February 23, 2016  •  Leave a Comment

I have had the good fortune in the last year or so to visit two places where the people are extraordinarily receptive to being photographed. One was Hanoi, in February 2015. And the second was Havana, from which I have just returned. In both places, I found that all I had to do was walk the streets, point my camera at someone interesting, put a plaintive look on my face or say a phrase or two in the local language, and three times out of four, the person would say yes.

Sometimes, they'd do more than say yes. They'd ham for the camera, or give me a big smile. That's not what I'm looking for. I'd prefer that people act as if I am not there, though I realize that's a lot to ask. 

But someone who hams for the camera is way better to work with than someone who says no, which is what I most often get when I take my camera into the streets of an American city. In fact, I'd say the yes-no ration is roughly reversed. For every one American who consents, I get three rejections. Sometimes, the rejections are rather emphatic.

A while back I was in the street photographing houses for a web site interested in the homes and former homes of famous Washingtonians. I was near Howard University, shooting a row house that once was the home of a famous African-American poet. A guy came out of the house and threatened to call the police, presumably because he thought I was breaking the law by photographing not him, but his house. No, there were no open windows through which I could have photographed the interior of the house. And no, Americans have no legal right to prevent someone from photographing in the street. But a lot of Americans think they do.

It was not that way in Havana or Hanoi, and I am not sure why. Unfortunately, my Vietnamese is non-existent and my Spanish is rudimentary, so I couldn't ask people why they were happy to let me make their picture. But I can speculate.

I suspect it may not be a coincidental that both Hanoi and Havana are the capitals of communist regimes, albeit not as ardently communist as they once were. I don't think communist states instill in their citizenry the concept of a right to privacy. Or, if they do, it's a more circumscribed right than what we in the non-communist world like to think we enjoy.  

On top of that, both Cubans and Vietnamese have reasons to welcome Americans and Westerners even if, not so long ago, we were at war with them. Vietnamese, having driven both France and the United States from their land, are now worried about China, their region's traditional overlord. We can serve as a counterweight to Chinese influence.

In the case of Cuba, there are government billboards around Havana that show the island encircled by a noose, with the legend "Blockade: The Longest Genocide in History." Obviously, the government would like its citizens to be angry toward the United States, or at least its policies. But I didn't sense much anger. I suspect a couple of things are at play. One is that the Cubans know their economy is not healthy, and one thing that could make it healthier is a flourishing tourism business. Cuban tourism is small compared to other Caribbean countries, not nearly what it could be. So they're glad to see a foreigner, especially an American. And I suspect there are a fair number of Cubans with relatives in Florida. They're in touch with those people, however loosely. They know that regardless of whether they think America is a just society or an admirable society, it's a much wealthier society than theirs is. They may not want our health-care system, and they may not think college should cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. But they wouldn't mind having a car that runs, and a house that isn't crumbling around them.  Maybe they think that by posing for an American tourist, they are hastening the day when they can move out of communal housing. 

Or, maybe they're just nice folks.

Whatever the reason, I had only to walk around to find good subjects. The woman at the top of this post was just watching the life on her street on a Sunday morning. The man with the bananas works in  market. He winked when I walked past, and then winked again when I asked him to. The girl in the red dress posed, then asked me for a peso. And the man at left, below, standing by one of the pay phones that are still common in Havana, may have been thinking, "I bet that guy with the camera has a cell phone. I wish I had a cell phone."  





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