On photographing a culture…

I’m occasionally asked to be a “presenter” at a camera/photo club.  The one I’m preparing for now is on travel photography — specifically, photographing a different culture.

Lady of the house on a Tibetan farm.

Lady of the house on a Tibetan farm.

Here’s a confession:  I’ve done a lot of photography in foreign lands and I’m totally interested in making images which show the characteristics of other cultures but…well…I just never thought about it much.  I do it automatically, not with forethought.

OK, so now I’m committed to making a ninety minute presentation on the subject.  Reality sets in.  Nothing will organize your thoughts more quickly than having to present them to someone else — or a whole room full of someone else’s.

So…here’s where my thought process has taken me. 

To start with, culture is all about people or, stated another way, culture is an expression of how people ARE.  Other things may influence (for example, weather or geography) but, ultimately, to photograph culture you are going to photograph people — what they do, what they wear, how they worship, how they raise their children, how they socialize, how they conduct their lives. 

Young monks are fascinated with one of my cameras.

Young monks are fascinated with one of my cameras.

And, to do that, you are going to have to be where they are and you are going to need their cooperation.  The bottom line is that you will not photograph real culture at the tourist sites.  From a tour bus you can but hope for a sampling of the culture.

(In this posting I’ve used images I made in Lhasa, Tibet, to illustrate the point.  But you don’t need to be in Tibet or any other exotic land to make images of the local culture.  Think about it.  My home state, Georgia, USA, has a distinct culture.)

An older monk showed us around his temple near Lhasa.

An older monk showed us around his temple near Lhasa.

You have to be in and be with the culture.  The documentary photographer and photojournalist, Sebastiao Salgado (possibly the best culture photographer on this planet), takes this to the obvious extreme; he lives with his subjects — sometimes years.  Most of us can’t do that but…

we can communicate (even if we don’t speak the language) and we can be allowed inside the subject’s life for a little while. 

Do that and your travel photography will improve by leaps and bounds.

I’ll explain how I do that in a future blog.  It isn’t difficult and it may cause your travel photography to jump off the page.


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Ken Hannard - just received notice of your site and how you are available for Club visits in May of 2014. Unfortunately our season closes in May and restarts in September (Gosforth Camera Club) However if you are available at any time during 2014/15 season we would be most interested Regards Kenny Hannard (programme secretary)

skeeter - Thanks for the interest, Ken. We’ll be in England next season but, unfortunately, only passing through — probably on our way to Finland and surrounding area. I’ve looked at your club’s web site and it makes me more disappointed that I can’t arrange to speak there. