“I feel like we are in a zoo,” Cailey remarked to me as we leant against our backpacks in the Varanasi train station. I looked up from by book to see what she was talking about. Sure enough all the westerners were lounging around us in one corner of the station. Several station attendants in light blue shirts separated us from Indian train travelers. Station attendants directed each new tourist into our area. The station attendants looked at each of our tickets and then instructed us to sit and wait until they called us.
Whenever a native Indian attempted to walk through the pack of backpackers a station attendant would literally stop them at the perimeter, ask them what they needed, and then direct them away. To cap off the zoo-like feelings there was a ring of Indians standing and watching us around the perimeter of the backpackers. Some of them even pulled out camera phones to snap a quick photo.
Eventually we got to leave our pen and board the train for Agra. As it turned out the relatively unobtrusive photo-takers on the Varanasi platform were only a taste of what was in store. I admit to being a bit surprised by the random photo snapping but I then realized that I have been snapping lots of shots of locals as well so I shouldn’t complain too much. Or at least that was my frame of mind until I got to Agra.
As Cailey and I were walking through the monuments we constantly got asked if we would be in pictures with someone or with their family members. We obliged a couple of times at Agra Fort but by the time we got to the Taj Mahal we were getting a bit tired of it. Sometimes we would be sitting, enjoying the view of the Taj, and someone would come up and ask if they could take pictures with us. Other times they would just sit down next to us and start clicking.
At the end of the day we were exhaustedly lying on the ground waiting for the sun to set on the Taj. We saw two young Indians coming towards us and I firmly made up my mind to not move. “Can we have picture?” They asked. “We’re not moving, we’ve taken so many already,” we replied. They continued to ask for a few more minutes until it was clear that we would not sit up to be in a photo with them. Eventually they walked away mumbling about how we were rude.
As the day was wrapping up we saw two other Americans, a man our age and his father, who jokingly asked if they could be in a photo with us. We laughed together about the day of all the photo taking and it became clear that we were not alone in being bombarded.
When I snap photos of a local culture it is because I want to have documentation of a different style of living. Cailey’s brother who spent a year in China said that many Chinese people would take pictures of themselves with Westerners and then frame them in their house. It was considered a status symbol of sorts to have been able to have interactions with Westerners. By the end of the day our experience being photographed was a rather minor nuisance but I do wonder what the major motivating factor behind all the pictures were.