Faces for Face Bills!

Everest Region, Nepal

I wish I could say that this series of photographs marks the beginning of my foray into the world of hard-hitting photojournalism or humanitarian aid, but alas, no.

This cantankerous woman isn’t really upset at all, she’s full of shit.

And also absolutely fantastic! I can’t tell you how much I loved this old woman. She has a cool old, wrinkled face, she knows it, and she’s working it. I bet you she comes to this exact same spot every single day.

She communicated to me, mostly through pantomime and a few memorized English words, that for a small cash donation, I could take her picture, and that she was capable of making alllllll these different faces for me. Which she proceeded to run through at top speed like a schizophrenic facial resume.

Sally Field move over, because this woman's about-face was unsurpassable. She would be smiling and laughing with me, then point to her face -- pull the most heart-wrenching face of despair you've ever seen -- then immediately smile again to let me know everything was still okay!

My favorite was this one of abject despair, followed by a close second, her sour puckered face.

There are many, many, more. I’d wager that this woman has not only seen a National Geographic, but she has rehearsed these faces in a mirror and is simply giving us photographers what we seem to want.

And nailing it, I might add!

Coming up behind me, my travel partner Kimby had missed this woman’s whole introductory pantomime (where she had quite unmistakably mimed the universal finger-rubbing gesture of cash, followed by a pointer finger that landed firmly on her flattened, outstretched palm), and only saw me taking exploitative photos of this poor, clearly grief-stricken woman.

Horrified at my callousness, and not understanding the name of the game and our arrangement, Kimby immediately tried to give the seemingly distraught woman mittens.

She didn’t want mittens.

Those mittens got thrown straight to the ground.

Both ladies turned to look at me, both at once, both like, "What the f*ck?”

Kimby had an incredulous face that said, “Did this woman just angrily throw my lovely mittens in the dirt?” And this old woman had a face that said, “What did you not understand about ‘Cash for Faces?’ I thought we had an understanding, Cash for Faces, bitches! I don’t want your stupid mittens! Mittens don’t get faces!”

Now the woman is ostensibly upset, thinking she’s only getting mittens when that clearly wasn’t our deal, and the whole thing becomes very confusing.

Kimby’s apologizing for me taking photos, I’m apologizing for her giving mittens, and after reaching in my pocket and handing the old woman a big wad of cash, we finally take our leave.

Then I spend the next twenty minutes of our TREK TOWARDS EVEREST trying to explain to Kimby what the f*ck just happened, and why she’s out a pair of mittens and I’m out a fistful of cash.

On principal, I rarely give money to beggars (for a whole cornucopia of reasons that I’ll go into some other time), but as I explained to Kimby, this was different. I wasn’t offering her charity, I was simply paying her day rate for services rendered.


HERE I discuss an exception to the rule, a time when I purposefully cary cash with me for the express purpose of handing it out to people on the street.