Or mentally challenged, or whatever we call it these days. I also certainly mean no offense to those who deal with developmental issues. So I guess I should explain why I would choose such an offensive title for my happy little blog post.
I am a friendly guy for the most part. Even in traffic, I am generally pretty zen (do not ask my family if this is true, they will lie). A few years back, one of my jobs took me to the Middle East (Turkey/Northern Iraq) to shoot a documentary about a people group in that region. I was pretty much allowed to proceed however I wanted, and I wanted to immerse myself into the culture as best as I could. I knew I could never pass myself off as a native so I would just be myself and film as much as I could.
I was told that approaching strangers was not a culturally accepted thing. I was also told smiling at strangers was also slightly taboo. And also, do not approach the women. This was going to put a kink in my plan to capture the sights, sounds, and emotions of the people that lived there, to say the least. One of our first nights in a town, I tossed all the rules out and went wandering the streets with a traveling companion. I laughed and joked with the street vendors, shopkeepers, barbers and anyone who would allow themselves to be engaged. I found this strategy to work very well. After establishing some sort of friendly bond, I would ask if I could take pictures and film. Almost all agreed.
After a few days in town, we went out to a much smaller town, with a population of about 1,000 and I was given a translator. He was a 20 something and not quite as outgoing. Midway through our first day, I am not sure exactly how it happened, but I either invited myself to stay at his family’s home or he asked if I would like to. It was wonderful. I told the rest of the team that had other business, to go on and pick me up in a few days. I left the comfort of our hotel and either slept on the roof of the house I was at, or in the main room with my new friend and his brothers. The first night, I asked “does it ever rain this time of year?” and was assured it never rained during harvest. About 3am it started to pour rain and we raced down to the main room and slept on mats on the floor.
Over the course of the next few days we would wander the village and visit the families. Word had gotten around that I was there to film them and tell their story. We were invited to stay for meals and ate wonderful food sitting on the floor and telling stories. One house we were at was a couple that were wheat farmers. I got into a heated discussion about why wheat was not being harvested or transported. I cannot remember the details, but at one point the farmer slammed his chair in front of me and began to vigorously make his point. My translator was turning pale. It occurred to me I was back in a western Kansas farm town having a “spirited” debate. The farmer then grabbed my shoulders and looked me in the eyes to make sure I had gotten his point. I responded with my best shit eating grin and he burst into laughter. At that point he gave me a tour of his farm, rabbits and all, and we had become good friends.
At each house we visited, we were offered coffee or tea. I always asked for coffee, and always got tea. I thought it was a weird custom but then found out my translator did not like coffee. I asked him to please not edit my words anymore. Later that day, we went on a hike to a lake. On the hike we crossed a hill and there, to my joy, was a Bedouin family that was camped in the valley tending their sheep. My translator, his name is Martin, cautioned that it would be best to swing wide and not engage them. I pleaded that it would be ok and could we please. The father of the family met us halfway. He had a big knife in his belt and was a man not to be messed with. We explained what I was up to, and he cautiously agreed to let us film, but we were not to film his daughters. After a bit, I asked if we could do a family portrait and he agreed. I wish I could send him the photo.
I was thrilled with the footage I was getting and discussing how well everything was going with other members of our team, who had picked me up at that point. One of the senior leaders commented while my tactics seemed to be working, the people that I had filmed probably thought I was a “little retarded” and therefore nice to me and allowed me to film. The statement was like a slap in the face and almost shut me down. It came from a man who has traveled more and that I deeply respected (and still do). I went back to my laptop and studied the still photos. Nothing in the photos indicated to me that they were humoring a simpleton. Maybe I just missed the joke…
I am all for respecting local customs. While filming in Mosques, I was careful to get permission and show respect. I was also careful not to overwhelm anyone or force my way onto them. I have shot all over the world, from intense poverty to the Vatican. I have found a smile and respect can go a long way to opening doors. I also realize I am just a photographer. I am not out to negotiate world changing deals, so I don’t take anything too seriously.
It is now Christmas season back in the states. I am still a goofy smiling fool most of the time, with or without my cameras. I love to engage people at Costco or the Quik Trip. It shatters the isolation of daily existence and brings me great joy. That is one thing I have noticed about my friends with Downs syndrome, they seem to love to smile. I guess count myself lucky to be mistaken as one.