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Use Photos to Engage with Locals on Trips

How to teach your kids to give back and engage with locals while traveling?
When visiting poor areas in developing countries, we take Polaroid photos of willing people and give the images to them as gifts. Even in the digital age, many people in rural areas do not have many or even any photos of themselves.

Some of my fondest travel memories revolve around this picture-taking tradition that I started 25 years ago.

I can still picture the solemn Egyptian soldiers guarding the Suez Canal. It was 1991 and tensions were high in the Middle East. When my then 9-year-old daughter pointed a camera at them, the soldiers threw down their submachine guns and started hugging each other and mugging for the camera like the teenagers they were. My daughter Alissa, who later studied photography in college, included this treasured anecdote in her college essay.

On a trip to Ecuador in 1994, Alissa and I admired the distinctive black felt hats with red and white braided bands worn by many Otavalo locals. Although the hat is traditionally sported by men, its lines and splash of color appealed to us. When we discovered that Iluman, a small village in the Andes that produced high-quality versions, was not far from our hacienda, we excitedly arranged for the local guide to drive us there.

When we arrived, however, all the shop and house doors were closed, and only a few people were milling about the streets. Alissa, then 13, walked up to a girl about the same age and asked in Spanish if she could take her photo. She nodded her consent. When we showed the teenager the Polaroid image, she broke into a broad smile. All of a sudden, from out of nowhere, her older brother and cousin were striding toward us. Wasting no time, Alissa shot a photo of them as well.

In the few minutes it took for that Polaroid to dry, the girl’s mother, who must have been watching through her curtains, materialized. One of the boys ran back to his house to get his sister. Slowly, more and more families appeared for photos.

When we explained that we had come to Iluman for hats, shopkeepers flung open their doors. Before we even realized what was happening, we were being fitted for fedoras by two grinning locals. Afterward, patriarchs invited us into their living rooms to meet grandmothers and babies and to photograph them. We felt privileged to be part of such important moments (and grateful to have packed extra film!).

For those trips, we packed our circa-1980 Polaroid camera. Although difficult, it was possible to purchase film for the camera. Now, there are new Polaroid cameras on the market that make this simple travel act even easier.

I still often think of the woman in Ecuador whose children we photographed. She stood in the road, waving, smiling and blowing us kisses until our van disappeared around the corner. That woman does not know how happy she made us.

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