The Reverse Selfie: A Tiny Act of Decolonization?

I will likely never see how I am used in those images. But I was glad to relinquish power in those moments.
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“For a White Westerner, travel photography in the Global South remains an especially complex act.”

All photos from Suzanna Finley

As both photographer and advocate for social justice, I am aware of the power dynamics inherent in travel photography. “Taking” someone’s image and using it to create a narrative of my own choosing is an act of unequal power. In fact, I’m doing it right now with this photo essay about a recent trip to India.

For a White Westerner, travel photography in the Global South remains an especially complex act. India as an aesthetic subject is the most inspiring place I’ve ever worked, from extremes of natural beauty to busy, dynamic streets. Yet making images in India is weighted by colonial history and the country’s ancient and intractable caste systems. In trying to understand my own participation in these power dynamics, I have studied the role of photography in colonialism and how photography was used to justify the British Raj’s “civilizing” mission. This is apparent in the 6 billion postcards that went through British mail service from 1902 to 1910: White colonial image-makers often portrayed unidentified dark-skinned people out of context—often religious ascetics reductively labeled “fakir”—to craft the “Orientalism” that author Edward Said defined as the West’s patronizing representations of Asia, North Africa, and the Middle East. This narrative of “otherness” positioned British culture as necessary and superior.

Most Westerners have their smartphones at hand at all times nowadays, and it’s easy to forget that other parts of the world didn’t always have easy access to cameras, the ability to photograph themselves in their environments, or Instagram accounts to share those images with the world.

So I was fascinated to find, on a recent trip to India after 10 years away, a bit of change: more local people with smartphones and the phenomenon of the foreigner selfie. Everywhere my husband and I traveled, urban or rural, touristy or absolutely out of the way, Indian families or groups of friends approached me and other Westerners with their phones, simply asking, “Selfie?” The Times of India reports that it’s mostly Indian travelers doing it because they rarely see White-skinned people. Often they don’t ask permission.

We were props. I was at turns flattered, confused, then moderately uncomfortable. Why do they want my photograph? What are they going to do with it?

For the past 150 years, people in the Global South have had those feelings, those questions. For me, this simple act of having my image “taken” flipped the usual photographer-subject power dynamic. All over India, 50 or more images of me are integrated into the stories of Indian strangers.

I will likely never see how I am used in those images. Will the social media caption be nice or mean, sincere or snarky? These foreigner selfies do not heal hundreds of years of colonial wounds or the expropriation of billions of dollars of resources from the subcontinent to the European world. But I was glad to relinquish power in those moments. I imagine them as the tiniest personal act of decolonization.