The significance of walking

Picture: Streetside, downtown Copenhagen, Denmark.

Safety is something that is always on my mind. Wherever I happen to be, I look to the local women to show me how much range I have.

In a new place, how free women (like me, or not) are to walk, speak, dress, etc without inhibition, is the greatest reflection of how I can expect to be regarded as an individual. Do women and girls walk alone with head high, regarding the world in the eye? Are they comfortable in their surroundings? Or do they step watchfully, taking the shortest amount of time between origin and destination? Do those who are brown like me, have the same liberties as their sisters who are a lighter color, or do they actively downplay the spectacle that is their skin? How do they converse with men, familiar or stranger? And in my default position as a foreign visitor these days, what are the other tourists doing? How comfortable is everyone else with that behaviour?

Sometimes I get the odd question from women (and men) asking me if such and such a place I’ve been, is safe. I’ve asked the same question of destinations, to women who travel alone. The answer that I have given, and that I’ve frequently been given, is “_____ is as safe as anywhere else, as long as you use some common sense.”

That statement made no sense to me in the beginning, when I was all geared up to be the intrepid (chicken shit) explorer (hermit). I’d only ever travelled between Singapore, where I’m from, and Australia, where I lived. I had no common sense when it came to anything unfamiliar.

But I realized that the lessons of my childhood were of the greatest service, when figuring out where I was in an unfamiliar social landscape. I started out looking to the people most like me, to see where they stood, and how far I could extend myself without repercussion. “They are different from you,” was a refrain I frequently heard when growing up. “You cannot do what they do.” And that remains true in many respects. There are things men can do that I can’t. The are things lighter skinned women get away with that I never would. There are things locals do that I shouldn’t. My position as a traveller also gives me access to things others don’t have. It is a combination of have and have-not, intersecting with are and are-not. It’s not simple, but it isn’t too difficult. And it is always insightful.

And it has been mostly true (for me) that one place is as safe as another, as long as I adapt dress and behavior, as I am taught to by the people that live there. It really is common sense sometimes: sensitivity to what I don’t have in common with others, and what I do.

Amager. Copenhagen, Denmark.
Amager. Copenhagen, Denmark.


7 thoughts on “The significance of walking

  1. Although I suppose I had always known, in a sense, that, as a white male, I had less need for caution and awareness than other people, particularly women, it took Charlene’s post to bring it home. I feel ashamed to have spent so many years in ignorance of my own good fortune. I spent three years in Egypt, in the English army, but because I was usually in uniform, I didn’t feel any need to be on my guard.
    There are parts of the US, where I live now, in which it pays, even as a large, white male, to be a bit cautious, but I have never thought about the prospect of having ALWAYS to be conscious of possible threats, or, at least, of having to think about how I might be viewed.
    I wonder if the “uniform” of carrying a camera makes a difference?

    1. I would think there are some places in the world where being a white male would be a disadvantage, no?

      For my part, being foreign, and importantly, looking foreign, comes with its it’s own set of advantages and disadvantages. Being brown is infuriating in some places in the world (not least, my place of birth), but in others it’s also a boon, depending on what you’re after. I’m educated, articulate (on good days), upwardly mobile, and travel on one of the best passports in the world. I honestly believe I’m as good as any man/woman of equivalent ability, and that i am entitled to the same credit, compensation, and regard. And i won’t hesitate to say so (occasionally, to my detriment). Race is an inevitable part of my daily life along with gender, but no matter my skin color, all the privileges of being born in the right place at the right time opens doors / borders I don’t even know exist.

      I don’t think they’re anything to be ashamed about, Fran. They’re wonderful things to build on, and pay forward. That’s a good thing (for me).

    2. Re the uniform of camera carrying, I don’t think it makes that much of a difference. At this point, photography still has a white male face.

  2. Thanks for your further points, Charlene…and thanks for making me more aware than I was. Various recent events in this country have emphasized that it’s not always wise to be outspoken. What can start out by being given a thump or two can lead to getting killed. And here, where guns are everywhere, one can’t afford to be too outspoken!
    About camera carrying, although there are now so many “serious” cameras that are so much smaller than conventional SLRs, to say nothing of all the smartphones wielded by off-duty serious photographers, I suspect that you still have to be humping an SLR to be seen by the public as a “real” photographer. Again, I have to admit to not having considered that photography has a white male face, but I’m sure you’re right.

    1. I thought this article on PetaPixel was an interesting take on diversity on photography, if you’re interested in reading more about it:

      I’ve had the pleasure of having similar conversations quite a lot in the past few months, with different photographers. It’s not an easy one to have, but it’s important to talk about it, regardless of whether everyone agrees. Different perspectives gets everyone thinking. That’s a necessary part of moving forward. Feel free to email if you ever want to chat more about it.

      “I suspect that you still have to be humping an SLR to be seen by the public as a “real” photographer.”

      I think so! Small cameras are still not taken particularly seriously by the general public, for which I am grateful. Pleasure, for me, is an important part of photographing. If I had to be stressed about it all the time, I think I would eventually stop.

  3. Reading this made me think. Being of mixed ethnicity and gray around the temples, I never really thought much of where I traveled. Traveling through the Southwest US, I keep an eye out and never overdress where ever I go. Heck I enjoy my jeans and ball caps. I have caught the eye of some in certain areas but just kept on doing what I was doing. I was once in Idaho USA and just felt uncomfortable by the looks so I left. Never second guessing those gut feelings always helps. Take care.

    1. ” Never second guessing those gut feelings always helps”

      Absolutely. Although a sensitive gut too, takes time to develop.

      Thanks for stopping by, Rick.

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