Friday, January 2, 2009

A Mime is a Terrible Thing to Waste

Reader Zulia Arbon, a Tajikistan citizen who's been living in China for 7 years, writes in with this question:  "You took quite a few photos of people in China. How did you get around this? Did your translator help you to ask those people for permission to take pictures? Has anyone minded? Were there any times when you weren't allowed to take photos? I quite often see some really peculiar moments here in China, and I took some lovely photos. But sometimes I just don't have enough courage to ask people if I can take photos of them."

Read on for my response. Dear Zulia,

Thanks very much for your email, and let me start my answer with a story.  Many years ago I attended a Cirque du Soleil performance, and I witnessed a most remarkable act -- a mime was grabbing volunteers from the audience and, using only his body language and without uttering a word, started directing them as if he were directing actors in a movie.  After 15 minutes the audience members knew their lines and roles, and were ready to perform a one-minute skit in front of his imaginary movie camera!!  This taught me an incredible lesson about the power and vocabulary of non-verbal communication, and it's a lesson I never forgot.  I leveraged this epiphany constantly during my subsequent world travels.  Miming can take you much, much further than you think when you don't speak the local language.

During my six-month stay in China, 99% of the time I had no translator, so I had to use the universal miming technique.  First I made eye contact, pointed to my camera and then I "asked" if it's OK to take their picture.  Most people smiled and posed.  I showed them the first shot, which loosened them up, and they sometimes posed for a few more.  I found the Chinese people to be so friendly (well, those that aren't head of dog-eat-dog businesses, anyway) that they loved to pose for pictures - especially when I write down their email address and send them the pictures the very same night! (I used to use Polaroid cameras for this very purpose back in the olden days).

Anyway, don't worry about being shy about it. If they say no, don't press the issue.  Simply put your camera away, thank them sincerely, and walk away.  If they say yes, you've made a new friend!
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