On Interfering with Local Culture
Yesterday was the Equinox. How do I know this? Yesterday evening while I was shooting a 3-hour timelapse for Magic Window, my carefully selected spot was briefly the prime spot for a large effigy burning.
Let me explain.
While traveling for Magic Window, I have a pretty good system worked out for picking locations. Before I even head to a new city, I tend to study Wikipedia, Flickr, and maps to decide what I want to shoot and where best to shoot it from, taking into account angles, where the sun will be setting and at what time, and how busy a location might be. In a tourist city like Prague, this is very important. Once I get there I usually spend a few hours location scouting earlier in the day before I commit to a location for three hours.
My location today was a small island in the middle of the river with a direct view of the 14th century-built Charles Bridge, also an internationally-known landmark slammed with tourists. Shooting on the bridge itself can only be accomplished at sunrise, and I haven’t done that yet.
So, at around 4:30pm, I get to my previously scouted spot to find absolutely perfect conditions, and few people in sight. Without too many people around I’m free to relax and not worry about being sold trinkets or being distracted by hustlers and pickpockets, both of which have happened, although I’ve yet to have anything stolen.
The location was quiet, with the occasional couple holding hands and looking at the scenery or a tourist coming by to snap a few photos and leave.
I set up my camera at the very apex of the island, and noticed a rock with some kind of symbol embedded in it, which i thought nothing of besides “that looks interesting”. Deciding that this was the best location to get the widest shot, I set the timer and sat down under a tree a few yards away.
A little over an hour later, I noticed a large group of people walking towards me banging drums and singing, a few with dogs and small children. The children and dogs immediately ran towards the water, making me very nervous. For a few long minutes I did nothing, until the children decided to duck under my tripod legs while playing. I lept up and started shouting at them “Too close! Don’t touch it!” over and over again, which meant nothing because they didn’t speak English. One little girl stuck her tongue out at me and ducked under the camera again. Never having dealt with this situation before, I had no idea how to handle somebody else’s misbehaving children that didn’t speak the same language as me. Eventually an adult came over, scolded the children in Czech, and pulled them away. Meanwhile people were coming up to the rock-symbol, rubbing it, and walking away.
I stood by my camera uncomfortably, trying to keep an eye on it as well as my backpack with my other camera, iPad, and a half-dozen lenses in it. I had no idea what was going on but I was in the very center of it. Eventually an adult with a camera came up to me.
“You speak English?” he asked.
“Yes!” I said, thankful that somebody else did.
“Is this a timelapse you’re doing?”
“Yup. Can I… Leave this here?”
“How long are you going to be here?”
“Oh, until it gets dark. 7:15 or so.” (A full hour and a half)
“Oh. Do you suppose you could come back tomorrow?”
“Aaaahhh… Errmmm… No… I’m only here a few days, and I’ve been here an hour and a half already, I’m kind of committed to this location now. There was nobody here when I got here, and I didn’t know you guys were going to need this spot. It’s too late for me to find another one now. I feel bad though, but this is my work and I came here from California to shoot timelapses in Prague.”
“Okay, okay, I understand. We’re going to burn a large doll and throw it in the river. We do this every year for the equinox to celebrate the end of winter. Is that okay with you? This -is- the prettiest spot in Prague!.”
Now, at this point I had no idea how I had convinced him that he now needed my permission. I felt very weird about it though, after all they were locals, this was their city, not mine, and I was in their yearly equinox spot, literally on top of what appeared to be a sacred symbol, and I had just shouted at their kids. I was keenly aware that the “right” thing to do was to pack up and go, and I was already mentally prepared to do just that. All this was running through my mind, and what came out of my mouth was “Of course! Please do!”
“Okay. We can throw it over that way if you like.” He gesticulated away from the camera. “But we usually throw it over here. I don’t want to ruin your shot,” he said without any trace of sarcasm.
“Oh, that’s fine, no problem!”
“You should take pictures!”
I had just noticed that I had an icy death grip on my second camera, which I had hastily taken out of the bag for protection. The man walked off, talked to someone else, and immediately a large effigy that I hadn’t noticed before was lifted up to loud applause, a surge in drum beating, and some chanting in Czech.
Within moments it was on fire. Another man waded out into the water, shouted something in Czech, and threw it as far as he could. There was much loud applause as the smoldering mannequin drifted down the river and under the bridge.
I’ve synced the timestamp metadata from my two cameras (one was on an intervalometer, the other handheld) on the photos below and put them in order:
15 minutes later the group had broken up without anyone else speaking to me, and I was left alone again for another hour and a half as daylight melted away on the last day of winter.
I think there is a lesson to be learned here. I’m not sure if it’s “be more respectful to local cultures” or if it’s “be assertive and people will respect you”.
Either way, I felt like kind of an asshole for most of yesterday evening.
…That is, until I downloaded the photos and realized that the kids had indeed bumped my tripod and I had to spend 40 minutes lining everything up in post.