It started in Thailand. I was perched on a rock in the middle of a small, shallow lagoon, fed by an ice-cold waterfall behind me. After a two-hour hike through the jungle, I couldn’t wait to cool my feet in the chilled water, and I was enjoying the mist settling on the back of my neck.
“Look at you!” another tourist suddenly shrieks. “You look like a mermaid!” She motions to her friends, all Japanese and all armed with cameras. “Can we take your picture?” some ask. “You are so beautiful!” others chime in.
I was taken off guard, but flattered. It was the first time I could ever recall a stranger wanting to take my picture. I possess average looks—blue eyes, brown hair, a build that veers a little too close to chubby for my liking. My faded Pink Floyd t-shirt is caked with sweat and sunscreen, and a blue baseball cap shades my too-pale skin from the hot Thai sun.
Me, beautiful? Of course, they could take my picture! My boyfriend, sitting on a rock a few feet away, smiles and shakes his head good-naturedly as over and over the shutters click. Finally, I give them one last grin and an embarrassingly naïve bow, and I wade back to Jack.
A few months later, it happens again in Indonesia. This time, I’m at a work-related meeting with radical Islamic leaders. I tried to dress carefully, covering myself in a loose long-sleeved blouse and a floor-length skirt despite the unrelenting heat. But I still feel dozens of eyes on me, and I try to pinch shut the slits in the side of my skirt that reveal bare ankles.
At the end of the meeting, the man who had been sitting in the row behind me approaches, his cell phone aloft in one hand. At first I fear he’s going to ask me questions about what we’d just heard—and what? Text them?—but he doesn’t. “Can I take your picture?” he asks in very halting English. I’m so taken aback, I nod without thinking.
Later, I wonder why he wanted my picture. Why me, and not any of the other women in the group? Did I look more approachable, more… open? And what is he going to do with that picture?
I’m feeling exposed without Jack, who can occasionally be depended upon to glower at strange men on my behalf. I also begin wondering if there really is something to the old superstition that photographs steal a part of the soul. I even think that this must be akin to how celebrities feel about the paparazzi, though I admit it’s a stretch.
I just can’t stop thinking about it. Why me? What is so special about me that you want physical evidence, proof that you saw me?
I have a camera permanently mounted, it seems, around my neck to document the work trip, and I begin to think of the photos I take and the photos taken of me as a kind of exchange. I’m approached several more times on the two-week trip, and each time, it gets easier. I pose more naturally and give each photographer a broader smile. I even begin enjoying it.
May I take a picture of the pilgrims worshiping at the temple? May I take a picture of a vendor’s stall in the antiques market? May I take a picture of this patient in the hospital? Thank you, thank you, thank you, and yes, you may also take my picture.
While I feverishly work to document the exotic sights and people I encounter, my subjects want to do the same. When I stop to think about it, it’s actually not that surprising.
The parts of Indonesia that are not Bali tend to see fewer tourists, and blue-eyed, freakishly pale women are relatively rare. Rural parts of Thailand are similar. To them, I’m the exotic one. The cultural exchange makes my conscience lighter. Perhaps I’m giving something back to the locals instead of always taking.
Then again, maybe I just like being called a beautiful mermaid.
Melody Wilson is a writer based in Washington, D.C. Her goal is to travel to all seven continents. Three down, four to go! You can read more of Melody’s work on her blog, Melody & Words.