Tourists, Cameras, and Hopi Privacy

Today I read a blog about an American who now lives in Boquete, Panama. This week he visited the Hopi Reservation and took a picture of a home at Orayvi on Third Mesa and posted it to his blog called Boquete Panama Guide. Here is what he writes:

It has been years since my last visit and I wanted to see if the life of the Hopi had changed. Everything was closed, the poverty obvious and although there were signs up not to take photos I took one of this dwelling.

Recently a friend asked me why Hopis post signs at the entrance of their villages that forbid tourists from taking photos. I told him that one of the reasons is because Hopis want to protect their privacy.

Think of it in this way…

Imagine that you live in a remote area of North America that receives thousands of tourists each year. Your house is unlike most homes in the United States. It is made of sandstones and situated close to a highway. Throughout the year tourists zoom by your house, abruptly stop their cars, roll down their windows, and snap photos of your home. Sometimes this happens when you are sitting out front drinking ice tea and visiting with members of your family. Other times your children are playing outside. But it does not matter to the tourists if anyone is home, or whether people are outside. All they want is a photo of your home, and to them, the photo is only enhanced if you and your children are part of it. You sometimes wonder what people do with these photos. You imagine that some people put the picture of your home in a photo album, a book, make postcards and calendars from it, or sell it.

Concerned about your family’s privacy, you decide that enough is enough and so you put a sign in your front yard that reads: “Please do not take photos of my home.” And then you wait. It does not take long for the next tourist to drive by. He slows down. He reads the sign, then looks at your home, then reads the sign again. A Nikon camera is laying on the passenger seat. He finds himself in a dilemma, but he decides to honor your request. Five minutes later, another car approaches your home. These people stop and read your sign, then look around to see if anyone is looking, roll down their window, take several photos of your home and speed away. This happens day after day and it will only increase during the summer months.

Matthew Sakiestewa Gilbert

13 thoughts on “Tourists, Cameras, and Hopi Privacy

  1. My family has a good laugh about a photographer… This person was driving by our upper village. My sister and her little girl were walking down the road by our grandma’s house. She watched people in a car slow, stop, and she said “they were taking pictures of that old chicken coop like they thought it was some ancient Indian dwelling.” She laughs telling the story… And then she said the car stopped beside her and they asked her if they could buy an adobe from her. Being the sweet one that she is, she said “Oh you can just have one.” She gave them one from the falling-down-chicken-coop. They were so grateful to her. They asked for her name and address, and for awhile there, they were sending fancy new clothes to her for her daughter.

    We have a good laugh, telling that story!

  2. Hey, Matt…. I went over to read the blog you linked to…

    I posted a comment, but it is awaiting moderation. I doubt it’ll be approved! Here’s what I said:

    I teach in American Indian Studies at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. I’m tribally enrolled at Nambe Pueblo, in northern NM. My grandfather was Hopi.

    My colleague, Matt Sakiestewa Gilbert, publishes a blog called BEYOND THE MESAS (google it and you’ll find it). This morning, I read his thoughts on people taking photographs out at Hopi. He links to this page.

    It is troubling (to use a mild word) that the author of Boquete Guide read the sign saying “no photographs” and then went right ahead and took one anyway!

    And the language this author uses…

    “frozen desolation of the Hopi Reservation”


    “poverty and people in need of assistance”

    It’s all in the eye of the beholder. I wonder if this guy was looking for “plight” and found “plight.” Material possessions always seem to be the measure by which people make judgments of other people and their lives or culture. I’m glad you didn’t stay longer, and I think your decision to ignore the signs is shameful.

    You should copy and save the Boquete post before it goes away the way the one on Craftista went away…

  3. Debbie, thanks for your comments. As a courtesy to the author of Boquete Panama Guide, I let him know that I wrote about his post on my blog. I’m also not sure if my comment will be approved. But here is what I said:

    January 24, 2010 at 1:47 pm


    I read this blog post a few days ago and wrote about it on my blog called Beyond the Mesas. I focused my commentary on what you said about taking a picture of a Hopi home even though you saw signs that explicitly forbid people from taking photographs. You wrote: “It has been years since my last visit and I wanted to see if the life of the Hopi had changed. Everything was closed, the poverty obvious and although there were signs up not to take photos I took one of this dwelling.” Here is a link to my blog if you are interested:

    The title of my post is: “Tourists, Cameras, and Hopi Privacy”

  4. Roger Nehring

    Either the blogger you refer to takes a very long time to moderate or neither of your comments have made it through his filter. I left the following comment:
    “although there were signs up not to take photos I took one of this dwelling.”
    Why would you be so disrespectful of the wishes of these people? Is it because they are ‘poor’ and brown?I guess it is just ok for colonizers of European descent to take whatever they wish from the First Nations, eh?

  5. Roger, thanks for sharing your comment on my blog. I doubt he will approve our comments. Everyday people disregard these signs, but few people actually admit to it in a public forum. The simple message that he sends is clear: the Hopi people are poor, in need of help, and tourists do not need to follow Hopi protocols. The more complicated message that he sends speaks to the issues that you raise in your comment.

  6. Delux

    I’m here via Debbie’s blog.

    That blog post? Was very special. I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s something about the word “no” that just puts a special force field around it and renders it invisible and inaudible and just basically incomprehensible to some folks.

  7. hari mirchi

    Here via Delux. I’m not surprised at the audacity of the picture taker, as I had to tell a dozen grown adults once that no, it is not okay, to take photos of Katrina survivors and their homes without permission. The brazenness of his reply though, wow. Just goes to show that some folks will go to any length to dehumanize brown people.

  8. Pingback: Misrepresenting the Hopi with photos « Beyond the Mesas

  9. Wendy

    This is an issue anywhere you have tourists massing. I had to laugh at the “imagine” scenario because it has happened to this white girl! I live in Skagit County which has a tulip festival where in a month around 350,000 tourists come to gawk. I’ve been sitting outside my home (reading — not drinking iced tea)and had busloads of tourists stop and take my picture. Especially fun when you are coming back from the barn and covered in muck. I know people who have put up no picture signs and it makes no difference. I’ve come to the conclusion that people are idiots when on vacation, if they see something outside of their norm then they want to capture it on film.

  10. Pingback: Canyon de Chelly: Parks and the Expectation of PrivacyChaparral Hiker | Chaparral Hiker

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