Prepping for a Cross Culture Shoot

A water buffalo sacraficed during Eid al-Adha in Kashmir, India 2006.

While many of my friends and associates are off to India to attend the Pushkar Camel Festival this week I decided to go the opposite direction. I am headed to Jogjakarta, Indonesia to photograph Eid al-Adha or as we used to call it in India, Baqra Eid (Goat Eid). It is also known as the greater or Big Eid. It is a festival of sacrifice for Muslims. On the first day of this festival many Muslims will sacrifice a lamb, goat or even a water buffalo or camel to commemorate Ibrahim’s (Abraham) sacrifice of his son, Ishmael, as an act of obedience to God, before God intervened to provide him with a ram to sacrifice instead. Now, before some of you Christian readers correct my Biblical history and remind me that it was not in fact Ishmael that Abraham was about to sacrifice but Isaac, let me set you straight, not for Muslims. But this is not the time for a theology lesson. Lets move on.

Knowing why an event is celebrated is as important as how it is celebrated. It informs your shooting and allows you to be aware what is going on around you. Yet even knowing the why is not enough. Research prior to the event is a must. As with many worldwide festivals like Christmas, Eid al-Adha is celebrated differently from country to country.

Since last week I have been doing some homework. Here is a little look into my thoughts and workflow, so-to-speak, as I prep for this shoot.

I am doing this as a personal assignment and not for a client. I am traveling with a friend who hopes to develop some photo workshops in the region and as such this is a bit of a “recce” or reconnaissance survey trip for him.  In a cursory look at some photos of Eid at Jogjakarta I see that much of this event is centered around a parade. Not real exciting. Parades are hard to shoot. I need to find out; can I get in close? Will the crowd and the officials allow me to step right into the parade as such? So what do I need to find out before hand? Simply put: as much as possible.

My first stop is the net. I Google the event. I find out as much about the event as I can.  I read up on it and find out where it starts, when it starts, is it a mulit-day event? How long does it go each day? What will the weather be like? Raining ? Hot? In short – I read everything I can get my hands on.

After that I head to Google images and search for images of the event and the area around it. Word of warning. Just because an image comes up in your search doesn’t always mean it is of your event. It is very important to read the story associated with the images you find.  When I am looking at the images, I am looking both at what has been shot and what hasn’t. As I look at the images I ask myself, what lenses would work best? What bag or method of carrying my gear would be best?  How are people dressed? Long sleeves or short sleeves? Shorts or long pants? This is important as I don’t want to be disrespectful to the culture I am shooting in. What is the conditions around where I am shooting. Is it muddy, paved, in the city? Is the event crowded or are people spread out?

As I prepare I will also download the correct off-line GPS maps for my iPhone for the cities and region I am traveling in. I use a handy app that I have reviewed here before called City Maps 2Go. Great value and packed with local information. I highly recommend it. You don’t need a cell signal to use it.
Sometimes I have a local fixer. A fixer is someone who often makes a living at helping photographers and film team in their location. They know the language, culture and how to get things done. They are never free and can be a bump in your budget. But, where it might cost you in the short run, a good fixer will save you a lot in the long run. The problem is finding them. The best way I have found is just by networking with other photographers. For this trip I am fortunate to have an expat from the US who lived in Indonesia for years. He knows the language fluently, and even more important he knows the culture, the dos and don’t s, the dress codes, the times to push and the times to submit. This kind of knowledge can be invaluable!

This is the basic steps I run though to get me ready for a field assignment in a new location.  It take time. My inclination is to rush through it or just go and be surprised. Bad idea. Always better to be prepared. But preparation is a sacrifice.

About 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.

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3 thoughts on “Prepping for a Cross Culture Shoot

  1. I should say expect the unexpected.. and keep a good distance between you and the animal being sacrificed.

    • Hariman, Interesting comment. At first thought I would say, if you don’t want blood on your camera then, yeah stay back. If you want the shot then get in and risk it. At the risk of sounding pretentious, I have had blood on my gear several times (mainly during Ashura) and it always cleans off 😉 The fact is, on this trip we might not be shooting sacrifices at all. The main reason for going to Jogja is for Sultan’s ceremony and Borobudur. We’ll see. Thanks for commenting.

  2. Interesting reminder of what we don’t see outside the photograph – the research and the cultural / physical practicalities of the shot – which are just as important for the success of the photograph as lighting, composition, shutter speed etc…

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