As someone who loves to preserve memories and who would blog about my experience here in Ghana, I knew that taking photos and videos would be an integral part of studying abroad. From a previous study abroad trip in high school, I also knew that taking pictures or video of actual people without their permission was disrespectful. Specifically when sightseeing, in addition to capturing moments, images and footage can capture people, objectifying them as if they were simply a part of the landscapes. I discussed this issue with another student and brought this concern up with everyone else on my current program during one of our town hall meetings. We had begun traveling around Accra and some people had taken pictures of local children, something none of us would do back in the states. I suggested that we all remain conscious of ourselves as visitors and Americans. We agreed to ask permission before taking any pictures or videos of anyone here or not take them at all.
When preparing to study in Ghana, I thought of the privileges I have in terms of my nationality and formal educational background. Given these privileges, I also sought to understand the power of my gaze onto people like Ghanaians as I visit their country and how my gaze is different from other students on my trip depending on our different racial, ethnic, and class backgrounds. I did so because I think of Ghanaians as an example of many historically exploited populations around the world. They are exploited in a variety of ways including for their resources and their labor, but also for their appearances and aesthetics. Through photos and videos, visitors can use images of locals for our own personal gain, but not necessarily for any benefit of the local population. Therefore, it is often a matter of what is constantly taken, rather than what is given.
Not only is the idea of taking important when photographing or videoing Ghanaians, but also the idea of projecting images to the larger world. Often, the images projected do not just depict Africans as different people, but often people the world sees as inferior due to harmful representations of Africans over time and in different spaces across the globe. Many of us Americans stand out as individuals because of our appearances, attracting attention. However, stereotypes about Americans may be negative but do not necessarily mark us as inferior or exotic. One of my goals while studying abroad here is to better comprehend how images through outlets such as mainstream media continue to represent people like Africans with racialized and demeaning perspectives. Those perspectives come from people behind cameras, cameras like the ones we have as students on study abroad trips.
Furthermore, I notice that there is indeed a mutual gaze between us Americans and Ghanaians that evokes otherness on both sides. I notice this especially when we are in big groups or in the large tour buses we take when going on trips. I will not try to assume what the Ghanaians are thinking. I am not even sure what I am thinking most of the time or any of my fellow students are thinking for that matter. I do know that, though small, these views and looks happen consistently and with a depth that neither the Ghanaians or us have the chance to explore.
As I continue to document my time here, I do so with the responsibility of respect and the aim to not appear as a predictable tourist. This responsibility includes understanding the historical and current implications of these gazes that I exchange with Ghanaians. I recognize how a stare can make a statement, subconsciously or consciously. I recognize the power of being looked at without ever being seen. Ultimately, in the moments when a visitor’s view meets a local’s look, I recognize the power of what goes unsaid.