One of my favorite things in life is shooting pictures on the street. Candid shots of life unfolding. The confluence of people and situations that somehow make more than the sum of their parts. Under the best possible circumstances, with a little luck, these things add up to be art. Mostly they just add up and up and make rolls of film and SD cards full of nearly-there shots, maddeningly close to what could’ve been. They add up to a day spent walking a city, banging away, and never really coming away with what you were after. But what sounds maddening to some: the randomness, the circumstances beyond control, the coming so close and failing time and again—that’s what I love about it. That’s what will keep me coming back day after day, city after city, roll after roll: looking for the shot. I’m so happy chasing it, I would hardly do anything else if given the chance. I love street shooting.
This is also why I find being back in Tanzania so frustrating photographically. In a country so heavily reliant on tourism, the foreigner with a camera is generally reviled. People in the city especially are remarkably camera averse, especially if it’s some mzungu raising up with a DSLR and firing away. They don’t like it, and I don’t like putting people in situations they don’t like. In American cities, it’s easier—there’s an understanding that cities are busy, and people are constantly moving and recording, and so the average citizen generally grasps that by appearing in public, someone could take their picture. Those that don’t are few and far between. But here in Tanzania, street shooting is antithetical to what’s acceptable in public, and I really don’t feel like getting yelled at ten times a day. You can’t really sit down and explain the concepts of art photography, reasonable expectation of privacy and fair use to everyone you meet, especially if you’re out here trying to take candids.
There’s other reasons, too. Bag snatching from the windows of cars is huge in the city. It’s happened to friends of mine in just about every neighborhood in Dar es Salaam. It happened not too long ago just up the street from where I’m staying. It’s real. So I really don’t feel 100% safe walking around with an expensive camera over my shoulder—just about anywhere, anytime in the city. This is also true back home, but in a much smaller way. I feel very safe very much of the time, and when I don’t, it’s because I’m places where I wouldn’t feel safe whether I had a camera or not.
But most of all, I struggle with whether or not pictures in Tanzania are inherently exotifying. Am I representing the people of Tanzania as regular people or am I trading on their otherness to make the pictures more interesting? Does it even matter what I’m doing (as I firmly believe it’s the former) if the negative effect is what’s happening with the viewer? Can they ever just be pictures, or are they, to a Western viewer, inherently tied up in the fact that they are pictures of East Africa, a place that may be a bit more quotidian for me, but is still inherently exotic to some? Is it possible to continue naturally, shooting away, and by treating the people of city center Dar the same as the people of city center Philly make some kind of statement towards their universal equality? Is deciding not to take pictures because of ‘otherness’ actually exacerbating the distance between the two? Does intention matter at all? I don’t have answers for any of these questions—they bug the heck out of me. Which is frustrating, because I love photography. I love it for its purity of expression, for its fidelity to life while still imbuing it with some artistic form of seeing. I just don’t have all the answers yet.