Authentic Experiences Start with You

When I teach international workshops, invariably my photography students ask me how it is that I feel so comfortable walking up and talking to perfect strangers - young, old, men, women - in any country, in any language. My answer? Authentic curiosity and a willingness to pitch in and help. I often tell a story of when my two kids were little (they are now both in their twenties and traveling the world) and I was in front of my old farmhouse in Nova Scotia's beautiful Annapolis Valley. Our house is on a very scenic road, with cyclists, motorbikes and tourists toodling along all through the summer. That day, I was gardening and my two beautiful blonde babes were sitting in my wheelbarrow playing. I don't remember, but if it was hot, it's highly likely they were buck (or is it, butt?) naked. A car pulled up, slowed down and an automatic window rolled down. I thought they were asking for directions. But instead, without a word, someone in the backseat stuck a very large lens out and tried to take photos of my children. I dropped my rake and headed straight for the car, yelling at them that if they were to try and photograph my kids, the least they could do is get out, introduce themselves and help me in the garden (insert a few choice expletives). 
 

 Doing laundry with the Achuar, in Ecuador        photo by Kathryn Stieneker

Doing laundry with the Achuar, in Ecuador        photo by Kathryn Stieneker

 Helping with the rice harvest in Sri Lanka          photo by Holly Brown

Helping with the rice harvest in Sri Lanka          photo by Holly Brown

So that's what I do when I travel. I find common ground (kids, single parenting, animals, gardening, farming, food, woodworking...anything that might interest them and truly interests me) and then I introduce myself. And the places we travel, folks tend to be busy, working...working hard. They are washing laundry in a lake in Guatemala or bathing their babies in a river in the Amazon or harvesting rice in Sri Lanka. I offer to help and have never been turned down yet. I pitch in - and I mean pitch in. Sometimes for hours. Not just a few token minutes. What's cool, is they seem to get a kick out of it. And I must admit, it feels good, after traveling, to tuck into some manual labour.  I spent one day in Guatemala doing laundry, with four women, for almost the entire day and the next day my back was in total spasm. I seriously don't know how they do it.

I am blessed to be able to travel like I do - meeting real people, getting to understand the local culture and avoiding tourist resorts. But what makes it real, respectful and memorable, is that I feel like I may have made their day a bit easier.  At the very least, I provided them with a bit of entertainment. 

If those tourists in the car in front of my house had done the same, my gardening might have been done more quickly and I would've invited them in for iced tea and possibly made new friends. 

....Nance Ackerman (Cousins Photography Instructor, documentary filmmaker and Mom)