Be a Cultural Insider and get better photographs. (pt.2)

Be a Cultural Insider and get better photographs. (pt.2)

Picking up where we left off yesterday, I want to give some more thought to the actual “how to” of being a Cultural Insider.

Learn some key phrases: As I stated before, ideally learn these phrases in the mother tongue of the people you are photographing. You’d be surprised how many resources there are for this sort of thing. Buy a language phrase book by Lonely Planet. Check out the many software language classes available. The best has got to be Rosetta Stone. It is much closer to the natural way we learn language. Maybe you are like me, and there is just too many countries you are visiting to learn phrases for each before your trip. No problem. You can start on the plane. Many times when traveling to a new country I find my self setting next to someone on my flight that is a national from that country. I now have a captured teacher. Drill them for phrases and insider information. If not the airplane how about the taxi, most taxi drivers are talkers and would love nothing better to do than show off their ability to help you learn a few key phrases. In fact that taxi driver might even become your cultural informant. More on that later.

Relax and Chill: Things are different and you will encounter uncomfortable change if you really enter the culture. But isn’t that a part of the adventure? If you wanted things to stay the same then maybe you should have stayed at home. So change your expectations.
Be a Learner. Ask questions. Be a three year old. I remember my daughter Jessie when she was three, she seemed to start every sentence with “why.”
“Jessie go to bed now.”
“Why Daddy?”
“Jessie we don’t run with pens in our hands.”
“Why Daddy?”
We need to revive that 3 year old in us and start asking our host, why. Why do you eat that way? Why do you sing those songs? Why do you pray? Why does that building painted like that? Once we position ourselves as learners, seekers cultural of knowledge, our host will let their guard down and we will see there pride and dignity. They will begin to let us in to their world and we will see the pictures clearer.

The Give and Take. One of the things we stalk about at Lumen Dei, the Workshop David Duchemin and I lead in Kashmir, India, is the give and take of photography. The very nature of photography is taking. We take pictures. We often take time away from out subjects. What what do we give back? Not much. But there are somethings we can give back, though small, but often noticed. Take a moment and share the image you just shot with the subject or the other people around you. You will be surprised how many times other people standing around will respond with “Now take one of me!” You might even get other invitations to go deeper into the culture once they see you can be trusted. When you walk away without showing the images, the people around only guess what you took a photo of and whether it has portrayed them positively. Dismiss those fears by simply showing them the back of the camera.

Another way I used to give back is by making small 4X6 inch prints for the people you took pictures of. This only works if you are going to be in the area a long time, or if you know someone who lives there. I do this often in India. After a trek up in the mountains I will often take the images of the people I have shot and once back in town process them in a local one hour lab. Later I give them to friends I know in the area to distribute them back to the people.

Using the Zink portable printer.

You can do the same thing now with out having to go to the print shop and get 4X6 prints made. Now through the magic of technology I bring you; the Zink personal printer! This is a great little printer that makes business size prints and runs off of batteries. The paper even has an adhesive back to it so your subjects can stick them on mirrors or kid can stick them on books etc.. We used the Zink on the last Lumen Dei in September and found them to be just what the doctor ordered. You would be surprised at the good will this has engendered. Between this Zink and 4X6 prints, now whenever I return to Kashmir I am welcomed with open arms and am literally known in the mountains around our treks as the “shepherd’s ((The Shepherd in Kashmir are mostly a people called the Gujjars. you can find many shots of them in my gallery)) photographer.”

Ask and it shall be given. When shooting portraits in a closed society it is often appropriate to ask a subject before shooting. Often times you will be met with a pleasant, “please do” or “sure, no problem.” Recently in Sumatra, Indonesia, again a conservative Muslim society, I was reluctant to shoot the women all clad in their Islamic covering. I knew I needed to ask before shooting them. So I learned how to ask, “Bolai photo?” More often than not I was greeted with a smile and “Bolai!” literally “Can!” or “Sure, take it.” But when someone you ask refuses, then respect that. Don’t under any condition try to sneak it a few minutes later and certainly don’t try to pay them off. This will only undermine any trust you have with the others around you.

