Waheguru Ji Ka Khalsa
Waheguru Ji Ki Fateh

Sat Nam Readers!

Today I want to talk about something that I find really, really bizarre – people taking pictures of complete strangers without their permission.  Then I’m going to talk about the one guy who got his picture and why.

So first the context:  I live in a very small Canadian town in one of Canada’s territories.  To find it on a map of Canada, you’ll have to go way, way up where all the towns because tiny, spread out, distant points on the map.  In fact, there are almost the same number of people on Born A Sikh’s Facebook page as there are living where I do.  So you can venture to guess that there are not many Sikhs here – the last census said 100 Sikhs for the entire territory.  There are even fewer Sikhs in turbans and only one female in a turban.  No, seriously, I am it.

In the summer, it’s a tourist town.  In the winter, it’s purely a government town.  Our surroundings are beautiful, tucked into a valley between mountain ranges.  Lots and lots of pictures are taken here everyday because it really is one of the most beautiful places in the country.  You get used to people taking pictures, especially in summer.  I usually try to side step out of the way of tourists so they get a picture without a stranger in it.  You know… it’s polite.

On occasion, I see another Sikh in a turban.  I usually nod and if I know the other Sikh, I stop and say hello.  If I don’t know them, I say “sat sri akal ji” and move on.  I never have the compulsion to go up to a fellow Sikh, smart phone in hand, and take a picture of them without their permission. Never.  It’s never, ever crossed my mind.  If I think really hard on it, I can safely tell you that I’ve also never had the compulsion to go up to any fellow human being, no matter their faith, and take a picture of them without their permission.  Not once.

Yet, sometimes other human beings think it is okay to take a picture of me without my permission.  These others human beings are complete strangers.  I don’t know them.  Sometimes they are right out there, in the open, camera at head level and sometimes, they are more subtle, bringing the camera phone out to the side, looking a little embarrassed or maybe shy, and click… There I was just walking down the street, or buying a coffee in the local shop and wham, I’m preserved on some stranger’s device for later.  What??

If I see them coming in advance, I usually obstruct the picture taking by looking away.  I’m never rude about it but what the heck??

I know why they’re taking the picture and it’s not because they are mistaking me for a celebrity whose suddenly appeared in a sub-Arctic town and it’s not because I’m doing some sort of street performance.  I have no sign around my neck that says “take a picture of me please” or one that says “hey, it’s Snapshot Saturday, go for it.”  They don’t do it to my friends or to anyone that might be with me.  They don’t do it to other strangers walking past them.  They do it because I am a woman in a turban and that’s something they’ve maybe not seen before and certainly they’ve not seen often.

But here’s the thing.  I am not a tourist attraction.  The city I live in does not pay me to dress up so that tourists can take pictures.  They do pay people in summer to dress up like people from the gold rush era to give tours and to interact with tourists but that is not me.  It’s expected that you would take pictures of those people.  I think it’s perfectly okay to do so.  And if you ask, they’ll even take a group shot with you and your family or friends.

This is a tourist
attraction… this is not
Also a tourist attraction… also
not me

I am not an inanimate sculpture on the side of the road or a historic building.  I am not a mural painted in life size.  Take all the pictures you want of those things, you can’t possibly invade their space by doing it.  

I am not an animal on exhibit in a zoo either.  People take pictures of zoo exhibits.  Generally, that is okay and when it’s not, when it would disturb the animal, the zoo generally puts out a sign that asks people not to take pictures.  I take it most people respect the request.  Is that what I should do?  Put a sign around my neck that says “No photography.”?

Cute koala selfie… but not me.

It’s downright invasive and rude to take a picture of a person without their permission.  It treats the subject in the photograph as if they were some sort of object, without dignity, without respect, without a right to their own privacy.  Probably the picture takers don’t mean to do that.  I don’t believe for a minute that they are thinking “let’s invade this person’s space” or “to heck with dignity” while they are snapping their picture.  They are probably thinking:

     – Wow, how often do you see that?
     – No-one I know looks like that.
     – I have to show this to my friends, they won’t believe it
     – A turban?  Here in the Arctic?  Didn’t expect that one.
     – Okay, I’ve seen a turban before but this one has a woman attached

and, sadly, they just aren’t thinking beyond that.  Hello!  There’s a human being you’re pointing that thing at.  Want to ask permission first?

