“I know he’s a tyrant, but it will serve you well, my friend, to shut the fuck up about it. It will serve no one well if you decide to talk about it, and it will end badly for you if you speak about the situation with the wrong person. A lot of these little tin pot outfits avoid jailing foreigners, the bad press just isn’t worth it. The deportation plane is the less painful solution. This outfit,” he gestured out the window at the rugged land below, “this is not one of those places.”
He wore a tan suit that was straight out of the 70’s, and looked like it last fit him about that time. He had the window seat and I the aisle; we’d struck up a conversion on the flight. He was flying home from some business abroad, I on my way into the country for my first assignment there. When he heard I was a photographer he’d decided to split the remainder of his third small bottle of whiskey with me and give me some advice.
“The country is a rough place, and it would also serve you well to never show that in your photos. All pictures will be screened when you leave the country, they’ll check your laptop and phones and cameras and what not. They know you’re a photographer, they will check. And don’t try to hide something or email something to your boss, they won’t take kindly to that.”
I tried to protest, feebly, that it was my duty of sorts to portray the country accurately.
He smiled paternally. I’d guess from his demeanor he was a good father, the kind that seems hard on the outside but that his children know is a complete pushover who spoils their mother and would never say a word in anger to anyone he loves. “My friend, there is no ‘accurate’ or ‘real’ here. Reality is controlled by those who call the shots. We must ignore the evidence of our eyes if we wish to keep them in our heads. It is distasteful of course, but if you wish to survive here, it will be a taste you acquire. Reality is redefined daily and it is something we must adapt to.”
“Why do the people put up with that?” I said, feeling a need to rid myself of all such questions before the wheels touched the sizzling tarmac at the airport.
He shrugged gently. “A variety of factors, I could never tell you the motivations of any of my fellow men, but I would guess the benefits of apathy are too high and the cost of resistance far, far too dear. Perhaps it is our fate to suffer so, we make due to survive.”
I was deflated. My hopes of giving a window into this walled off nation faded as we began our descent and the reality of just what a place this was began to set in. The man saw the dejection on my face and gently slapped me on the knee.
“Do not despair my friend, there is still a story to be told here, one that will slide past the censors and tell the real story. It will take artistry, subtlety, a keen eye and a steady hand. You will have to walk a razor’s edge, but it is walkable should you choose to tread that path. Your viewers will see through the lines if you make it so they care to look, and the censors will be blind to it if you don’t give them reason to suspect. I’m sure you will be up to the task, the story of this nation should be told, and we will appreciate it being told.”
I looked into his deep brown eyes and thanked him.
He smiled. “Either way my friend, you are welcome to eat at my house and my wife is the finest cook in the world. If nothing else, your mouth will delight in such sweet cuisine.” He laughed uproariously, danger be damned.