Taking Pictures of People

Posted on Posted in Guatemala, My Research, Photography


TL;DR: Don’t be the jerk that takes pictures of random strangers while you’re traveling. First of all, it’s kind of rude. The political and social history of Guatemala, combined with the things that make photographs so unique, creates a really morally and practically complicated situation around taking pictures of people. But it’s totally okay to take pictures of your friends or the people you stay with– it’s even better if you share prints with them!


While I was doing research in Guatemala, I had some archaeologist friends over to my house one weekend. They were all from US universities, and were doing their fieldwork over on the other side of the country, in the jungle lowlands. They spent most of their time with other archaeologists, including some from Guatemalan universities, but didn’t interact much with Guatemalan families.

They were marveling at the photos I had on my walls: I had taken all of them while staying with a family in a nearby town the year before, and there were several of the family’s kids hamming it up for the camera.

“I thought that was really dangerous,” one of my friends said. “Don’t people get suspicious of you when you take pictures of their kids?”

She was referring to a handful of well-publicized cases of foreigners who had faced angry mobs after taking pictures of children in rural villages. The best-known case was written up in the Lonely Planet guidebook for Guatemala. A Japanese tourist visiting Todos Santos Cuchumatan in the early 2000s had taken a picture of an infant. Suspicious villagers became angry and proceeded to stone him to death and then burned his Guatemalan chauffeur alive. At the time, rumors were circulating locally about a satanic cult of foreigners that kidnapped children in order to sell their organs on the black market. The villagers feared that this man and his compatriots had come to take their children. Two other similar instances elsewhere in the country involved women from North America who had been beaten by mobs until local police intervened and managed to remove them from harm’s way.

Following these incidents, foreigners are generally advised not to take pictures of children in rural villages. This warning is sometimes relayed to travelers– including academics, volunteers, and plain old tourists– as “don’t take pictures of people.” While the warning is well intentioned for everyone involved (it protects the foreigners from possible physical harm, it protects villagers from fear and distress), it unfortunately reinforces certain stereotypes that rural villagers in Guatemala are irrational, backwards, or even “stupid.” These stereotypes are totally false. Villagers’ fears of kidnapping or satanic cults, which in some cases have led to violence against foreigners who take pictures of people without asking permission, are founded on real historical and political circumstances.

There are two significant things happening with the whole foreigners-taking-pictures-without-permission situation. The first involves rumors, and the power they have as their circulation increases. David Samper (2002) writes about the organ-trafficking rumor in Guatemala, and how, as it spread, it became an impetus for action. Villagers who heard the rumor believed that local authorities were allowing their children to be kidnapped and sold on the black market, so they took matters into their own hands. Meanwhile, international agencies such as the United Nations passed resolutions on children’s rights and organ trafficking as a result of the rumor’s international spread.

Organizations at the national level investigated the claims (after they had spread to international news sources), and uncovered a variety of problems with the Guatemalan adoption industry. And yes, “industry” is the right word– in 2007 Guatemala sent almost as many kids (in real numbers) to the US as China (the largest source of international adoptions for US families), despite having one tenth of China’s population. Many of these adoptions were in exchange for large fees– upwards of $35k. There have been a number of high-profile cases of parents coming forward and saying that their children were stolen from them. All in all, not a good situation, and one that led to Guatemala halting all international adoptions in 2007 (to the best of my knowledge, adoptions have since been reinstated).

There may not have been organ trafficking involved (we can certainly hope), but the rumors had some truth to them– an international child trafficking ring operating under the noses of local authorities does not inspire confidence.

The fear that local authorities are not doing their jobs is a fairly common one in Guatemala– particularly in rural areas. In 2008, I witnessed a group of protesters attack the local police station in Nebaj, Quiche. The angry demonstrators broke the windows, looted the station, and burned a police motorcycle, all to protest a report that the police had allowed a suspect in a kidnapping case to walk free. The same year, in Todos Santos Cuchumatan (the village where years earlier the Japanese tourist had been attacked), a group of protesters took action over a different issue. The municipal government had recently passed a “dry law” for the town, but a local cerveceria (beer brewery) had failed to comply. When the police refused to shut the operation down, a group of townspeople took pickaxes and disconnected the water line feeding the cerveceria themselves. It took weeks for the line to be repaired, and no beer was made in the meantime. Problem solved. Granted, people were upset over the damage to private property, not to mention the way the beer supply had been cut off. The cerveceria was eventually granted an exception to the new law and allowed to continue brewing.

James Scott (2008) calls rumors “weapons of the weak.” He argues that they are a way for people who don’t have a lot of social or political power to make that social or political power, to intervene in the political system that they’re otherwise excluded from. The ways rumors have influenced people to take action– whether locally or internationally, like we see in the examples above– is evidence of the political and social power of rumors. Rumors can make stuff happen, good or bad.

Rumors are also a way for people who don’t have access to information about their social or political situation to create information. In my own research, I looked at how people used rumors in parallel with their personal testimonies to collaboratively create narratives about their experiences with mining projects– narratives that conveyed both the things they had experienced first-hand (like being detained and physically threatened at a protest), as well as the fears that grow out of the climate of uncertainty created when the government or mining company repeatedly deny their claims.

