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Being Seen

Updated: Jun 20, 2022

As part of the smart phone sensation and an era of rapid improvements in camera technology through the last several decades, many of us who are engaging with this post understand how commonplace a snapshot with friends or taking a selfie is. When only 35 years ago, photographs were all savored as family treasures, many of us now can flippantly take photos of anything that crosses our path without a second thought.

Two very impactful interactions with people crossing in front of my camera lens during the last year in Yemen and Djibouti became valuable "memories for my mind" that transcend the modern selfie movement.

But first, I will tell you that for my sister-in-law, Sarah's birthday, I bought a silly instant camera so that I could capture some memories of my surprise visit from the other side of the world. It's nothing special: The sensor struggles with indoor and low light images (as illustrated in these photos below); the motor sometimes glitches and doesn't feed the chemical-laden paper through accurately; and other times the electronics did not record the image to my miniSD card. But, the camera is a curiosity and it allowed me to share some of the prints instantly with family, while also putting together a little photo album to commemorate the occasion.

Observing that, even to an over-photographed audience, the little prints were something of a novelty, I took the camera on my trip to Madagascar with a group of new friends from the United Arab Emirates. I nearly forgot I had the contraption at my side, but did manage a few clicks of these nice new friends, Ada, Danielle, and Christine, while we floated down the Mania River.

And I remembered that the little gadget was tagging along in my backpack when Nada, Dawn, and I visited the Pyramids at Saqqara in Egypt for a memorable snapshot.

I don't often take photos of people when I travel because I have a difficult time determining what is welcome versus what is an invasion of privacy. Personally, I don't enjoy having my photo taken by strangers, so I have a heart to respect the same when I have my camera around others. Sometimes I wish I were more bold.

The people we met on Socotra were extremely welcoming and even outright asked us to take their photos sometimes. I love photography in this spirit – to make people feel "seen" – I try to internalize this when I take a snapshot. Especially with children: I show them their photos and zoom in on their smiles and in a very small way, I get to help them feel seen. On this trip to Yemen, being seen is broader than one or two people. It's as big as the culture and geography of Socotra Island. As a largely unknown UNESO World Heritage Site and attached to a challenging country, I think welcoming tourists must be more than just showing kindness and hospitality, but a way for this beautiful place and its people to be seen.

The children lined up for a little snapshot on my camera in the village of Qalansiyah. The boys, I was told, were all keen to join the military and so the older ones seemed to stand at attention in preparation for regimented exercises. Little Abdullah (bottom right) was one of the first kids who had his instant snapshot taken and ran ahead of us through town showing his friends the little image of himself – and knocking on doors to promote these little personal photographs. By the time we loaded back into our 4x4s to return to our campsite, I had so many children following after me that I sadly couldn't possibly take a photo of all of them and wait for the camera to churn out those prints.

My impression of visiting this remote island was lasting: For those of us lucky enough to travel to Socotra, we have a great honor to show this place to others and expose the beautiful human gifts of hospitality and generosity that we explored – along with the epic scenery. I think it's deeply important to beat down misconceptions and remember that there are real people living on the Island (and everywhere in the world) who are curious to learn, kind to share a smile, and graceful to practice some of the most beautiful hospitality on Earth.

Qalansiyah, Island of Socotra, Yemen.
A few of the children from the Village of Qalansiyah who waited for their pictures to print.

Taking the exuberance of the kids from Socotra, I also brought this silly little camera to Djibouti. I started realizing that adults in both places also appreciated a photograph. Our drivers loved the mini print to stick in their visor. Wael my driver on Socotra Island and Mohamed in Djibouti even insisted to pose for multiple shots to capture their best angle.

These photo remind me of the consideration both of these drivers gave to our group. Wael became our Socotri brother in a vehicle of three female tourists. He even gave us an opportunity to drive. We took our turns racing across the Island's paved roads, navigating waterways, and gravelly trails. The entire time, we knew he was truly the most expert driver, but I think all four of us took excessive amount of joy when we drove through villages and women smiled or pointed at us driving through – or we drew blatant stares from other locals who were surprised to see lady drivers. In the end, I think he understood more English that he let on, but we were very grateful for my friend Nada, who could speak Arabic and translate for us. If I return, I will certainly request that Wael pick me up from the airport!

In Djibouti, Mr. Mohamed made a very blatant pass at me on our first evening on the road. As if to prove his worthiness, during the entire trip, he was diligent to load our gear, point out particularly interesting sites along the way, and provide a comfortable ride on many unkempt roads between our places of interest. He was a curious character: In a country that speaks local dialects and French with a smattering of English, Mohamed didn't speak French or English – but rather some passable Spanish. This remained a mystery to all of us.

Similar to Socotra, the Djiboutian children were eager to have their photo snapped. A couple even saw this little image as more important than candies that some other people in our group were passing out. Straight from the airport, we went to an expat grocery store and cafe for lunch where we could pick up any snacks and beverages before we traversed away from Djibouti City for several days. These children were curiously checking out our parade of ten tourist vehicles as we packed up after lunch, so I captured them from my car window before we carried on with our journey.

By Lake Abhe in Djibouti, I was snapping photos of a few children while the adult men looked on skeptically. However, when the elder man with an orange henna-died beard saw the product, he insisted quite emphatically that he would have his own photo taken as well. Uncomfortable with a solo portrait, he pulled together everyone around him for the snapshot below (center). He took that photo and studied it for at least 10 minutes while our group packed up and prepared to leave.

Later in the trip, we stopped by a traditional home to see how a family in Djibouti lives. Their winter abode is a dome called a toukoul and by peaking inside, we were lent a view to a simple and organized space with a couple of cots and small shelves for food and necessities. Lounging the shade, another woman and I found another older fellow with a henna-colored beard. We greeted him and I asked him if we could take his photo and he consented. The motor on the little camera churned out an image of him and his bright orange beard which I presented to him. He stared for a full 15 seconds before he realized he was looking at himself. His amazement as he looked up at me and pointed to himself nearly made me tear up. There was a wonderment there that we don't often get to experience as adults. This moment of discovery was followed by a request for one more. With vehicles waiting, I snapped one last gift to leave with him. As we walked away, he was still staring at the impression of himself on this little piece of photo paper.

At the end of my Djibouti trip, I came away with a deep awareness about the value of being seen – to know that, in one moment, you can leave a mark in the memory of another human. It's not about being famous and attracting attention, or controlling others with wealth, or getting photos of kids to appear altruistic. Rather this acknowledgement is the root of all human communication – an in-person interaction where we engage with another being, notice their presence, take an interest in their life, and share a moment. In lieu of speaking the same language, it might happen in a simple but intentional smile, a handshake, a small gift, a visit to someone's home or school, or even snapping a photograph that communicates respect and recognition.

This act of sharing portrait photographs in Yemen and Djibouti was my most impactful travel experience in 2019.

For every kind soul you meet with a beautiful story to tell, may you know that you are worthy of being seen that way as well.

There is no substitute for this interpersonal interaction. Letters, email, social media messages, video chats, and phone calls with each other – while extremely important right now – cannot provide us with the desire to experience each other in real life. In these challenging times of COVID-19, don't forget that while we need to be apart for now, there will be a time when we personally greet and spend time with each other. This is an important part of being human - touching, sharing the air (in fact, don't forget we also need to get back to sharing germs and bacteria for a healthy immune system), exposing the best of who we are as a human to others around us – and seeing or being seen by others.


Trips to Madagascar, Djibouti, and Yemen were booked through Trekkup Dubai.

© 2019-2020 Andrea Rip | The Earth Ink. All rights reserved.

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