One of the joys of traveling is exposing oneself to cultures and lifestyles vastly different than one’s own. In Southeast Asia, we knew this would be a daily occurrence. Such exposure is a double edged sword however. On the one hand, especially in many of the remote villages we planned to visit, tourism provides a much needed source of income in a region stricken by chronic poverty. On the other hand, gawking visitors turn their hosts’ homes and villages into zoo-like spectacles in a way that inherently encroaches upon and alters their traditional way of life. We wanted to be sure the time we spent in Southeast Asia was a much more two-sided interaction. We wanted to leave our hosts with a lasting memento that would in some small way remind them of a positive interaction we shared.
So we came up with the Polaroid Project. The idea is very straightforward: give people a picture of themselves. In the remote areas we’re visiting, most locals have an extremely no frills lifestyle where their possessions include merely essentials. Electricity and hot water are luxuries. Personal photographs, for the most part, seem nonexistent. It may seem overly simplistic, but the responses we’ve witnessed have proven how meaningful a picture can be. What initially began as just a tiny gift we could leave behind with our hosts has yielded some of the most memorable and rewarding experiences of our trip. It has at times been a hassle trying to explain to border authorities why our film can’t go through the X-ray machine, but beyond that, the Polaroid Project has been an overwhelming success.
As we go along, we’ll share the stories of the people we meet and images of their reactions to the polaroids.
Ban Pho Village
Our first attempt at using the Polaroid camera came in Ban Pho Village a few kilometers outside of Bac Ha, Vietnam. We rode motorbikes high into the mountains and found the village relatively empty except for three boys rolling metal hoops with sticks. They let us try but we all failed miserably. Their mother came out holding an infant and walking along side a 2 year old boy with a severely distended stomach. We offered to take a photo of her and her baby and she happily agreed. Once the other children saw a picture develop seemingly from nothing, they all wanted pictures too. The three boys posed for a very somber group shot and the small boy followed suit. After each picture, they all eagerly crowded around the photograph to watch it develop and then paraded it around proudly to show their mother. Later in the same village, we met a small girl and her grandmother. They agreed to pose for a picture. The grandmother gleefully watched it develop while the girl was more skeptical. As we left town, the boys ran along side our motorbikes, rolling their metal hoops, and smiling.
Further along our motorbike ride, we stopped for popsicles to combat the midday heat. A group of Flower Hmong women and a few children were gathered around the small store selling them. We asked a mother if she would like a picture of her holding her child. As it developed she beamed with pride. Soon everyone wanted a picture. They were too polite to directly ask, but each time we suggested the idea, they giddily nodded. Two brothers agreed to pose together. One buttoned his shirt preparing for his portrait, but he was so nervous that he missed by one button. Embarrassed, he tried again. Another woman took off her hat to fix her hair for the picture. In a rush to make herself more presentable, she threw down the popsicle she was eating into her hat. Her excitement for the photo completely outweighed any worries about her hat or snack. From young children to the elderly lady seemingly in her sixties or seventies, the novelty of watching a picture develop was lost on no one.