Tuesday, August 17, 2010

No Photos Please, We're Expats!

A new and somewhat bizarre cultural difference has come to our attention this week, and I really want to talk about it tonight. This weekend the 3 of us were sitting outside Citygate at Tung Chung on Friday afternoon eating ice creams when a man came up beside our table, turned his back to us, made a peace sign with his fingers and smiled as his wife took a photo of him “with” D and J. D started waving them away but they just smiled and kept snapping. That’s when I snapped. I leapt up from the table, shouting “No! No! NO!” and shooed them away like a Mama bear protecting her cub. My husband laughed at me but I was furious! When I thought about it later I realised I may have overreacted slightly but it seemed so rude. It wasn’t so much that they wanted a photo of a western baby (he is very cute and I should take it as a compliment that others think that) it was the way in which we were treated like exhibits at the zoo, photographed without our permission. 

We’ve travelled through South East Asia and have taken hundreds of photos of absolutely everyone and everything; I understand the obsession with documenting every aspect of a holiday. But if we ever took a photo of people, especially children, we asked first, and more often than not a little hand was held out afterwards expecting payment for posing so wonderfully. I’ve spoken about this with a few people this week and apparently it’s quite common here in Hong Kong. One friend is inundated when she takes her son to Disneyland and sets a limit on the number of photos taken. We were out yesterday when it happened to us again at another shopping centre, only this time there were 2 adorable blonde girls playing near us, and the photographers were snapping from a distance. Again they simply smiled and waved when there were objections to their attention. 

Before J was born people used to take photos of our dog. Last year we took her to a festival and at one stage we had a crowd around us, as if she was a mini canine celebrity. It’s not so much the paparazzi that bothers me, it’s also the idea that we have no idea where these photos will end up. I once had visions of my dog ending up in a dog food commercial in China! Now I’m half expecting to see my beautiful son adorning a billboard advertising mobile phone plans. I know it’s more likely that they’ll end up in a random file on someone’s computer never to be seen again, but there’s a reason why photographing children in public places is illegal in some countries, and it makes me slightly uneasy. I’ve decided to start taking a camera with me everywhere and turn the tables on any would-be photographers, I’m looking forward to seeing the response I get. I’d love to hear from anyone else who’s had this experience and any suggestions for dealing with it (apart from grinning and bearing it, as that’s clearly not an option for someone with my temper!).


  1. When we arrived in HKG I went on a hike with a friends and my then 8mo old baby girl who was in a Snugli carrier facing outward. We headed out onto Deep Water Bay beach for the start of our hike. I paused for a few seconds to take in the scenery and was surrounded by these three chinese women and a young man who was with them snapping pics. I was pretty speechless especially when the ladies took my arms and moved ME to get a better angle for their photo. I had my friend grab my camera to take a picture of it all since noone back home would believe the story.
    Unwanted photography is especially frequent if the child has any of the following: red hair, blonde hair, blue eyes, curly hair...basically any coloring other than straight black hair/black eyes...or a very smiley baby (as many of the Chinese babies don't seem to smile much in public)
    There will be people who will politely come up and ask to take photos with the kids, (to which depending on what kiddo is doing I'll politely reply 'I'm sorry, no') but the vast majority I have found will just snap away blatantly or surreptitiously. I got sick of it real fast and developed a blanket NO Photos policy as we had some people try to take our eldest child by the hand and move her away/push me out of the way to take pictures or put their hands on her shoulders etc.
    I always start with a polite "no" accompanied by a wave of the hand and/or shaking 'no' of the head then maneuvering child or self so as to bugger up their shot. This usually works after one or two tries and the vast majority smile, nod and sometimes even say 'sorry, sorry'. For those that persist...I become Mama Bear-I've gone to great lengths at times of making people who take without asking delete the photos. I've also been known to shove hands in front of cameras/video cameras. (I can tell you stories from Disney and Ocean Park) Some of what I have done has been a bit extreme and overprotective, but at the same time due to the situation and how the other people were acting/reacting and what as happened in the past...
    And so you isn't just the Chinese that do it...many helpers take pics with their cellphones of the kids too. Had one helper position herself with her charge and my daughter at Playtown for cellphone pics while I was chasing down little guy.
    I tried not to get too angry when a helper, from around here, upon my first time meeting her showed me pics she had taken of my kids at the playground!
    As baby girl is now a little older and more opinionated, when people ask to take a photo with her, I tell them I need to ask her, then ask her if she wants to. If she wants to, picture--but most of the time she says which I defend her position fiercely and politely reiterate to whomever is asking that no, she doesn't want her photo taken.
    Photo taking has subside a bit as she has grown in age, but due to her red curly hair...not by much. (they also like to pat her head too...not sure if this is for luck because of the color?) Our smiley little guy gets lots of attention for his smiles, but not as many wanting pictures as of late much to my relief.
    Part of me doesn't like it because I feel they are invading our privacy. Part of me wonders 'why do you need six pictures of my daughter being goofy on the MTR?' (esp the ones taken with cell phones)
    Take heart, my friend, you are not alone!

  2. Have a blond and blue eyed and smiley 1 year old girl.. it started at the airport back in germany, at least she asked for it. Since we are in HK and we got used to her being photographed without permission, and our strategy now - after being speechless the first times - is to say that a photo of her cost xxx Dollar (amount depending on the peer group :). Then they are so irritated that they unpack their mobile/camera. Not very friendly but effective. Best regards :)