It was late afternoon on my last day in Dubai. The dust mingled with the relentless sun while a swirl of noise and action surrounded me. Cars rattled on the street, people walked around briskly, and there was the din of rapid honking and loud chatter.
I was walking down a sidewalk somewhere in Deira, the old part of Dubai. Several metres ahead I noticed a man sitting at a dilapidated doorsill. There was something about him and, instinctively, I took a picture. Immediately after, that pang of remorse hit me.
It was a feeling that had been repeating itself for the last few days—the result of a raging battle inside my head, for I felt drawn to that captive union of light and humanity called street photography but was also mindful that, in essence, I was infringing on people’s privacy by taking a picture without their permission. Depending on the circumstances of the shot, either I managed to brush that feeling aside, or I felt kind of bad. This time was the latter, for the man had looked straight at me just as I pressed the shutter release.
I always “took the shot” because I had a long, thought-out rationalization for my actions; it was a promise that I repeated to myself—like a mantra—that I would only take pictures with compassion and empathy, with the intent of only showing people in a positive or humane light. However, it was dawning on me that this rationalization was losing ground, or at the very least, in need of some decompression. Little did I know at the time that the man whose picture I had just taken would be a catalyst.
It appeared he had some items in a box near him, so I guessed he was a street vendor. As I approached, and with my head turned away to avoid his gaze, I waited for him to try enticing me to buy whatever it was that he was selling. I had, after all, spent much of the day being solicited by vendors. However, as I walked past, he did not utter a word. Several metres further, with my interest piqued, I looked back at him and saw that he had followed me with his eyes. They were sad, tired eyes, and they looked deep into me without a hint of entreatment or accusation. It was then that I stopped. I knew I had to talk with him.
Beside him I could make out a box of oranges. I retraced my steps, came up to him, and asked for two oranges. He stood up, somewhat startled that I had come over, and told me that the price was 2 dirhams. He put the oranges into a yellow vinyl bag, and I gave him a 5 dirham note.
Wanting to engage with him somehow, and clueless about what else to say, I told him I was from Canada, and with a smile asked where he was from. He answered, “Bangladesh”. He handed over the oranges and went to prepare the change. I said he could keep it. He at first refused, but when I insisted, he accepted timidly. Then he looked up at the sky, raised his hands so the palms were above his chest, and mumbled something, as if to heaven.
He smiled at me with thanks. I smiled back, said goodbye and walked away. At first I felt self-pleased, but then I began thinking. I had come across a man whose life was about selling oranges on the street, a man who had just shown religious gratitude for a 3 dirham tip—the equivalent of just one US dollar. Smugness was not an appropriate mindset for me to take on, I realized. I needed something deeper to take away from this experience.
So I was mindful of him while continuing my way through the streets of Deira. Although I carried my camera in the way I usually do (to be ready to take a quick picture), I didn’t take any. However, when I came across a metro station, I was reminded of an earlier idea to do a simple self-portrait using my reflection in the glass. I positioned myself and took a shot so that my fedora hat and the yellow bag of oranges were in plain view.
I then put away the camera. I returned to the hotel, where I enjoyed the oranges for dinner. I ate mindfully and felt grateful for many things, not least for having met this man and making an experience out of this street photography that was both a fascination and a moral dilemma. While chewing on the oranges I eyed my camera, the recently acquired Lumix GX8—a lump of metal and electronic circuitry that was, in sum, surely worth an impossible amount of oranges to that man.