As our bus pulled onto the overloaded ferry that would surely sink into the Mekong if many more ramshackle vehicles joined the tuk tuks and scooters and jam-packed van “taxis” on the ominously creaking watercraft, the waiting children scrambled into action. All eyes on our Phnom Penh to Saigon “Mekong Express” swiveled to the front of the bus where a scrawny girl of maybe seven years attempted to clamber up the side of the vehicle, infant wedged in the crook of her arm. Quickly realizing the difficulty of this maneuver, she handed the baby back to a young companion, and, wedging herself between a large truck and the side of our bus, she chimneyed up to the windows where white faces looked out at her with pity, shock, or horror.
The girl pointed at her mouth and tapped a bony finger on the window. The message was clear. Give me something to eat. The bus company had provided passengers with a package of crackers each when we boarded back in the Cambodian capital, and several passengers thrust their crackers out the window to the girl. We’d already given ours to a boy among the scrum before boarding the ferry, but had some pouches of Nutella we’d picked up the night before.
When the girl made it to our section at the back of the bus and pantomimed her request, my husband Brian and I looked helplessly at one another. Do we encourage such dangerous behavior by giving her food, or turn away from a hungry face right in front of us? While we debated, then dug into our bag for the Nutella when guilt overcame any hope of thwarting her behavior, a 20-something woman near the front of the bus rummaged around her own pack for her camera. Out came a professional-looking DSLR, the apparent standard issue for travelers these days.
Aghast, and torn between watching her and the little girl, I turned to the child outside our window. With no idea what else to do, I smiled at her. The little face transformed in response as the girl grinned back at me, the radiant, carefree smile of any little girl in any part of the world. She shimmied her way back toward the front of the bus where the muffled snick of the camera shutter could be heard among the melee. As our vehicle lumbered off the boat, I craned my neck to look back at the girl. She had joined a little clutch of women and children on the shore, and as we pulled away she tore open the Nutella packet and licked it clean. I couldn’t see the erstwhile photographer in her seat, but I could picture the scene: she’d be clicking through her photos now, looking at the image she’d captured of the girl begging at the window.
“What is she going to do with that photo?” I asked my husband, tears stinging my eyes, and a sick feeling in my gut worsening the roiling that started after consuming — head-to-tail — some fish at lunch that day. This wasn’t the first time we’d encountered poverty in our eight days in Cambodia, and it wasn’t the first time I’d cried or felt sick, but seeing a fellow Westerner whip out her camera to chronicle someone else’s misfortune left me hollow inside.
I’d been acutely aware of fellow travelers and their camera habits on this trip, as these three weeks in Southeast Asia made up my first trip free of my social media tether in years. With no Instagram account to feed, or Facebook stream to keep hopping with breathless accounts of our adventures, I’d had less need to take photos. So when we rose to the sound of night creatures in Siem Reap and followed our guide’s flashlight into Angkor Wat for sunrise, the army of would-be photographers we found there was all the more confronting.
As Brian and I waited quietly (and sleepily) for the big reveal – one of the most momentous occasions of a traveler’s life, I’d been given to understand – I tried to appreciate the moment. “Watch out for my tripod,” hissed a woman to our left at the pond in front of the temple. “Sorry,” I mumbled. “It’s ok, just be careful,” she warned. The woman on our right droned on about infinite zoom and aperture priority, clicking away rapid-fire as pink streaks painted the indigo sky. A great, heaving mass of people stretched out on either side beyond them and behind us, their clicks and smartphone taps drowning the sounds of morning dawning around us. The only emotion I could muster was disappointment.
I knew what Angkor Wat would look like at sunrise, of course; I’d seen a million photos. So had these people, presumably. But I thought seeing it in person might transcend that, be something magical that would stir my soul. Instead my husband and I, jostled by elbows of people adjusting their lenses, gave in and snapped our own uninspiring photos, then wove through the gauntlet to meet our guide and beat a retreat.
The next day, riding bikes out of the dusty city with our guide, we stopped at a shack on the side of the road to watch some folks cooking snacks – a rice dish with beans served in bamboo stalks. We were fortunate to have a private guide, courtesy of Kensington Tours, and Mr. Rida introduced us to people wherever we went, translating so that we could have conversations, and helping us feel like we might be more than just gawkers. As we nibbled on our treats, a phalanx of photographers descended. A National Geographic shoot must be underway, I thought for a moment. Some half dozen people laden with thousands of dollars of photography gear formed a half circle around a woman squatting over a fire, and assumed the international photo-taker’s stance then fired away, chronicling every movement the woman made as if she were an exotic creature at a zoo. Task completed, they boarded a mini-van and bumped down the road intent on their next mission.
I thought of that group every time I was tempted to take a picture of a colorfully dressed local; imagined the battalion of photographers at Angkor Wat whenever I aimed my phone camera at a picturesquely decaying building. Why was I taking the photo? I asked myself. As a shortcut to remember rather than the hard way of writing down my observations? To show friends later who surely won’t even care? It’s a difficult habit to break, hardwired as I’ve become over the last few years of over-sharing my vacations. And I still found myself instinctively reaching for a camera at each new sight, and often snapping away as furiously as any other barang.
But as I trained myself – slowly – to put the camera down, I realized that when I wasn’t hiding behind my lens, I could really look at the person on the other side. I could even smile. Not the sheepish grin of ‘I know you just caught me sneaking your picture,’ but a real, ‘we’re both people here’ kind of smile. And nearly every time my smile was returned – sometimes with surprise, and often with warmth. And while I don’t have a digital record of any of those smiles, I don’t need one. Long after DCS_4096 is lost in the cloud I’ll remember when a smile lit up a little girl’s face on that boat in Cambodia.