How I Learned to Frame my Experiences through Photography

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While studying abroad, I tried to travel as much as possible.  One of my later trips was a quick one-day stop in Brussels, followed by meeting up with a friend in Amsterdam.  It was the first trip I was going to take by myself, and when I left London at 6am I was filled with a very mixed bag of emotions: nervous but excited, anxious but eager.  Later that day, after walking for a few hours, that back-and-forth feeling came out in my thoughts:

“Hmm, Google maps says it’s only half a mile away, but I can’t even see the palace from here.  I’ve been walking for so long since lunch I should take a break, but I’ve only got a day.

I can’t believe that interaction with that waiter was so awkward, I was trying to order food but he didn’t speak any English and I didn’t speak any French.  Guess that’s what happens when you don’t even bother to learn basic phrases in French, Noah.

I’m at 50% battery but I got a reusable charger.

There’s so many people staring ohmygod, do I look that much like a tourist?

What’s the battery on the camera like…oh!  There’s the palace, but the road just ends and shoots up three stories.  Brussels is so hilly geez, looks like there’s an outdoor elevator.

Why did I come to Brussels alone…

Oh wait.

Oh, that’s pretty.”

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One of the goals of my semester abroad was to learn about photography.  I had always had an interest and thought the best time to learn would be the six months away from the daily stresses of college.  So, I bought a fancy DSLR camera and got to snapping.   

But at the same time, I had to navigate the ins and outs of being in foreign countries, and interacting with people who’d only see me as a tourist.  Anyone who studied abroad can attest to this feeling of being out of place, and while I felt it while studying at University College London, I really noticed it while visiting new places around Europe.  As cheesy as that internal dialogue sounds, that’s how much of my experience went while travelling abroad.  It’s an anxiety that I didn’t quite see coming, but I learned how to work with it to make for a more fulfilling experience.  With this post I hope to show how through photography I navigated being out-of-place, ultimately becoming a more global citizen.

“Framing” your Surroundings

Look at the picture above again.  Think about how the photo is framed.  It’s pointing upwards towards the elevator with Brussel’s Palace of Justice in the background, but what stands out is the rainbow of T-shirts.  The street art, “If I had Wings,” by Finnish artist Kaarina Kaikkonen, is meant to represent the multicultural population of Brussels.  It’s a moving piece, and its attachment to the Palace of Justice signifies a message of peace and justice for all residents of the city and around the world.

Out of frame though, is me staring up at an elevator, and a lot of people sitting at the square next door wondering what I’m doing.  I had just had an awkward exchange with a waiter lost in translation that I regretted immediately.  I suddenly felt way more aware of these other factors than the photo itself.  Which, now that I look back on it, meant I wasn’t focusing on what I wanted to.

So focus on what you can control.  It seems obvious enough, but you’re the one who’s going to be out of place, and that’s ok.  Think of your time abroad as taking a whole lot of photos, you get to decide what’s in the picture and what isn’t.  Acknowledging that first means you’ll worry less about factors out of your control, and make your experiences all the more valuable and worthwhile.

Don’t Erase, Embrace

That being said, photos are just single snippets of a full experience, so as much as framing photos is being in control, it is also a responsibility.  Treating people with respect means not seeing them at face value.  Your responsibility is to not just be a tourist, actually take the time and investment to learn about other cultures and traditions.  You can’t erase other people’s identities, and in a much more literal sense, you can’t erase them from your photos.  Being in control of what you want to keep ‘in frame’ is also a responsibility to make sure people even want to be photographed, to be remembered in that way.  Ask people’s permission to be photographed, let them decide how they are presented.  Respect comes in different forms, both experiential and literal.

Likewise, explore!  Learn what it means to be a part of these different cultures, their traditions, and treat it with respect.  You’re going to be aware of how out of place you are sometimes, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t learn what is out there, that’s part of the point of going abroad.  In my own case, I should have taken the time to learn some basic French so that interaction with the waiter wouldn’t have been so awkward.  But there are other instances where this feeling shows up as well.

This photo was taken at the Royal Wedding for Prince Harry and Meghan Markle in May.  After asking those in my immediate vicinity if I could take their picture, I had another realization like in Brussels.  I was one of many with cameras that day, and also one of many Americans.  Being out of place is as much being the tourist as it is representing where you’re from.  I was always aware of the fact that I was people’s impressions of Americans, what I had to do was make sure I didn’t take them at face value.  Don’t erase your own identity to get to know others, recognize you grew up in a different environment and learn what others want you to know about them.

A Royal Wedding is a perfect example of ‘being’ British, but there’s more to it than just watching a parade.  Being there was the culmination of months learning about British culture, relationships and traditions.  To be at the wedding was to treat them how they wanted to be treated, with respect for their traditions and values.  That photo was just a snippet, but it was part of a process to get to know Britain at a deeper level.  Those feelings of awkwardness go away when you realize how much you can learn, so go out and do it!

Create Lasting Memories

Being abroad is about embracing new surroundings, and using those surroundings to create experiences you’ll never forget, even the awkward ones.  That exchange I had with the waiter was as impactful as the wedding, because they made me realize I was walking into someone else’s home, and it was my responsibility to be respectful.  Though I might’ve looked out of place lugging around a camera everywhere, it was my turn to learn, and learn as much as I could.

A few days after I was in Brussels I was in Amsterdam, exploring with a friend.  Aware of my experience in Brussels, I made sure to just enjoy what I could control.  Because if you learn, embrace, and explore with that in mind, you might just walk by something beautiful.

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Noah Greenstein is an Anthropology and Sociology student at Brandeis University and studied with IFSA at University College London in London, England in Spring 2018.

Article by Noah Greenstein