When Culture Collides With Your Camera

When Culture Collides With Your Camera

Photo by Victoria F.

I received this email yesterday from Victoria, a student in my Introduction to Photography class held here in Penang. I thought I should share it with you as a great reminder how traveling photographers need to be aware of the culture around them and always try to be sensitive to the local norms and traditions. Always remembering we are the visitors, this is not about us, this picture is about them. I am quoting this letter fully. I will let you comment. Did she handle it well? What would you have done?

Hi Matt,

Thank you again for yesterday’s class, it was very informative and certainly got me out the door today to practice! Though what an experience today actually brought.

I had almost 2 hours set aside and drove into Georgetown (around…around…no parking…around again) passing by so many exciting things to shoot. I eventually found a parking place and meandered into the busy district of Jalan Pinang (now with only 1 hour and 15 minutes left).

I found a bright blue wall, complete with scarlet red plastic chair and upon it perched the most interesting elderly Muslim man. I ‘stole’ a few shots but decided with my fixed lens that I wasn’t close enough so with those Kahunas you told me I needed, I moved in closer and asked the old man’s permission. A gentle nod and a few snaps of the shutter – I was happy. That was until I went over to show him what I had made of him and he waved me away, he didn’t want me near him and told me to go away down the street! My feelings unhurt but a tad bemused I accidentally stumbled into a little alley cafe just a few feet away.

I was greeted by the smiliest old man with a full white beard and he was dressed in Pakistani clothing. Before I knew it I was chatting to the smiley face and asked him if I could make his picture, he was more than happy to and liked the photo as much as I did! He told me to come in and sit down, so I selected the wobbliest tin table and plonked my self and camera down. Mmm roti bakar, half-cooked eggs and a coffee, a fantastic mid-morning brunch!

This alley though, was dark and dingy. This coffee place was snuck into the dark space and truly could be described as a hole in the wall. Not much more than a tin roof covered over between 2 buildings. It was then as I perused the ‘room’ that it dawned upon me…I was the only woman in this hole AND a ‘putih[1. The Malay word for “White”]’ at that. My camera sat next to the coffee cup, I desperately wanted to pick it up. There’s a man on the left of me who is Pakstani too, a younger but still bearded man. He sits against a deep brown burgundy wall and is bathed in a perfect shaft of light from above. His face is fantastic, the mood is everything I have wished for. I look at him, he doesn’t break a smile, in fact he is harsh. I try to not to catch his eye…the camera still sits.

Inside I have an inner turmoil going on – as a woman should I try to take this shot? He is giving me the cultural clues that I should dare not. Is it worth it for me to do this? Maybe I lost my reputation already by being a woman out on her own who was coming in, sitting down, talking to the old boy and wearing a breezy shirt? I thought of other white women and how they could be perceived on another day. Should I go for it? The sickening feeling of intimidation won and the camera still sat there.

Upon paying I was glad it had won. It was Pakistani the Younger who handled my bill and was he so careful for the 50 cent change not to touch his hand and mine at the same time that he dropped it into my palm from a good height above.

I’ve felt it before but now I really know; there are men’s worlds and women’s worlds. Times when they clash together and times like today when they are distinctly separate. Today I needed a male photographer alongside me for the man’s world and then I wonder if the story would have been different! As disappointed as I was that a great photo opportunity had been let go of, I was glad to be able to read and respect those cultural lines as best I could.

I did however, get a chance to play with the white balance & exposure compensation a lot so it was a good little jaunt into town after all 🙂

Thanks for all

Victoria F

See Victoria’s Flickr portfolio HERE

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About The Author

Matt Brandon

Matt is a Malaysia based humanitarian and travel photographer. Well known as a photographer and international workshop instructor, Matt’s images have been used by business and organizations around the globe. Matt also on the design board for Think Tank Photo, a camera bag manufacturer. In 2013 Matt founded the On Field Media Project to train the staff of non-profits to use appropriate technology to produce timely as well as quality images.


