Yes, this is the big difference. I can understand how scary it is to ask people to take their picture. But I’ve learned to see it in a slightly different light. Instead of thinking it as a invasion or rude, you can see it as a way for you to offer up your white privileged position for them to use.

Late in 2008 I went around in the poorest neighborhoods of my island photographing graffiti for an art project. Not the ‘art’ graffiti, but the kind where people write things because they have no other way to be heard. Even though I lived on Aruba for decades, these are the sort of areas where a white woman is completely out of place. Specially after sunset and with a camera.

After a few moments of looking at me funny, a couple of guys came over to ask me what I was doing. It took me a while to explain but once they got it, their faces lit up. And suddenly I had two guides, pointing me to where I could find different graffiti, who wrote it and some of the context behind it. The crown piece of that series of photos turned out to be a empty lot where people had dumped all kinds of trash. On the wall, painted in big green letters was “DICON NOS NO?” which translate to “Why not us?” or in context “Why not here?”. Green was the color of the current political party. One of the politicians had made a huge deal out of “cleaning up Aruba” -getting rid of trash, repaving roads, renovating buildings. But, all work was around the places the tourists would be likely to go.

The guy showing me around was the one who wrote that phrase there. He was proud as hell that I would be shoving his reality and his words into the faces of people who would never venture into his streets. I even named the resulting collection “DICON NOS NO?”. It made me feel a little better about showing off those pictures as if they were my art. They really weren’t. That time, all I was, was a messenger.

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