There is a boy in a village atop a mountain in Laos. His name is Jimmy. It’s not his real name. One of the guys from the nonprofit called him that once, and the name stuck. Jimmy was tiny, maybe three years old at the time, and during my two weeks in Laos documenting the nonprofit’s work there, I had never seen him with clothes on, at least not from the waist down. The other kids wore clothes more often than not, so Jimmy’s choice made him the village maverick, a utilitarian in the smoldering mountain heat. I would have run around naked too, had it been socially acceptable to do so.
Jimmy was a maverick in several ways, actually. When I first arrived, the children mostly giggled from what they deemed to be a safe distance, eyeing my camera equipment as if it were the most confounding magic trick in the world. Not Jimmy. He sauntered up to me immediately and alone, stoicism edged with curiosity on his tiny little face, his sisters yelling at him to come back, to be careful lest my camera eat him alive. He stopped inches from my lens, peered fearlessly straight down the barrel of my camera as if he were trying to find me on the other side, and stuck out his tongue. I laughed. He didn’t. I didn’t exist to him. Only the camera seemed to exist, with which I believe he fell in love.
Hours later, I was at the edge of the village waiting to film one of its oldest women as she burnt her family’s rice field down. Leslie, the nonprofit’s woman on the ground, was waiting with me. Out of nowhere, Jimmy appeared, sitting bare-assed on a wooden fence post. His sisters stood with him, ready to keep him at bay. I walked slowly over to them, said hi, put my camera down on the ground and backed away, giving them space to approach it at their will. I never let any of the adults from the nonprofit come near my camera, lest they drop it in a river or accidentally take a rusty nail to the lens. But I trusted these kids. They were too afraid of/beguiled by my equipment to do it any real damage. At least I hoped so.
Jimmy immediately slid his naked self off the fence (ouch) and sat in the dirt behind the camera, reaching to bring the eyepiece to his face like he had seen me do. But his sister yelled something to him — unmistakably, a reprimand.
“What did she say?” I asked Leslie.
“She told him not to touch it because his hands are dirty.”
So Jimmy spit in his hands, rubbed them together as if his spit were soap, wiped them against his dirty thighs and attached his hands to the eyepiece.
My half-hearted protest melted into a chuckle. No point in doing anything about it now — his muddy spit had already caked itself to the eyepiece, and now he was dragging the camera closer to him across the dirt floor.
Since then, I’ve solved most conundrums by asking myself, “What would Jimmy do?” Would he giggle from a distance and run away with the others when opportunity got too close? No. He’d slide his naked self off the fencepost, spit in his hands and cover the world in his mud. He’d venture out on his own for even the remote possibility of seeing things through a different lens. You know why? Because a different way of seeing is worth a few splinters in the ass.