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Responsible Travel Photography

Using the Web to Link Locals and Travelers in Oaxaca, Mexico

Responsible Travel Photography: Oaxaca City internet Workshop.
Oaxaca City — internet workshop for Teotitlan artisans.
Luis Lazo Mendoza and Ron Mader.

How do you explain the terms "internet," "real-time communication," or "Web 3.0" to residents of rural communities who do not have their own telephone and who have never set foot in a cybercafe? How do they interpret the jargon? Most importantly, are they able to find ways to use these services for their own benefit?

Mind you, these terms are not the first thing I talk about, but sometimes these techno terms come up in conversation. Frankly, it is hard enough for me to keep up with the relentless avalanche of new widgets and gizmos.

Some Background

I moved to Oaxaca City in the spring of 2001. My Mexico guidebook had recently been published and I was eager to prepare the second edition in a place that I thought deserved a book of its own. Like many long-time visitors, I was already a fan of the local cuisine and folk art. I promptly started to create features such as the directory of where to buy crafts in Oaxaca City and where to eat.

Conversing with locals, I explained as best I could how these web pages worked and did not, and I was not accepting payment for inclusion.

Motivating entrepreneurs, activists, or government officials to develop their own web presence has changed quite a bit during the ensuing ten years. What was an exclusive dialogue among the digerati is now more open and accessible to all.

There was at least one previous attempt in Oaxaca to introduce web-based marketing and sales to artisans and it failed miserably. Back in 2002 the consultant — on a trip around the world — had just a few days to run his workshop with locals. Among the challenges — working with the local people, some of whom did not have bank accounts or phones. The focus on e-commerce would be understandable in communities with more developed infrastructure, but it was interpreted as either sheer nonsense or not seen as critical among locals.

The critical step that had been missed was that to in order to build capacity it is sometimes necessary to build capacity. What was missing was e-culture and getting locals motivated to share part of their culture online. The first step was simply to take fear out of the equation when using the Web and then building toward specific skills such as creating a photo gallery of their tours or crafts.

Most interest in using the Web remained dormant until late 2006, when social unrest led to the collapse of tourism in Oaxaca. For the first time, artisans started requesting internet classes.

Experiential Learning

My approach was to demystify the internet by using certain public and free channels, starting with Flickr, a popular photography website. I explained that there are a number of services that could be seen as an extension of the tools in an ordinary toolbox. We held internet classes in the way that cooking is taught in Oaxaca — by allowing the participants to learn about the Web by using the Web.

Much of my teaching has been conducted simply by sitting down with a few friends and showing them first-hand how to edit Flickr or post a message online.

By teaching artisans to learn at their own pace, we have seen slow and steady progress. Sessions need to be coordinated. The internet is becoming more accepted as two things happen:

  1. Greater publicity and awareness of the internet.
  2. Many of the kids are growing up.

We are seeing the rise of “digital natives,” particularly those in their late teens who are equally adept with a century-old loom and yesterday's cell phone. Veronica, seen on the cover of this webzine, is one of the under 20 crowd whose abilities have soared the past three years. A proficient photographer, she contributes regularly to her family's Flickr account.

In 2006 we saw the start of wireless internet in local hotels, and in the following two years in a smattering of cafes and restaurants. Now wireless connectivity has been extended to free use in public parks. From no phone to cell phone and from wired to wireless, this has been a communication revolution in terms of technology. That said, to bring further depth to content and conversation, we need to think outside the box... literally.

How Visitors to Oaxaca Can Assist Local Businesses

How can visitors truly assist Oaxacans? I would call your attention to the word “acompanamiento” — which means simply “accompanying.” When we have the opportunity to hang out with Oaxacans, visit the markets on their terms, we have a tremendous opportunity of seeing through their eyes. Much of this can only be arranged on the spot and only if we are ready to listen.

Since not everyone can “hang out” with the locals we have created some fun events, including public Fotosafaris not in a market, but rather the beautiful Llano Park. The park is two blocks long and boasts several dozen species of trees, not to mention some notable monuments. By asking locals and visitors to come together in a public park and take photos of trees, we have created a unique teaching event that allows participants to improve their photography skills while learning the names of a few of the trees. Each walk is different by virtue of the diversity of participants. Groups have ranged from two to 20.

If you take your own photos during your trip, be sure to respectfully ask permission before taking a portrait. Offer to send links to the photos to those you photo. Also, if it is an option for you, use the “old school” method of printing out the pictures and giving them back in person. See our presentation on Responsible Travel Photography for more.

Ron Mader hosts the award-winning website.

More of Interest by Ron Mader
Learn Spanish in Oaxaca
Day of the Dead in Oaxaca, Mexico
Responsible Travel in Mexico and Central America
Related Topics
Responsible Travel and Ecotourism
Articles and Resources on Mexico

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