Be a Cultural Insider and get better photographs. (pt.1)

Having worked cross culturally for over 15 years, with 13 of those years spent living in Kashmir, India, I made it a point to run my company, Frontier Treks & Tours, as culturally sensitive as possible. So I became a student of culture and how to best be a non-destructive observer and how to gracefully enter into it as much as possible. It is only by doing this that you can find, what might be called “insightful” images.

Culturally sensitive tourist are quicker to get ‘inside” the culture.

One thing that I see over and over again by tourist and traveling photographers ((David, please note I did not say

“Travel Photographers” as they are dead.)) is a lack of cultural sensitivity. By a lack of cultural sensitivity, I mean a disregard of local norms and  societal boundaries. By doing this we unintentionally communicate a message that says, “I don’t care about you. I am the center of the universe and I find you a novelty.” We end up living out a pejorative ethnocentric attitude. This in itself is wrong. But, as a photographer in a cross cultural environment trying to engage with his subject and get shots that show the culture in it’s reality, it can be deadly. Because ethnocentrism blinds a person to the truth. It creates it own reality, by prejudicing everyone involved, the photographer and the hosts. The photographer sees the culture through their own lens of “this is weird, not right or backwards” and thus the images are highly likely to reflect this in subtle and sometimes not so subtle ways.  The host culture reflects this by guarding it’s self and not letting the photographer see the real culture and in fact this can be boldly exhibited by not allowing him into an event or ritual because he is an outsider and outsiders are not to be trusted.

Lets look at ways we do this and some simple ways to avoid it.

All dressed down and nowhere to go.

Often just dressed appropriately gets you quality time with locals.

Why is it some people feel the liberty to dress like slobs in foreign countries? Wrinkled shirts and wholes in ratty pants are the norm. I often see tourist under dressed for the cultural environment they are visiting. When I say under dressed, I mean literally not enough clothing on. Take Kashmir for instance. Here is a Muslim dominated society that has been at war for the past 19 to 20 years. Local women have gone from dressing in modest Wester apparel in the late 1980’s to today being fully clothes in burkas and Shalwar Kameez, the long shirt and baggy trousers of South Asia worn by both men and women.


Yet, when I walk the “Boulevard” in the tourist section of Srinagar I will often see Western women in shorts, or tank tops with no er.. how to put this “support”. Kashmiri men and women gawk in unbelief at the tourist who seems not to notice or worse yet, not to care.

Why is this an issue? Let’s look at what we communicate.

If I invite you to a “black tie” affair and you show up in blue jeans and a t-shirt you are making a statement. The other guest will likely assume you are saying, you don’t want to conform to the norms. That you think a black tie event is somehow wrong. We have all seen it happen at something like the Oscars where a movie star dresses in contrast to the rest to make a statement against “the system.” When the photographer thinks, “Hey I am not at home so I can relax and dress down”, they are not thinking what is this communicating to the people around them. But unfortunately we are always being watched and thus we are always communicating.  I have a Kashmiri friend who is fond of reminding me that all Westerners are walking “tube lights,” fluorescent bulbs that draw everyones attention no matter where they go or how they dress. So people are watching and we need to be aware of the signals we are sending off.

Unfortunately in our attempt to relax what we are saying to out host is, “We don’t care what you think, we don’t care about your societal norms, we don’t care about what makes you uncomfortable.” As a result our actions scream “We don’t care about you!” This may not be what you feel, but it is what is being communicated.

Take my wife…please.

You may never stop all the stair, but dressing in a modest always helps.

Cultural sensitivity is not limited to only dress. Learn about the customs either before you leave for the country your are visiting or at least once you arrive. Nothing can disarm a local that is nervous about you sticking a camera in their face like a few words of kindness in their mother tongue. This shows respect and a desire to learn. Note, I said mother tongue. There is a huge difference in the effect when traveling to a place like Kashmir and greeting someone in Kashmiri, “A salaam-alakum, var-ray? Thik-put?”  rather than in Urdu, “Kya Haal Hai, janab? For the most part, all Kashmir’s speak Urdu, but what you are communicating (non-verbally) when you speak Kashmiri is, I took the time to learn what is dear to you.

Be advised, when people learn language without learning culture right along with it, it can get messy. Here is a very subtle example from real life. I had only been living in Kashmir for a short time. I wanted to learn the Kashmiri greeting. But not the short version above, the one I heard friends use every day was long and very comprehensive. It translates to, “A salaam-alakum (May God’s peace be upon you!), How are you? You ok? Everything Good? How is Your Mother and Father? ok?, Your Brother and Sister ok? Your children ok? All household is ok?” This was just too fun not to learn. So I practiced it with my Kashmiri friends. But I gave it a little extra flare as I transliterated my culture into the Kashmiri words and asked my friend how his wife was. There was a moment of awkward silence.  My friend, Aslam, looked at me and sternly announced to me, “Men never ask about another mans wife!” Ouch, I had gone to great length to learn the words, but missed the cultural clues. Luckily for me, the Kashmir culture is forgiving and all was well. By the way, why was it forgiving? Because I tried. I showed I was a learner.

