Most Ladakhis enjoy being photographed, contrary to the assumptions of many camera-toting tourists who assume that they feel resentment toward the picture taking. In a recent journal article, Alex Gillespie, a British social psychologist who spent 12 months doing field work in Ladakh, focuses on the reactions of the Ladakhis to tourists who take their pictures. He also analyzes the counter-reactions of the tourists when the Ladakhis notice them taking pictures—the “reverse gaze” as he calls it.

Gillespie opens his piece by describing a scene during a cultural festival staged by the Women’s Alliance, a local NGO that promotes tourism. A French tourist carrying a large camera ignored the performers and focused obsessively on an older Ladakhi woman in the crowd who was dressed in her colorful traditional garb. Other tourists were also surreptitiously taking photos of the woman, but he was being particularly obvious about his efforts. A picture by the author shows the tourist photographing the woman.

Then, another woman tourist handed her camera to the Ladakhi lady, who promptly turned and started acting as if she was taking pictures of the Frenchman. Gillespie also reproduces his photo of that scene. After a few moments, the embarrassed French tourist got up and left the area.

The author’s analysis of the interaction is that tourists are normally more bothered by what they feel the Ladakhis must think of them than the colorful locals are by the amateur photographers. Virtually all tourists, he says, except for those who have personal contacts with the people, assume that Ladakhis dislike being objectified by photographers.

In fact, Ladakhis see tourism as a way of bringing in needed outside funds. The mostly free festivals that they organize help promote tourism, which they feel contributes to development. Individual Ladakhis are generally supportive of these promotional efforts, and will attend the festivals, dressed in their traditional clothing as they are urged, expecting that their presence will prompt numerous tourists into taking their photos.

They rarely ask for money in return for posing for the cameras. The lady who was the subject of the perhaps too obvious Frenchman had come to the festival wearing her traditional dress in part because the Women’s Alliance had urged women to come and dress that way. An elderly man, also in traditional dress, noticing that the author was primarily taking pictures of the foreigners taking pictures, spoke to him and urged him to take his picture instead.

Ladakhi children can be quite persistent about asking tourists to take their pictures—also, normally, with no expectation of payment. “One photo, one photo,” they chant as they crowd around tourist groups. They seem to enjoy gaining recognition from the visitors snapping their pictures. Some tourists get pestered so often that they only pretend to take photos.

Apparently the reason for all this enjoyment of tourist photography is that, to the Ladakhis, it signifies the importance of their culture. The attention from the tourists gives them a strong sense of pride. To a considerable extent, Gillespie adds, the Ladakhis construct a definition of their culture in terms of what the tourists want to photograph. Thus, customary dances, traditional costumes, old monasteries, religious paintings and the like have become identified as “culture.”

Asked why tourists come to Ladakh, one elderly woman replied “they come here to see our typical dress … [and they] find it beautiful. … [The tourists] are here to see our culture” (p. 351). She positively values that which tourists want to photograph, and she appears to have less appreciation for aspects of Ladakhi society that outsiders don’t photograph, such as young people dressed in modern, western, clothing.

The author does not view this cynically as a way of “inventing tradition.” Rather, he argues, the Ladakhis take their culture very seriously and appreciate the fact that tourists want to come and take away photos. Sometimes young Ladakhis get cynical about the situation, viewing the tourists like visitors in a zoo taking pictures of all the animals.

Others strongly disagree, however. Some think that when the tourists take pictures of them dressed in their ordinary clothing they are not being respectful. They feel the visitors should confine their photos to people who are dressed properly, in traditional garb. That effectively represents Ladakhi culture.

The author also focuses on the other side of the camera, on how the reverse gaze affects the tourists. They are often anxious about how the Ladakhis view their picture-taking, particularly the deceptions they feel they must practice in order to take what they feel are good, candid shots. In order to achieve their aims, they learn to take pictures without looking through the eyepieces or making it obvious they are using their cameras.

With digital cameras, it is possible to take many photos while simply holding a camera at waist level pointed in the direction of groups of Ladakhis. The properly deceptive tourist can also slowly pan with his camera at eye level, snapping rapidly, and use only the few that turn out to be worthwhile. Others use long telephoto lenses to try and take candid shots in crowds, without the subjects, they think, being aware their pictures are being taken. Curiously, some of these more devious tourists become quite concerned that their surreptitious photos are somehow degrading to the local people.

Gillespie analyzes additional layers of complexity. Some outsiders with their cameras observe others taking pictures and dismiss them as being mere tourists. They, the critics, occupy a higher status. They are travelers, not tourists; they are more interested in learning about the culture than merely taking snapshots to send home. These self-identified travelers have to be careful, of course, to avoid falling into the trap of taking devious photos themselves. They might get pictures of the author taking pictures of the Ladakhis taking pictures of the tourists taking pictures ….

Gillespie, Alex. 2006. “Tourist Photography and the Reverse Gaze.” Ethos 34(3):343-366