THE IMPORTANCE OF A FAMILY PHOTO
imagine this – you’re a white person out in a city being a tourist. you and your family are wandering around happily in the warm weather, soaking up the sites of the location you’re in, snapping photos of one another and asking fellow tourists to take group shots of you as you offer to do the same for them.
now imagine that you’re doing the same thing, but the adults in your group are wearing religious head-coverings or other religious garb. suddenly the scene looks very different. you wander around with your loved ones enjoying the sights, enjoying your time together, but you’re always hyper-aware of how other people look at your group – both the locals and the other tourists. members of your group take turns photographing each other, but no helpful fellow humans offer to capture you in your entirety. despite the fact that you’re all enjoying the moment, you don’t have an image to remember it by, even though swarms of other tourists are milling around you. your skin color doesn’t matter. the fact that you’re wearing head-coverings does. people around you are wary, even if they don’t mean to be. if you were to ask them, they may not admit to being nervous by your presence, they may even tell you that they love international people, or people from other religions, or people from other cultures. they may not mean to give you a wide berth on the sidewalk, but they do. and you notice.
this is the case for so many people when they travel, and it absolutely breaks my heart. I first noticed this after a few months of working in Budapest. until then, it was something I had been totally ignorant to. as I got to know my new city as a tourist in the beginning, I would wander around budapest on my own to see the sights and do some people watching. I knew that the general hungarian population was wary of outsiders, so it didn’t surprise me that they didn’t rush to help out foreign tourists – especially ones with head-coverings who might be *gasp* muslim!! but I really thought that other tourists would help them out – my fellow caucasian travelers sure did for me.. I would be outside the basilica taking selfies for my family back home and another white person would offer to take the photo for me, and I would return the favor. again and again this happened to me, and again and again I became more aware that this was not the case for others.
when I went to greece in august of 2016 to volunteer with the evangelical church in katerini this happened again. refugee families there had just arrived to europe and many of them were experiencing a sense of security for the first time in a long time. during my time off I would wander around and – you guessed it – be a tourist. I would see new families, often muslim, photographing their children in a park or next to a statue and I would grin. I began to offer my photographic services to all the refugee families I then ran into, because I realized that these photographs on their smartphones of the whole family were so precious to them. the photos were proof that they had made it, they were finally together and safe and beginning their new lives. in budapest I had noticed the trend, but it was in greece that I realized the true value of these photos.
and so now, no matter what city I’m in, I look out for the families who stick out, those that others may avoid either because of their skin tone, native language, or religious garb, and I speak with them. sometimes it’s just a smile and a nod, but often times we’re around some gorgeous touristic point and I offer to take a photograph of them for a keepsake. their faces light up and they all gather together with huge grins plastered on their faces. sometimes the family speaks english and we chat for a bit, but often times they don’t. they say thank you and move on with their day and I do the same, confident in the knowledge that they at least have one photo where the entire family is together.
last night I was walking back from margaret island at dusk with an iranian friend of mine. we crossed over margaret bridge to get to the side with the best view for our walk back into town. as we crossed the road I saw a family taking photos with the city in the background, all the women in head-coverings, skin darker than the central europeans around them. it was parents with three children and they were all taking turns being the photographer – as we waited to cross the street they would one by one swap places to get a photo of the rest of the group with budapest, all lit up, in the background. the crosswalk light turned green and I walked straight to their group on the bridge. there were at least six other groups of tourists on the bridge at that point and yet none of them stepped in to help out. I asked if they wanted me to take a photo for them and mimed a little camera, just in case they didn’t speak english, and the mother’s eyes lit up. she gathered her children around her, squeezed them in tight, and smiled for the photo. I took a few, having the kids do different poses, and when I passed the camera back to the mother I saw she had tears in her eyes. she thanked me, I told her it was no problem, and I walked back to my friend as we continued over the bridge.
as we walked off he looked at me with a very serious expression. “that was very kind,” he said, “why did you do that?” I told him very frankly – they’re not white and the women are wearing head-coverings. I knew that if I didn’t offer to take their photo, nobody else probably would, and I’m aware of how precious family photos are. he leaned over and hugged me as we entered downtown and said, quite simply, “you understand.”