Here’s an example of what actually happens when you ask permission.

Yesterday, I took a cab to work and back.  The young man who was driving both trips wore a kara on his right arm but not a turban.  I knew he was Sikh but it’s just not a big deal to me.  Still it gave me a little smile inside.  I nodded at him during the morning trip and wished him a good morning.  While I was paying him, we had a conversation about my turban.  He asked why I wore one and I told him that I am Sikh as well (it’s not like he could readily see my kara or any of the other Ks given that I had on my turban, long sleeves and a spring jacket).  We had a conversation about Sikhi and why I chose it.  He told me that he was also Sikh and we talked about where his parents were from.  That lead to a conversation about my extended trip to India in November.  It was a very friendly, really nice though short conversation.  It took maybe five or ten minutes.

He seemed awkward for a second at the end of the conversation.  Then he asked if I would mind having my picture taken.  He wanted to show the picture to his parents to show them that he’d met a woman Sikh who wears a turban in the isolated little town where he lived.  He asked permission and he got his picture.  It was a little strange knowing that my picture would be shared with strangers but he asked permission.  He did not treat me like a tourist attraction and he did not make me feel like an animal trapped behind bars at a zoo.  He treated me like a human being, a unique one mind you, but a human being nonetheless.  He respected me.  So he got his picture and I got to meet a nice young man who shares my faith and have a nice conversation.
That’s it.  That’s all he had to do was ask.

Here’s a set of clues for those who want pictures of a stranger in a turban (for whatever reason).  Trust me in that you’ll be more successful if you follow the clues:

  • We’re used to answering questions about our turbans.  Most of us like the opportunity to talk about them and spread awareness, it’s actually part of what we are about.  Ask away!
  • We probably don’t bite.  We are not Luis Suarez and we are not 2 years old.  Approach us!
  • No means no.  It might also mean that we just don’t have time to stop, that we are phobic of cameras (like me but I got through it for the driver yesterday), that we’re not comfortable with the idea or that we just don’t want our picture taken but it does not mean that we’re being jerks, that we think you’re being a jerk or that we are taking offence.  Respect us!
  • Most of us actually like talking to people in the community, though some of us are shy.  You’ll find shy in all groups, it is not just a Sikh thing.  We’re a very community oriented lot.  We want to know about you and we want you to know about us.  Talk to us!
  • Our turbans, kara and kirpans are not part of a costume.  They are not there to get your attention or to invite pictures.  They are parts of who we are, they are parts of our identity and very, very meaningful to us.  We know they attract attention especially where we are a minority.  It’s still okay to talk to us about them.  Seriously.  Got questions?  Ask them!
  • There’s no right way to ask if you can have a picture of us but the following questions are generally good approaches:
    • “Hi.  I am [insert name here].  I really like your turban.  Do you mind if I take a picture?”
    • “Hello.  I am [insert name here].  Do all Sikh women wear turbans?  …  Would you mind if I take a picture of you to show to my family and friends so they can see that women wear turbans too?”
    • “Hello.  I am [insert name here].  I take pictures of unique people that I see.  Would you mind if I take one of you?”  [This one is obviously more likely be context appropriate.]
    • “Hi.  That turban rocks!  I love it!  Can I have a picture?”

None of that is hard, is it?  Here’s the bonus.  If you ask before you get your picture, I won’t walk away thinking you’re an ignorant, self-absorbed jerk.  Most of the time I’m going to say yes, despite my phobia.  In fact, having my picture taken with permission is one way that I try to confront and deal with the phobia, so you’re actually helping me out by asking.  And yes, I see you when you do it without my permission, even if I pretend to ignore what just happened.

Most of all, I just want to be treated the same as everyone else even though I look different.  I don’t ask for much, really.  Dignity, respect, courtesy.

Some things to think about next time you point your camera at a person you don’t know.  End of rant.

Sat Nam Readers!