No, not this one. Look closer. It's the Polaroid this kid's holding.
No hundreds of “Likes”.
Didn’t win my first rumble for me.
In fact, I don’t even have them with me anymore.
The pictures I love most in 2011 are not the ones I took but the ones I gave.
Went to the Burning Man festival last year. Besides the costumes, the desert arts, the pyrotechnics and the crazy parties, one thing I really liked about it was their spirit of giving. It’s just nice to see generosity bouncing around so freely. But I have to admit, it was also a bit contrived to drive all the way into a desert in order to be super-nice to some middle-class strangers.
For 2011, I decided do something slightly more authentic. So when my sister Facebooked me and suggested traveling to Tibet together, I jumped on the opportunity.
Despite regional instability, visa issues, and compulsory 24/7 tour guides for foreigners, thousands of tourists flock to Tibet every year, each clicking away with their expensive cameras.
To us, children and nomads of the world’s highest plain represent golden photo opportunities, the last drops of innocence on earth. Americans would pay up to USD$30,000 to go on photography tours here. Globalization has brought Hershey’s Kisses chocolates to the shelves of Western supermarkets in the city of Lhasa. But on the vast plains of the Tibetan plateau, life at 5000m above sea level remains tough. Constantly battling Chinese occupation, poverty, harsh elements and global warming, most Tibetans still depend on yaks and goats as their source of food and energy. Many of these poor people have never had a camera, let alone owning photos of themselves or their loved ones.
So there I was, after 55 hours on the Qingzang railway plus 3 days on a Jeep, high up the Himalayas by some shrinking glacier, waving my Diana F+ and the Instant Back+ around, giving out Polaroids.
At the time, I’ve only been shooting lomo for 3 months, hardly knew what I was doing. But I knew I want to make a difference. Knowing that some African tribes hate cameras stealing their souls, I initially had some reservations as to whether Tibetan would warm up to the idea. But in no time, kids gathered around me, adults pushed to the front, best friends holding hands posed together, crowds and lines spontaneously formed. I didn’t even need explain what I was doing.
Like any tourist visiting a third world country, I was swarmed by street (mountain) kids and local vendors. But instead of pushing souvenirs or asking for spare change, they wanted a Polaroid to shake. Perhaps it’s their first portrait? Things got a little hectic at our Himalayas vista points, I had trouble getting back into the Jeep and closing the door without snapping off some dirty little fingers. 50 Polaroids later after lots of running around, I got my first bout of high-altitude sickness. That was also how I forgot to take my own picture with the Himalayas and had to stop and retake it.
That afternoon, when I saw a father happily tucked away his son’s picture inside his robes and a mother chased me down eagerly put her 1 year old toddler in front of me, I knew the Polaroids were more than Polaroids. In a very small way, it touched their hearts. The whole experience has given my Lomography a new meaning.
Thank you Lomography. Thank you Diana Instant Back. Thank you Fuji Instax.
I didn’t get keep any of those little portraits. Some of those kids didn’t even let me see how their photo turned out, worrying I might take it away. The picture above is the only record I have, but I have many LomoWalls scattered halfway up Mount Everest. That warm feeling inside? Yeah, it will stay with me for a very long time.
Next time you travel, think about taking as well as giving pictures.