Are we having fun yet?

When a photographer visits a new country or culture they are inevitably confronted with a way life that may feel uncomfortable and strange. Our first response is often different is wrong or backwards. When in reality it is just different or maybe even a more effective way of doing something in that culture.

This woman is seeking blessing or “barkat” from the shrine.

I remember being very frustrated that the electrical power would go off seemingly indiscriminately in Kashmir. There never seem to be any rhyme or reason to it. On one day it went off at 5pm, on another day at12pm still another at 3pm. I was being too busy being frustrated and complaining rather than reading the local paper. Because in fact there was a schedule and it was printed in the paper! There was a good reason, the power is turned off to service a broader base of people as they have limited resources and the “indiscriminate” service was actually a planned outage that is staggered over a period of days, I just didn’t notice. By the way this is called “load shedding” in India and happens in many developing countries.

When we show frustration or disdain for something in the culture we are visiting we are very libel to shutdown resources for information.

Women and non- Muslims are not allowed in to some shrines and Mosques. Cultural norms are not like ours.

As a photographer or photojournalist we need to rely upon people to explain things going on around us. Why are they walking around the fire in the wedding? What does turning a prayer wheel do? What does red henna on an old mans beard mean? Again, we need to built trust so people will communicate with us honestly and by complaining or showing frustration for their home culture we are doing the opposite of that.

Frustration and disdain are hard to hide in a photo. As photographers we are writing with light and if the author is upset at what he is photographing be sure, it will come out in the images he shoots.

We have seen a few ways that we can mess up and what can happen as a result of it. Now, I am going to assume if you have read this far you are also interested in how to prevent all these mistakes. Tomorrow I will list a few ways to avoid these pitfalls and give some ideas that can actually work for you and help you take insightful images.

To be continued…

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13 thoughts on “Be a Cultural Insider and get better photographs. (pt.1)

  1. Such wise words Matt, and so great to hear them spoken out loud and proud. I’m currently doing my best to learn Russian (cyrilic is so much fun!!) in readiness for a visit early next year I hope. One thing i’m also planning to try doing from now on kind of fits in with this idea, and that’s to spend at least the first day there, without my camera. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried it but my idea is simply that by doing that, it forces me take a little bit of time to just walk around and metaphorically introduce myself or be introduced to a place, so I don’t I get too wrapped up in the idea of myself taking photos.

  2. Ian,

    The no camera rule is a good one. But really hard to keep to. But it will really help you find your vision for the whole trip if you can pull it off.

    Thanks for sticking with me on the blog change.

  3. Ian,

    The no camera rule is a good one. But really hard to keep to. But it will really help you find your vision for the whole trip if you can pull it off.

    Thanks for sticking with me on the blog change.

  4. Great article. What you said is absolutely true and will make a difference. I was allowed in shoot at places simply because I was well dressed. Of course, I learned the hard way, when I was kicked out at a festival because I was wearing shorts. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Well said, and I like the new look/layout for your site. Must have taken a ton of time transferring from Blogger! This article would be good pre-reading for our tourists.

  6. Great article! During my trip to India i tried my best to dress and act appropriately as a respect for their culture, but my travel companion did the opposite -shorts, tank tops, you name it! -it was embarrassing to be near her. The difference in people looking at her and me was tremendous.

    This showed me the difference between people being open to culture and people who are not. She, unfortunately did not like her trip and stayed in her room most of it, i couldn’t get enough of it. My point is, that our love or hate for the culture showed through the way we presented ourselves. I bet you the people that don’t take the time to understand why you should not wear shorts are the same people that do not like where they are.

    great articles.. i like this blog better! 😉

  7. Thanks for the encouragement. I hope the nest article will shed some more light on the practicalities on the “how” part of this subject.

    Mag, I am sorry for your friend, but more so for you. Your trip could have been so much better for the both of you had your friend just thought through some of this. Maybe next time, nothing is a better teacher than experience.

    David, If you want to use this with your tourist, please feel free. That is what this is all about.

    Thanks for the nice comments on the blog everyone. Please spread the word about the new url and format. Let’s get these numbers back up.

  8. Wow – great post. I found you through a website. My husband and I are in the process of moving to Pakistan and I have been playing around a lot with the thought of how will photography play a role overseas and how can I be sensitive to the culture and what that looks like. Your post really allowed me to confirm thoughts, as well as think more out of the box. Thanks for the post and I will definitely be following your blog.

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