We’re Better Off When People Leave Us Alone

June 28, 2019
We’re Better Off When People Leave Us Alone


“The truth is that tourism, like any other capitalistic project, is about consumption for profit. But “place” isn’t an endlessly renewable commodity—it is someone’s home, and the communities who call it so rarely factor in fairly to our conceptions of travel as an enlightening project.” -Bani Amor, YES! Magazine


Window Seat Media is partnering with the Center for Washington Cultural Traditions (CWCT) – a statewide folklife and traditional arts program housed at HumanitiesWashington and run in partnership with the Washington State Arts Commission – to conduct a “Cultural Traditions Survey” in the Twin Harbors region. The survey is an in-depth, in-person project involving recording interviews and oral histories with people who carry on their communities’ cultural traditions(folk arts, food traditions, etc.), and then turning what we learn in to podcasts, video portraits, and future programming.

So, for the past several months, I’ve had the good fortune of visiting with folks living in the rural coastal communities of Grays Harbor and Pacific counties. Cranberry growers in Grayland, fishermen from Westport, master artists from the Quinault Indian Nation and Shoalwater Bay Tribe, among others. It's been a rich and wonderful past few months, and I feel grateful for the partnership with CWCT.

One of my favorite questions to ask during interviews is, what do you most want others to understand about your community? I’m usually well into our conversation at this point, and the question often gets at some deep values and concerns. I asked this question at the end of a recent three hour visit a family of cranberry growers in Grayland.  

“We’re better off when people leave us alone,” was one grower's response.

It wasn’t lost on me that I am an outsider, and I appreciated his candor. He went on to explain the myriad ways tourists and other outsiders come into rural spaces without an understanding of the social or cultural “codes”of that place. People letting their dogs run off lease in the cranberry bogs or picnicking on someone’s farm without permission or leaving garbage on the beaches.

Our conversation reminded me of the powerful documentary, Stranger WithA Camera, by Elizabeth Barrett. It’s about the murder of a filmmaker, Hugh O’Conner, in 1967, by local resident, Hobart Ison, while O’Conner was working on a film in EasternKentucky about the American Dream. Barrett poses several questions in the beginning of the film. What is the difference between how people see their own place and how others represent it? Who does get to tell the community's story?What are the storytellers' responsibilities? And, what do these questions have to do with the murder of Hugh O'Connor?

Fieldwork takes time and commitment. It’s about building relationships and finding a mutual benefit between our programmatic goals as outsiders and the needs of the communities whose stories we hope to amplify. In the age of social media, I often feel pressured to document what I’m doing so I can better tell the story of our work and the work we're doing in partnership with other organizations. But I’ve taken and shared very few images of my trips out to the Twin Harbors and the people I’ve met there. I’m just beginning to build relationships and I often feel uncomfortable asking to take a picture of someone to share on social media after a first visit.

After leaving the house of the cranberry growers, I drove through the back roads and past the beautiful bogs with their reddish spring blossoms. They were picturesque. I wondered how I would feel if someone rolled up to my house and started taking pictures. It would be weird, and I wouldn’t like it.

Of course, CWCT will be sharing images and stories from our fieldwork - and I can't wait to share them too. It will just take a little longer. So, stay tuned!

Until soon,

Elaine Vradenburgh

Founder + Curator