TIAA #30: “Photo Non Grata”

Tosin’s Images & Anecdotes (TIAA) is my self-assigned photography challenge of 2022. The immediate objective is to select one image from my inventory (a cityscape, landscape, portrait, oddity, etc.) each week and write something about it. This “something” could be the story behind the photo, a triggered memory in relation to the photo, or simply a reaction or reflection based on the subject matter featured. The long-term objective is to encourage myself to add more content to “La Vue Atypique”, which celebrates its first decade in publication this year.

“Photo Non Grata” a.k.a. “Body Language Befuddlement” / Stanley Market / Hong Kong / August 28, 2010

What can I say about the photograph above?

This is one of the many stores located at Stanley Market. Stanley is a beautiful seaside town on the southern shore of Hong Kong Island, opposite from where all the towering skyscrapers are located. At Stanley, my dad and sister made many friends with the local vendors as we had many gifts to purchase for friends and family back in the States. It was at the market where my sis and I got to witness our dad display his extraordinary prowess to bargain and negotiate for souvenirs and gifts with anyone and everyone. Needless to say, the vendors all loved him, as there were many “win-win” scenarios to be enjoyed in each store we entered. Without any doubt, haggling is a language and an art form all around the world. I’m certain that I could never replicate my father’s skill in it.

In this week’s photo for the TIAA challenge, my sister enters what looks like a Marketplace Wonderland (and it was, indeed). The owner of the store, to her left, appears to have a slight attitude as she enters. Her arms are crossed and she appears to be giving my sister the side-eye as she walks past her into the store.

The optics of this image had some profound reactions — both when I tried to market the photo to Hong Kong tourism organizations and when my sister shared the image on her former Facebook page.

I was still a novice in the photography business when I tried to introduce my Hong Kong portfolio to potential clients, particularly those based in Hong Kong. TIA International Photography was not even a year old yet in August 2010. Though it’s foggy in my mind now, I do recall that this picture was largely rejected solely on its optics. For the tourism industry — whose primary mission is to communicate an alluring, inviting, and friendly atmosphere to foreign visitors — the optics of this specific image seem to portray the polar opposite of this theme. The fact that my sister is black and the owner’s stance communicates a withering, unwelcoming vibe essentially made this particular image “photo non grata”.

In retrospect, as I sit at my desk typing this article, I’m certain the Hong Kongers were befuddled at why an American photographer would think this photo would be suitable for their publications or advertisements.

As I said, I was a novice at the time. I own it (and I definitely learned from it).

When my sister shared the image on Facebook, she did so because she was one of the few people who actually liked the photo. She really liked it. She’s always been an independent thinker so she must have had her reasons. I think some of them included the fact that it looked like she was entering a world of synthetic materials for sale coinciding with the owner’s look of disapproval on her face. My sister’s friends on Facebook immediately began to query what was happening and why the owner had such a glowering expression on her face. Inevitably, the assumptions started to pour in, from whether the proprietress was upset, unhappy, or just moody or…just racist.

It caused enough online clamor that my sister eventually explained to her friends what actually happened, which I will also explain here, since I captured the image.

When my family had arrived at the store, the proprietress was standing in the entry way, which was the only entrance available. I was entranced by all the colorful gifts and souvenir items so I positioned myself to take some photos of the storefront while my sister made her way to the entrance. Upon seeing my sister’s interest and movement towards the entrance, the proprietress simply moved out of my sister’s way — which is the precise moment that was captured in the photograph.

Truly — that’s all it was. No mood. No attitude. No racism. Just a physical movement of a few inches.

As I recall, the proprietress was actually a very pleasant and professional lady, especially after a few minutes of haggling with our dad! We gave her some business, so she was all smiles when we left — which, unfortunately, I didn’t think to photograph as well!

I suppose this anecdote is meant to share how optics can totally transform the meaning of a photo or video from its original intent to something diametrically opposite of its original intent. It is human nature to assume certain things when presented with a visual. When all that’s available is the image and the subject matter, each individual must rely on the context of the visual alongside his or her own experiences to determine what is happening in the image — whether that deduction is correct or not. There are probably countless examples of what we perceived was taking place turning out to be false or not actually what was happening whatsoever — but optics undermine this almost every time.

Looking back at this moment, I think it only underscores my own reasons for being intentional in the content I present to the public. I try to do it in such a way that there can be as little misinterpretation as possible. Most of the time, I am successful in this objective, but there have been times when I presented a particular image and it was not well-received because the intent was not understood or the optics overshadowed the true intention or meaning of the content. I prefer to avoid this at all costs because misinterpretations can escalate into misinformation — and I want none of that associated with my brand of creative work…ever.


31 articles down for the TIAA challenge. 21 remain!

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Kirk. says:

    Interesting image. Thanks for providing the context because without it, I must confess that I would have asked if the woman was making that face at your sister too because that’s what appears to be happening. Context is the new king!

    1. Thanks, Kirk! I completely understand. Unless optics and context are synonymous in a picture or video, optics will prevail if the proper context is not provided simultaneously. Very important to make this distinction, but so many outlets actually profit from not providing context with their images deliberately. We live in an era of misinformation and it’s unfortunate to say the least.

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