  1. Pam

    What a great and important post. I think Victoria handled the situation very well in the cafe in not listening to that urge to pick up her camera in a culturally “inappropriate” situation. I experienced a similar inner conflict last night here (in Dubai). It is so important as a photographer to respect the local culture and norms – this includes everything from dressing appropriately, to respecting the boundaries of interaction no matter how “foreign” they may seem.

  2. Joshua

    This is a good point – I’m often on my own as a male “laowai” (foreigner) in Taiwan and I tend to go into the older parts of the cities just because of the interesting things that can be found. Usually, people WANT their photo taken… however I’ve had a few times when I dared not raise my camera – such as while witnessing what I could only describe as some sort of exorcism going on at a large rural temple where a man was self-flagellating and a ~70 year old woman was rolling on the floor. While I thought it was just a weird, weird series of events, it was probably extremely personal to them and the people watching.

  3. Sean Breslin

    Last week, once in Old Delhi, once in Haridwar, I was told in no uncertain terms that I had no business taking two peoples portraits. I smiled as I raised the camera, got the evil eye, a few hand gestures, and even a few stern words in Hindi in return, so lowered the camera, smiled, said thank you and walked away.

    It’s just not worth upsetting people just for a photograph. Ever. Unless they are politicians 🙂

    Victoria did the right thing.

  4. Colortrails

    It sounds like you handled it well Victoria. I guess the moral of the story is, expect that sometimes you’ll have a great shot opportunity but won’t be able to take it. That way maybe the internal pressure isn’t as great, especially if you plan to visit an area more than once. Sometimes too when I’m out photographing (even when it’s not people), I have to remind myself to just stop once in a while and enjoy the place for what it is, rather than trying to capture everything on camera. Sometimes we’re so set on the photography we forget to enjoy a place just as regular visitors, to soak it in.

  5. Ray Ketcham

    I would be proud to know and have a student like Victoria. Sensitivity to another s wants and cultures in today’s ‘me first’ world is a rare thing. Sometimes here in the western world folks tend to confuse the right to do something, with the right thing to do.

    • Matt Brandon

      Well put Ray. Thanks for those words.

  6. Viktorya F

    Thank you all for the affirming comments. I greatly appreciate the feedback! I loved what Colortrails wrote about not forgetting to just sit, be and absorb the wonder of culture. (Make a picture in the mind’s eye and heart). Also – as Ray said – yes, let’s not “confuse the right to do something with the right thing to do.” Valuable lessons from all…thank you for sharing your experiences and thoughts.

  7. Eric Yip

    The world is such a diverse place and recognizing (and respecting) it’s uniqueness will allow us to identify how to treat each situation. With this, there can be so much more to gain than the photograph itself, but also the experience. My trip to Delhi was the complete opposite of the above, where everyone wanted their photograph made!

    Time invested is however, one key way of getting to more “yes’s” from people – unfortunately when we travel, we are transient. Photographers spend days/weeks in one place to get immersed and accepted before being able to make those iconic images. We can’t win it all, but we can try our very best to give a positive experience to everyone we come across.

  8. Dave from The Longest Way Home

    This rings true to me. It kinda makes me smile too as I often think about the many more opportunities that being a woman photographer opens up compared to being a man. Then again, there are of course negatives too.

    Skin and culture being one of them. Examples being in West Africa culture dictated I could photograph many things with no issue. In The Philippines I can also photograph many things with no issue. But, to capture candid street scenes or one on one emotional shots are very difficult compared to say, being a Filippino photographer.

    Least of all religion get mixed in there to make it even more crazy.

    So yes, I do agree like Victoria’s story as it’s one few people talk about. Well done for that alone.

    If it’s any consolation, this is one of the main reasons I like to travel with someone of the opposite sex. One can offset nearly everything. Not always possible though. Sometimes it’s just you and a coffee 🙂

  9. Vanda

    And sometimes when you have to leave your camera on the table by your coffee cup, you experience a deeper level of cultural understanding because you are awash in the sights and sounds surrounding you and not concentrating on getting that perfect shot. Sometimes, what happens in the periphery is more interesting than the main subject. These memories linger particularly if you jot them in journal where you can paint the picture with words.

    Kudos to Victoria for this great post


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