“Hey you!” a woman shouted.
My initial reaction – maybe she wants to hassle me for something, better keep on my way. Keep walking, don’t turn around.
At the same time, two teenage boys were shouting at me, too. “Over here!” And in the same crowd, a man here, a kid over there, all of them vying for my attention. “Right, what do they want from me?”
This was Soweto. The most well-known township of Johannesburg, South Africa. Famous especially as the home of former president Nelson Mandella, and his fellow Nobel Peace Prize winner, Desmond Tutu. And famous as a place that continues to represent Apartheid and the poverty that remains for many of the black population.
This was the place that made the news a lot in the 1980’s — shootings, riots, a warzone. But here it was today, a region full of life. Filled with bustling streets, food stands, outdoor markets.
Going against my initial closed-off reaction to all these strangers’ calls (a reaction I don’t like to admit to!), I did turn around and look in curiosity.
And you know what I found?
I found big smiles, each person calling out, “Shoot me! Shoot me!” The teens pull a cool dude sign, the woman selling something (what looked like popsicles or some sort of overly dyed liquid), held up her bag of goods to strike a pose.
Everyone had eyed my Canon SLR strapped around my neck, and just wanted me to take a picture. All were so happy to have their model moment while I obliged and snapped the shutter.
They didn’t want money. They didn’t want to hassle me. They just wanted to be a part of the moment. A part of the connection that comes when one travels to another’s home across the globe.
It was such a nice moment. I love taking pictures of people. But oftentimes the best photos require that sly photojournalist style: take the shot, then smile sheepishly if the subject doesn’t look pleased. Or ask first for the shot, fully knowing they may comply but may not seem pleased. Or they do comply, but they don’t pose as well as when you first eyed the ideal moment you want to capture.
Anyway, all of this as a way to say that things are not always as they seem. Sometimes even if we try to be open minded, initial doubts creep in. Doubts that it’s better to keep walking and not turn to whoever yells at you in public, thoughts that it’s safer to stay in your own mental zone and shut out strangers. Fears of unknown crowds that could bring about theft and other crimes.
It’s a reaction ingrained in us as kids – to avoid talking to strangers. And all the years of hearing of crimes that happen in the news, and hearing little about positive moments with strangers. All safety precautions, don’t get me wrong, are important to consider as you do need to be safe and aware that things can happen. But what I’m getting at is that I firmly believe all people are inherently good. And the number of times I’ve been somewhere, in an unfamiliar neighborhood that didn’t seem that “safe”, I was quickly shown some sort of kindness of strangers or friendly greeting. A reminder of all the wonderful humanity that’s out there if we just connect, trust, and open up to others in our global world.
It’s about using gut judgment, trusting yourself, trusting others. And in this case, I’m so glad I turned around. I ended up with photo gems like these:
These were some of the first guys to yell “Shoot me! Over here!” at me.
These kids, who just got out of school for the day, were thrilled to pose with their “cool dude” gangsta style. They were quite pleased with themselves when I showed them the shot I took.
Just a few friendly folks having some fun with visitors like me. And though, yes, progress is needed to continue growing and improving the conditions in Soweto, it’s also a warm, welcoming, charming place full of caring citizens. Nothing like the visions on the news a couple decades ago. Definitely worth a visit.
My tip for you today: When you travel, even on your everyday commute, turn your head, see who’s standing there and who wants to take a moment of time with you just to smile. Just to lock eyes and connect. People from all parts of our world are amazing, and all you need to do is be present. In return, you may just get sweet smiles, lasting photos, great conversation, special memories.