This weekend, my friend got married.
We got a call from a Peace Corps volunteer, formerly in SIT, telling us that the Return to Paradise resort was looking for “travel-savvy, foreign-looking people” to feature in its new website and advertising campaign. They offered a free night, all expenses paid, at the resort as a perk. We were curious about what we might be getting ourselves into, and a group of us agreed to go.
We were told to expect bikini photos on the beach. However, when we arrived, the photographer told us that the clouds made that plan impossible, and that we would instead have a wedding. We started by shooting photos of the bar, sipping specialty cocktails and showing the camera how much we were enjoying ourselves. Next, we moved to romantic dinner photos, and the chosen couple sat out in a private fale on the rocks as a drone flew around them taking candids. The rest of us were supposed to be continuing our background bar banter, but were peeking out at the couple and the photographer.
Things really heated up the next day, when we shot the wedding. Our poor friend who was picked for the bride spent the whole morning posing for photos: sitting, standing, looking at a wedding dress, getting makeup done, having a head massage (only enough for photos), and…getting married. Barefoot on the beach, we surrounded her and the Peace Corps volunteer, looking down at a heart made from hibiscus flowers.
At the last minute, the photographer realized he’d forgotten to find a pastor, and snagged a nearby gardener. “Here,” he said. “Open the bible and pretend you’re reading.” Various romantic photos were taken, but my favorite is the one of the kiss, chiefly because of our gardener/pastor, who has his eyebrows raised and mouth open.
After the wedding, the photographer ordered us to go out to the rocks, and we danced as the drone flew above us. I think these are some of our best photos, though also our strangest.
This was one of the most unexpected, bizarre experiences I’ve had in Samoa, but it isn’t the first time that SIT students have done something like this. Samoa’s foreign tourism is not big yet, numbering only around 20,000 non-Samoan tourists per year. And young, foreign-looking people are few and far-between; besides Peace Corps, SIT, and actual honeymooners, options are minimal.
But the biggest question arising out of this whole ordeal, for me, is “is this culturally OK?” Overall, I have my doubts, but I’ve decided to try to argue for a yes for this specific case. The Return to Paradise is owned partly by locals (not part of Hilton, Marriot, and friends), and has a policy of hiring two members from each household in surrounding villages. These higher hotel wages are a huge stimulant for the local economy, since minimum wage in other job venues is a dismal $2.33 per hour, under $1 US. And because of low wages and little surplus other than that sent in remittances, it makes sense that the hotel would be catering to wealthier New Zealanders and Australians, a population that is largely white and “foreign-looking” to the Samoans.
The next factor that leads me to a “yes” is the movie Return to Paradise, which was filmed on the site and which gave rise to the hotel. This film starred Gary Cooper, and was shot in the 1950s. Return to Paradise marked the first instance in which local indigenous people played leading roles, and parts were not filled by white people in blackface. The female lead was played by a bank teller from Apia, and if you watch the film with people in nearby villages, most will point out a number of aunts and uncles. So, the film is looked upon positively by locals, as it promoted their culture more positively than other films would have, and encouraged local involvement.
Finally, there is Us. Were we right to do this? The hotel probably spent over $600 Samoan on each of us, so the owners really wanted our pictures. And afterward, they plan to put my friends’ wedding photos on billboards and foreign advertisements. So there was definitely a lot of people-using-people going on here. But, if we had not come, they probably would have found someone else, someone who would not reflect back on the experience, taking the perks and moving on with life. I think that is the most dangerous scenario, and so I am glad that a group of students studying cultural issues in the Pacific agreed to the shoot.
The conversation about this should continue, since I’m still not sure what to think. I certainly enjoyed my first beach wedding, and will never look at the people in hotel photos the same way again. And I hope that this weekend of cheesy photos and questionable ethics will do something positive for locals in the end.