and I am so incredibly grateful for these encounters.
Activist, World traveller. Fan of Reese's Peanut Butter Cups.