Lamu - main mode of transportation - December/03

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Lamu's Muslim women wear their veils and refuse to be photographed. They wave you away if approached with a camera. It was not clear what the stakes are until the brouhaha about publishing drawings of the Prophet Mohammed in Danish newspapers (that took place after this trip). At the time I figured I was taking pictures of scenes, not THEM. If they happened to be in the overall picture, and they didn't KNOW they were being photographed, it must be okay, I reasoned.

Not so. The Muslim faith prohibits photographing women because a photograph supposedly captures the soul. Images of any type (sculpted, painted or photographed) are verboten, because in some religious interpretations, "angels will not enter a house containing them." The Prophet has been quoted: "Every photographer is in hell—he who made an image shall be asked to make it alive in the Judgment Day, yet, he will not be able to." On one hand, there is the argument that iconophobia is not a classical Muslim doctrine, but results from the increasing power of fundamentalist sects.

On the other hand, some Muslims will give permission to be photographed if arranged in advance (else where would National Geographic be?). The concept is up for interpretation, depending on where you are and who you know. To do the right thing, it takes sensitivity, education and above all, respect. It sometimes means squelching your western freedom-of-expression stance in favor of not inciting needless reprisals.

If prohibition makes one all the more determined to take pictures, the photographer ends up with many back views and far-away shots...and possibly, hell. Some believe Muslim countries may in time loosen up on this issue, that attitudes are changing because of the desire to project a positive image and/or attract tourism.

Don't wait for this to happen in Lamu.