Definition: /twæf/
Noun (countable): abbr ‘taking without asking first’. A twaf, some twafs: meaning someone who takes photos of another without asking for permission or consent. Normally used as a derogatory term for someone who is impolite or has no manners.
Verb: to twaf someone, you have been twaffed!


Excerpt from ‘Just Turn Left at the Mountain’ by Andy Smart

Yesterday Ev and I spent the afternoon chatting to these two monks Kamseng and Nang outside a temple, helping them with some English vocabulary they were practicing from their note books. They told us that a lot of guys become a monk at an early age for four years before they get a job as it’s one of the only ways to get an education. It costs fifty dollars a year which is mega expensive for them and their families will spend years saving the money up for it. Monks are a common sight in Luang Prabang. Some frequent the internet café, so maybe online either side of you with their orange robes and yellow sashes, mostly playing computer games.

Weird! So we’re sitting there outside the temple when a great big party of around twenty tourists show up and they start taking photos. I guess you just have to get your monk shot in right?
“Do you mind moving out of the way so we can take some of these two guys?” asks an outspoken man, armed with his giant black Olympus super deluxe power-shot with interchangeable zoom lens hanging around his neck.

“Sure buddy” I reply. Ev and I leave our seats and shift to one side. The pack proceeds to gather into formation, creating a crescent shape around the two unsuspecting monks. Some even get down on one knee to get a better shot.
“You know they never asked the monks” notices Ev. “Do you think they mind?”

For a painful few minutes, the sound of snapping shutters becomes unbearable. Finally as the show grinds to a halt, Ev and I return to helping them with their pronunciation.
“What you got there?” asks one of the tour group, staring down our backs.
“Just some English practice” grinds Ev in an unusually short sounding tone.
“Hey that’s really interesting can I help?” he asks in a minimal effort to make contact with his subject matter.
“Yes” says Kamseng. “How to say this?” This draws the guy right in, leaning over us in order to get a better look. As he holds up the little book, Ev and I also get closer to see what the word is


Lost for words, the gentleman quickly withdraws stony faced. “I don’t think I can help you with that one buddy” while Ev and I contort in an uncontrollable laughing fit.
I know how it feels. As a Westerner living in China, someone can casually try and snap you at any time and it really gets your back up to the power or ten. TWAFs can come from any country any time anywhere!

So I’m at Beihai Lake in Beijing and this Chinese couple come walking towards me. One of them then holds up their mobile and takes a snap. They then take a look at the shot and start laughing. The other day I was on Line 10 of the Beijing subway when a guy sitting opposite slowly started to move his phone in my direction. Holding his phone up I could see that he was covertly squaring up to take a photo of me. No doubt the picture would be instantly messaged to as many friends as possible as a source of much entertainment

“Look at the laoai!” (A slightly derogatory term for ‘Westerner’.)

I guess the fact that I could see his reflection mirrored in the glass behind him was a bit of a give-away, so staring as hard as possible with arms folded, I cast a look of daggers carrying the message ‘Attention clearly unwanted!’ As the penny dropped that he’d been rumbled, he slowly moved the phone away as casually as he could like the strange interaction had never taken place. The reality is that these are only a couple of examples of the many. It’s happened on countless other occasions including people walking past I’m eating outside various restaurants, from table to table inside restaurants, on buses and just plain old walking down the road. A friend of mine recently went swimming at Beijing’s Water Cube but was dismayed at the number of people taking her photo. Can you imagine that? How wrong is that? One can never get used to a TWAF moment!

At the wedding in Eastern Mongolia 2007. One of the many amazing shots we took that day.

At the wedding in Eastern Mongolia 2007. One of the many amazing shots we took that day.

The Perfect Photo
Back in 2007 on my first trip to Eastern Mongolia, my friends and I came across a Kazakh wedding about to happen. Of course we were invited in, just to have a look around before the main event. Inside the ger was this enormous spread of food laid out on coloured sheets on the floor; quite a sight! More and more people showed up, followed by more people, in the end it was packed out. From the beginning though, this short and unexpected event maintained a surreal kind of vibe. Almost as soon as we arrived we were asked to take photos. Of course this is every photographer’s dream right? Normally it takes time to get to a situation where someone will trust you enough to take their photos, but there we were being hassled by the locals to just keep on shooting.

I have always had issues with taking photos while on the road, especially those times in Tibet and SE Asia and this experience led me and my friends to frequently discuss this issue and the ethics surrounding it for the rest of the trip.
Why do you take photos while you are on the road?

1. As a reminder of where you have been, of the great times you have had and the amazing places you have visited.
2. To capture the essence of the culture or place that you come upon; the uniqueness that you have not previously experienced and is so different from your own; easy!

Western TWAFS
But really, sometimes regarding taking photos of people, it can go beyond this. Yes, these are people you are photographing; they have feelings and dignity. I don’t know how often you have someone take your photo without asking, but when it happens it really gets your goat up. It’s kinda sickening and lame arse seeing someone sticking their telescopic lenses so close to a local that it becomes more than intrusive.

Often its people who have little or no money and whose daily life is a struggle that we can never comprehend. I remember one time when I was walking by the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa. That day it seemed to be teaming with people carrying all sorts of really high tech photography equipment all over the place, snapping away at close range like they were in some zoo or something. Not one of them ever tried to have the briefest of interactions with the people they were shooting. Indeed, most people never even seemed to ask.

I wonder why not? I think it’s because without thinking they are really unable to or unwilling to ever try and communicate with the people they are so quick to snap a lens to. Sometimes if I ask I get a glare or a simple shake of the head. Maybe in never asking a TWAF can avoid this so they always get your photo. For me when someone says no, I suffer for hours feeling like a right idiot, that I never spent any time with them and how completely undeserving I am to even be entitled for one picture.

Look deeper into yourself when your about to get that shot.
Why are you really taking that photo?
Is it so you can show people what a deep relationship you developed and the bond with the culture you had so quickly raced through?
Is it all about getting that perfect photo? That shot that defines what kind of traveller you are. Without even bothering for one second to communicate with your subject then your photos are a lie and you are a fake! Remember that when you post your photos on Facebook!

The Perfect Photo (continued)
Back to the Kazakh wedding though. Of course we were never going back to that place, we had digital cameras and they live in gers in a mountain range. They didn’t want our photos, just the act of someone taking their photos and the family posing proudly in front of the lens. It was like saying, yes, you can have your perfect photos, but you’re here for only one reason and that’s to seem like our personal photographers. They had no interest in getting to know us whatsoever and the tables were clearly turned around. In fact once they were done with us we were totally ignored. OMG they had used us! Afterwards, although we had got our perfect photos we all felt kinda small about the whole thing and it dwelt on our minds for a long time afterwards. If I’ve ever posted those photos, it’s always been in the knowledge that our ‘subjects’ had little or no regard for us.

I have a new hobby now, so watch out! It’s taking photos of TWAFs while they are in the process of taking their photos. I don’t care about their names or where they come from and I don’t want to get to know anything about them. Of course they can’t complain that I never asked them; they never asked their subjects either right? It’s a no lose situation!

9 replies

  1. I lived in Heidelberg, Germany for several years when my daughter was young. She had a little bavarian style dress complete with apron and knee socks that compelled tourists to take her picture every time we were out and about. Little did they know she was an American toddler. Actually, I was a bit insulted that they took her picture and not mine!

    The word TWAF is new to me and I like it!

    Liked by 1 person

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