I believe quite firmly that the day the digital camera was invented, somewhere a whole continent of fairies died. Digital photography gives people the ability to snap pictures instantly and continuously, as if their cameras are an extension of their lungs and images are oxygen. The problem is, images are not oxygen; oxygen is oxygen. And images are not trees; trees are trees. And images are not your first love; your first love is your first love. In their attempt to capture something that is inherently fleeting, photo snappers make me feel like people would rather have a life than live one.
Imagine wearing this mindset around for a couple of years. Then imagine that no one cares about your dumb mindset so-will-you-please-stop-giving-me-a-philosophical-lecture-and-just-say-“cheese”-already? That’s what happens when a man on the street smiles at me as he pushes his shy children in front of me for a photo. Or our waiter puts down our food and squats down next to me, handing his camera phone to my co-teacher. People take pictures of me from their motorbikes when we are both at a stoplight. Even when I am physically running away (some might call it jogging), a woman runs up next to me and poses while her friend runs backwards in front of us to get the shot. At this point, if someone were to track down every photo of me taken thus far and stack them in chronological order, I think you’d have a pretty decent flipbook of my entire two months in Belitung (minus bathroom breaks and sleeptime. For now.).
The name Tommy McAree is of entirely no consequence to anyone outside of my family and a few friends, and belongs to a kid with perpetual sweat stains and an unimpressive scraggle of a beard. But in Tanjungpandan, for all intents and purposes, I am Brad Pitt.
Stick-in-the-mud musings aside, I do believe that photos can be more than just moment-ruiners. When a boy walks through the woods with a camera and takes pictures of the leaves beginning to change, he is not trying to capture a leaf, he is trying to reflect a feeling. He is using the camera to express rather than to contain. After a girl and her friends have climbed a mountain, have worked together and celebrated together and stared triumphantly out at the world together, it is fitting that they document their accomplishment with a photo. After they have stared out at the world together. She is using the camera to document, not to capture. When a photo is taken like this, it is a reflection of something true without trying to be that truth. Taking a picture cannot ruin the moment when taking a picture is the moment.
Here in Belitung, I have observed on many occasions a phenomenon within me that must be similar to the feeling one gets when one pays for a big game hunting safari, does not spot any animals, is positioned in front of a dead lion that has been hit by a truck, and is then handed a rifle. Here ya go, ma’am. You can show your friends back home.
During my first week in class, one of my co-teachers asked a student to give him her camera so that he could take some pictures of me at his desk. When I asked what he was doing, he said, “For memories of you teaching in the class.” This might have been a nice sentiment had I actually been teaching. Or had it not been test week. Or had I been doing anything other than sitting at a desk and watching students answer questions that I couldn’t help with. The students looked up from their tests to giggle at the photoshoot, their concentration shattered, as if an actual canon (zing!) had gone off in the room.
I received a new shirt and a tote bag for judging a children’s singing competition in another English program. It took ten minutes and fifteen pictures. It was held at a small local zoo, where a single orangutan sits in a cage and looks like just about the sorriest animal in the world. “Like this? Is this really satisfying for you people?” her eyes seemed to say.
Mostly, these situations have one easy solution. I must try to lighten up and stop being such a Kodak curmudgeon. For many people in Belitung, seeing a person with lighter skin and Western features is a rare event, and the general vibe I give off is usually that of someone who is either confused or completely lost anyway. I might as well wear a shirt that says, “I don’t belong here. Please stare.” It is understandable, then, that people would be surprised by my presence here, and would want to show their friends. “Check out this white boy I met! Yeah! He was just wandering through the fish market looking at the cumi and making faces. I know, can you believe it?”
The side of me that thinks too seriously, though, can’t help but feel like the woman with the rifle slouching in front of the African road kill. The road kill is meaningful English teaching. A general global explosion of American popular culture, facilitated by U.S. media networks, has brought films like The Dark Knight and artists like Bruno Mars parading into Indonesia. My brother’s favorite thing in the world is Angry Birds: Star Wars edition and my sister’s favorite band is Maroon 5. Combine Star Wars with a half-Kenyan president who used to kick it in Indonesia with his mom, and you have a pretty potent international relations bomb. That which is American is cool, and American is thought to mean someone who looks like me. Plainly, many people like me because I’m white. Worse, they may even think I’m better than them because I’m white. Mister, I want your skin. Mister, I wish I could change eyes with you. By being the stand-in American scholar whose teaching value is somehow intrinsically proven by his presence and appearance alone, I become privy to the creation of a false history, a narrative of knowledge exchange that never was. It’s a ni-kon (zang!).
I could stand here and look white for the next seven months, and people would probably believe that learning happened if they only looked at the pictures. It does not seem like anyone would mind either. But I would. The only way I can make sure the stories in these photos are authentic is to be authentic, to try and do as much as these photos suggest I’m doing. If you want to become a cross-cultural superhero, the question, “what is really happening here?” is a great one to have on your utility belt. Otherwise, you may be just like the orangutan at the zoo, sitting around wondering why everyone seems so content with artificiality, with something that could be so much more meaningful if they only let it. For me, the problem is not that pictures are worth a thousand words — it’s that sometimes I fear that those words are being made up.
About the author: Tommy McAree is a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Tanjungpandan, Belitung Island. He graduated from Ithaca College in 2013, and has a big-hearted family. He also has great friends, who he hopes will help solve this whole “global poverty” thing.