In Guatemala, understanding rumors as attempts to make sense of things or as attempts to participate in politics– rather than as irrational expressions– is extra-important because of the history rural people have with social and political oppression by the state and other powerful institutions. After 36 years of civil war, during which 200,000 civilians were executed or “disappeared” by the government as possible communist insurgents, people are understandably a little wary of outsiders. Many people link the violence of the civil war to the history of colonialism, referring to both events as “invasions.” More recently, the rapid growth of industrial development projects (such as mining or hydroelectric dams) in rural communities has led to widespread protest around the country. Activists link this “development”– which usually occurs without consultation with community members– to historical violence, calling it the “third colonial invasion.”

Once again: people’s suspicions of outsiders? Totally understandable. Not irrational, backwards, or stupid.

The second significant thing concerns the ways people relate to photographs, particularly individuals’ portraits. In the photography workshops I teach, I generally start out with a discussion about what photography is used for. People brainstorm different reasons why you would take a picture: to tell a story, to record an event, to identify a person. A common explanation was that portraits conveyed something “essential” about “how a person really is.” What they look like, but also their characteristics at a deeper level. Their general comportment. You take a picture of someone not just to remember their face, but to remember what they are like, what kind of personality they have, what it’s like to be around them.

When I worked at a school in San Mateo Ixtatan, there was a gringo videographer visiting, who wanted to know how to ask permission to take people’s pictures. One of my co-workers thought it was hilarious to teach him the following phrase: “Le puedo sacar su alma?” May I steal your soul? There is a widespread assumption– again, perpetuating the idea that rural people are backwards, irrational, or “stupid”– that folks are opposed to having their picture taken because they think the camera will suck their soul out. Guidebooks actually promote this claim, right alongside their warnings not to take people’s pictures.

I’ve talked to a lot of people about this– mostly the younger set, yes– and they think that’s a pretty funny assumption to make. Perhaps a long time ago people thought the camera could steal your soul, but all but the most elderly people living in the most isolated villages have come in contact with cameras. I mean, photography (and photographing people in Guatemala) has been around for about 160 years, give or take.

People in San Mateo Ixtatan loved pictures. Shopkeepers displayed their most prized pictures on their walls for the general public to see– ones of their families on vacation, pictures of loved ones who had gone to the US to find work, photos of them with their new pickup truck. Nearly every family I visited had photo collages on their walls. Likewise, my students were pretty excited to take pictures of themselves. They spent hours experimenting with different poses, backdrops, and props. They carefully chose the images they printed out (and yes, maliciously stole each other’s “unflattering” pictures to circulate around the school– these are middle schoolers, after all) and embellished their portraits with frames and decorations.

Maria Final Project

Obviously, if there were widespread fear that you would lose your soul by having your picture taken, people wouldn’t take pictures of themselves. But if we go back to the things my students found notable about portraits– their ability to convey a person’s characteristics– we can see where there’s a kernel of truth in the soul-sucking-camera stories.

If you feel that a photograph represents some essential aspect of yourself– and many people do, including government organization that use photos for identification (your driver’s license, mug shots, passport photos, etc etc)– it can feel like a violation to have that image in the hands of someone you don’t know. It’s no longer in your control, and you have no idea who will be encountering this capsule of you-ness.

It’s the same reason I hate having my photo circulated without careful consideration– I mean, god, does my hair really look like that? People will think my hair really looks like that! Ugh. (note: yeah, my hair really looks like that)

You might not think much of it after a little while– after all, people post photos of themselves to the Internet without any regard for privacy settings all. the. time. And those photos circulate. A lot. And you usually don’t think about it until something catastrophic happens, like if you’re the victim of catfishing or become the subject of a meme. But the issue remains: if you’re not in control of your image’s circulation, in certain emotional and very practical ways you’re not in control of your own identity. At least as others perceive it.

All of this leaves aside the most obvious point to be made: how would you feel if a complete stranger came up to you and took your picture? Especially if that stranger didn’t speak your language, and you had no idea what your picture would be used for? You probably wouldn’t feel great about it. I know I wouldn’t exactly be enthusiastic (see above).

By taking pictures of total strangers as if they were part of the scenery, you’re reinforcing the idea that their home is just a playland for tourists to enjoy, and they’re props on the set. On the other hand, when you take the time to create relationships with people– you talk to them, you (maybe) live with them, you learn about their lives– you want mementos. And so do they. If you take pictures of your friends, be sure to share prints (or, if they’re on Facebook or otherwise digitally connected, share them there). You’d ask the same of any of your friends at home.

So, to sum it up: it’s a bad idea to take pictures of total strangers. Would you like it if someone came up to you and stuck a camera in your face? Probably not. And given the social context of Guatemala, combined with how photos are/ can be used, people understandably react negatively to foreigners coming in and snapping photos. Don’t go around taking pictures of random people.

But your friends? The family you’re living with? Of course! Take pictures! Ask first. They probably want you to take pictures, especially if you’re going to share the print-outs of them. Snap away.

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