Sunday, February 6, 2011

Say, "Cheese!"

Our campus choir


My former and current supervisors with a happy award-winning student
All of us singing the South African National Anthem

The 2011 incoming students

The college had its official “Academic Opening” Ceremony this week. What exactly is an “official” Academic Opening? Well, my college, Vuselela FET, has six campus locations and to open each campus “officially,” the CEO and other VIPs come visit and we have a big “to do”-- a big, formal ceremony with caps, gowns, music, food, and awards. Ours was this week.

It’s so weird, because, in my little brain, I think these people would know that it’s kind of a big deal to have a Peace Corps Volunteer working for them. Or at least, in the USA, we tend to think it is something special to have a Peace Corps Volunteer working in communities in other nations. However, and alas, my schools seem to not think of my presence in a special way. They never provide a space for me in their programs, to address the students, so the students (and other staff) know who I am and why I am here. This is all very sad for me, and a bit frustrating, because I’m HERE to WORK WITH THE STUDENTS. You would think (I would think), the school administration would want me to address the students as we open the new school year. I kind of barged my way into the program last year and made space in their program for me to do this, but this year, I just let it go. I showed up as the token photographer. Everyone is always pleased to have a token photographer.

Last year, there was a lot of turmoil at my college campus and I somewhat ducked out to go work at the primary school instead. Last year, at the primary school, I had already gone through the process of setting boundaries with my camera. This entails a LOT of saying, “No, I’m sorry, I cannot take personal pictures”; “No, I’m sorry. I cannot take your picture, then ride an hour away to have it developed, and then bring it back for you, even if you pay me”; and “No, I’m sorry. I cannot do house calls for family portraits nor can I come to your house to photograph your car after the accident for your insurance company.”

The people that I’m living with LOVE to have their photos taken and they can get very aggressive about it. For example, if they are unhappy with the shot, they ask you to stay with them, for hours, to retake it 20 or more times. Sometimes, and quite often, especially with school children, (but even adults will do this), crowds will approach me and yank the camera out of my hands in order to view and approve of each shot. All of this crowding and grabbing is unpleasant for me, so it’s a lot of work, initially, to set clear boundaries around the camera and picture taking.

This news, of me not accommodating personal portraits or other personal requests, is not good news to hear and makes people less than happy. I need to be consistently firm and say it repeatedly without exception; and, not only to the kids, but to the staff members and other adults as well.

(This is all somewhat confusing to me, because in almost every case, even with the students, they ALL have their own cameras in their phones and all take pictures of themselves and others—all of the time!!)

It’s something of a tiresome, ongoing process, and I’m not well-liked in the meantime, but eventually, everyone finally understands that the camera belongs to Peace Corps (a handy little fib I tell for personal protection), and that the camera is for official use only, and eventually everyone quits asking and accepts the fact, and are happy with the fact, that I’m there to take pictures of their functions. And then, the young kids at least, ham it up for the camera. It makes great and easy photography.

I had already set clear boundaries with the primary school last year, but had forgotten I would need to do it all over again with the college kids. My saying “no” so many times, especially when I’m trying to better know and relate to the college kids, felt overwhelmingly distasteful. However, I got through it and snapped some nice shots, and am sharing all of them with the college (so the college can deal with making reproductions), but a lot of students, and even educators, were not happy at my not complying and providing their very own “Vogue Shoot.” (However, the idea of a “Vogue Shoot” might turn into a profitable fund raiser idea—especially if I can use the school’s camera!!)

The other thing I was reminded of, and saddened by, was the fact that most of older, teen-aged students and students in their early-twenties, and ALL adults (well, most) hate to smile for photographs and refuse to smile for photographs, (and can become aggressive about not smiling for photographs); so I was mourning the loss of my beautiful portrait shots of smiling, happy people. But then, I remembered I do have other events throughout the school year with the younger children, so I will be getting my gorgeous shots of beautiful, smiling children.

Which got me to thinking: Why do I insist on displaying only happy faces? Why is it not ok to show a photo of someone who is not smiling? And even still, why is it not ok to show a photograph of someone that appears to be scowling?

In America, we’ve learned that a posed, smiling shot makes the best photograph (well, as far as portrait shots go) and our kids, of course, grow up mugging for the cameras that are ever-present, chronicling their every move for all of their lives, so are well-rehearsed in mugging for the camera. So USAmericans have, I think, grown accustomed to, and even if the pose and smile are tiresome, will cooperate for a “candid” shot. But adults here, steadfastly refuse.

I am the USAmerican with USAmerican standards, trying to enforce the “smile rule” on all of my South African peeps. That caused a bit of conflict for me during our Academic Opening as well.



PS.  You may think I'm  doing pretty good capturing those imposed smiles with these compliant, smiling faces here... I took 350 photographs. Three-hundred-fifty. These are some of the few what were "smile-able."

These two look like trouble! But they're not.  The gentleman in the right is my former student.

Fellow English-teaching colleagues

My reluctantly posing for a photo

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