The Informant. One of the more comprehensive and all a round best ways to prevent most if not all these mistakes is to find a  “cultural informant ((Also called a Fixer”)).” This person may, though not always, be able to give you the “hows” and the “why” of their culture. They can be more than a translator of language, they can translate culture, unlock history and give you the traveler, the chance to do more than just peek into their rich heritage, they can give you the opportunity to experience it first hand. Some people will pay great sums for a person like this. Often times it is a local photographer that knows what you want and would like to shoot with you or learn from you. But lets face it, not many of us are willing to fork over the funds for a person like this nor do we know a photographer in these regions. So how do we find this informant? Remember that man or woman that sat next to you on the flight? They might be a great place to start. In fact they might be willing to help you ask the right questions or know about the whys and hows of the culture you will be landing in. They might even have a relative that would be willing to take you around personally. Don’t forget your taxi driver. Surprisingly these guys often speak several languages and are willing to hire out their taxi for the day and act as a unofficial guide for you. Hopefully along the way you might meet someone in a tea shop or a restaurant that will befriend you and and help you see this new world in a positive light and with some new insights.

Sludge can win friends.

Years ago in Srinagar, Kashmir I developed a strong bond with a houseboat owner named Rashid Badyari. Rashid has a love of adventure. He also has a perverse feeling of satisfaction when he puts me into very uncomfortable circumstances. But I found this was a great way to enter into the culture. One day he invited me to get up early with him and go to the old city and experience a special breakfast called “harissa.” The harissa shops are often tea shops converted for the cold season into a small smokey dinners of sort. Early morning we arrived while the air was still crisp and our breath hung in the air, the ice in the street cracked under our feet. There was a old blanket hanging over the doorway. Rashid explained to me how this blanket acted as a warm air catch and it served to keep the diner warm inside while customers came and went. Once inside we sat around a low, 8 to 12 inch platform/table with a man sitting in the middle of it. He had two huge earthenware pots sunk into the table. He reached deep in the pot, almost disappeared and then came back out with a spoon full of gray sludge. Rashid looked at me and smiled. I got nervous. The man plops the gray sludge onto a small round piece of tandoori baked bread. Then he added some finely chopped and seasoned lamb entrails on top of the sludge and two small stubby sheikh kebabs on top of that. Then as if he was some fancy french chef and with all the flare of a circus performer he took a ladle of clarified butter called gee, aka, grease and lights it on fire with the small kerosine stove blazing near by. The flame shoots five feet into the air and then he pored the flaming liquid on top of my gray mountain. Rashid and the man, as well s every other of the men in the diner all smile as the cook serves me the harissa. You would have thought they had just told me one of their relatives built the Taj Mahal! Everyone in the place was just as proud of this dish. And So I took some bread scooped up some of the mess and put it into my mouth. It tasted unbelievably good. Maybe it was the food, maybe the atmosphere, maybe it was the love in which it was prepared. Whatever it was, I had just entered into their culture, their life. I was no longer an observer, I was now a participant and I was trusted.

So, the with these few small tip you can win trust and develop new and lasting relationships that will give you new insight into your images of the culture you are visiting. You will walk away with not only more interesting images, they will have a unique insight that were never able to get before.

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  1. Chris Ward

    Thanks for the the last two posts. They took some effort to write. I appreciate the good advice. Hopefully someday I can put them to good use on a Lumen Dei trip!

  2. Jeff Lynch


    Great story and wonderful images. Sludge for breakfast. You are a brave man and must have an iron clad GI tract. I had enough trouble eating at the night market in KL.


  3. Jeff Lynch


    Great story and wonderful images. Sludge for breakfast. You are a brave man and must have an iron clad GI tract. I had enough trouble eating at the night market in KL.


  4. Kristen Ong Kimball

    Great posts. I’d love to take the Lumen Dei workshop in the future– when will you post info about next year’s trip? I need to schedule it in between having children 🙂

    Kristen Ong Kimball (1997)

  5. Matt Brandon

    Kristen, David and I are talking right now about the next trip. We know where we want to do it is the dates and the possibility of a guest instructor for it. So hang on.

  6. Chris

    Wow! Some really good insights in the last two posts. From someone who loves to immerse himself in local culture, I can vouch for a lot of this – thanks so much for writing it.

    “Take a moment and share the image you just shot with the subject or the other people around you.”

    This is probably some of the best advice anyone interested in taking great travel photos will read.

    The new website looks great by the way.

  7. Rosane

    You have the best stories Matt. Thanks for putting these advices in writing.

  8. Mitchell Kanashkevich

    Great tips! Lots of valuable info here. I’d say these are almost a must-read for anyone who is starting out in travel photography.

  9. Matt

    Yeah, without sounding vain, I think these are important tips. But the sad thing is, as important as they are, no magazine wanted to run this article! Go figure. I guess, fluff sells more magazines rather than something with a little meat on it.



  1. 10Q – Matt Brandon | Editorial & Humanitarian Photographer, Heber Vega. - [...] question a lot, in fact I’ve written several blog posts about it. You can find them HERE and HERE…
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