Saturday, June 23, 2007

The "One Photo" Phenomenon In India

The request for "one photo" in India is rather baffling as a Westerner. As a blonde-haired, blue-eyed American couple of Scandinavian heritage, we don't really blend in with the subcontinental masses. Our height and clothing seals the deal - we are celebrities with no fame beyond skin color. The inevitable parade of vendors, beggars, gawkers, and talkers is more often than not enjoyable and often amusing, nonetheless it is a tiring aspect of incredible India. An interesting subset of our fleeting friends is the family-on-holiday: a few adults with a herd of children of varying behavioral levels, usually a baby, and a camera-wielding father, or perhaps an uncle.
After the often shortest of formalities, we are requested to join the holiday-makers in an impromptu photo session. A quick herd movement will sweep us up to the most photogenic location within sight, and a few photos will quickly be taken. On rare occasions (the Ooty Botanical Gardens for example) the Indian paparazzi seems to instantly emerge from the previously disinterested crowd once one camera is brought out. After the "snaps," more pleasantries, and we continue on as amazed as the Indians are elated.
Where does this phenomenon come from? White people aren't that rare in India, we see them all the time! Or is this solely a middle-class family from the middle-of-nowhere out on holiday obsession? Is spotting a white couple part of their holiday plans? Surely if you are excited enough by the mere sighting of a white couple to actually have them pose for a photo with your family, then you have at least partially premeditated the encounter.
Arguably more confusing is this: what is said when the photo is developed and shown? Often we are literally nameless foreign whities - maybe we've said we're from the United States of America - so do people collect these photos; or is it the photo-taking moment itself that is more gratifying; or is it only virgin whitie-sighters that get so excited?
Don't get me wrong, the unexpected celebrity is never unenjoyable, although it can be hilariously overwhelming at times. The families are always grateful and polite - its really just the psychology behind it that is so puzzling.

No matter how differently someone looks, we wouldn't take their picture out on the street without even really talking to them... oh, wait, yes we would, and do - we're freaking Western tourists with a digital camera!
Is it so simple then that we're both mere tourists, photographing what is foreign to us in order to remember it vividly later on? Our temples and thalis are their white people? The same way we've already forgotten the names of the rickshawdrivers who returned our forgotten bag in Varanani - we're the equivalent with these Indian tourists. Sometimes we ask for people's names, other times not; clearly in these cases it's been decided that the photo is all they want from us...
Still, feels pretty crazy whenever it happens in the streets, though it puts that last "people-watching" photo in better perspective. Better appreciate this glimmer of fame while it lasts, soon enough we'll be back to being boring!

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Talked myself in a circle there, didn't I?
Definitely one thing we didn't expect coming to India though!
Peace
Anderson

3 comments:

Arun said...

Despite being an Indian myself, I too have wondered why is this done. Your picture will not be talked about in the family album to an extent any more than any other picture in the album.

It is most likely that a lot of people in semi-urban and rural areas and a few in the cities, though have seen white skinned people, have never really ever interacted with them, and may be this just becomes an opportunity.

apu said...

very interesting! came ere from the TT world...I am Indian too, but had no clue such a phenomenon existed - maybe as arun says, its something that people who haven't seen too many whites before do? I doubt you'd catch us big city dwellers doing it :)

themuths said...

Funny part is, just yesterday here in Rishikesh we got asked by a bunch of boys from Delhi to pose for some photos. Later we ran into them again and they showed us one of the photos zoomed in on their camera phone...