Sat on a tiny wooden stool, barely held together by it’s own splinters. A key-cutter some how avoids being hit by one of the infinite scooters and motorbikes that whizz past him all day. Eyes intensely staring into oblivion. A stare only possible if you’re guzzling a drink. Dry lips connect to a can of chilled Bia Hà Nôi: the local beer of, you guessed it, Hanoi. This friendly looking key-cutter was clearly waiting and hoping to become immortalised by the honed photographic skills of a passing tourist.
As a sensitive soul (not that I believe there is such a thing) or maybe just a bit of a chicken, it often takes me a moment to psyche myself up before I decide to point my camera in someone’s face and press the shutter release. And so I was, albeit for a mere second or two (the kind of seconds that are long enough to find a nearby bar and write a ranting blog post) crushed by a humiliating, belittling and deflating blow of defeat when the recently refreshed key-cutting Vietnamese gentleman waved his open hand at me, eyes screwed up with targeted irritation and shaking his head in disapproval. Everyone in the surrounding area of Hanoi’s Old City stopped and stared. Mopeds and rickshaws screeched to a halt. Women carrying portable kitchens with woks full of battered delights bobbing around in seeringly hot oil before being dusted with sugar, delicious and crusty baguettes filled with crunchy shredded vegetables, Thai basil and coriander, gossamer thin rice pancakes stuffed with minced pork and shrimps dipped in fish sauce, bananas, starfruit and pineapples, bowls of lurid-green sweet noodles, were all dropped to the floor, splashing, tumbling, splatting. Lightbulbs in the surrounding stalls, bars and restaurants all flickered as the city’s power supply momentarily dipped. Backpackers and holiday-makers all stopped in their tracks. Ice-creams stopped being licked. Dark and chocolately Vietnamese coffees sweetened with condensed milk were put down on café tables. The daylight dimmed as clouds passed over the South-East Asian sun… All in disbelief at the gall of this arrogant and presumptuous tourist brazenly trying to capture a few megapixels of authenticity in this low-rise tourist town.
To further tweak my sense of shame, my initial interpretation of the waving hand was of a man waving in cheerful acknowledgement of my photograph. As a thoughtful and reflective human-being I was left with no choice but to wonder; How should I have felt? Is it OK just to take a photo of someone without their permission? Does he have the right to sit in a public place very heavily populated by tourists and be grumpy when someone takes a snap? Surely he understands that cameras don’t actually steel your soul. Perhaps I should have asked him first or maybe he should just sit inside all day where there is no chance anyone can see him if he’s so bloody uptight. No-one owns the light that reflects from their skin into the eyes of passers-by creating an image of themselves in someone-else’s head. Before this trip, my opinion on how to photograph people was based on the more sensitive approach of buttering them up with a bit of friendly small talk first, possibly even buying a little something from them (I didn’t and still don’t need any keys cut). Having spent seventeen months standing out from the crowd, masculine curves accentuated by ridiculous Lycra cycling shorts, precariously pedaling around on a bike loaded with bright butter-yellow panniers, a bell, a horn and a MASSIVE wing-mirror, looking more conspicuous than (insert simile here). I realised that it would be highly unreasonable of me, not to mention a massive waste of energy and the missed potential to make new friends, if I had decided to object to the hundreds of people who take photos of us on our bikes every week… and besides, who cares, having your photo taken really is no big deal? My conclusion, as I finish my own Bia Hà Nôi, is screw you grumpy street seller guy.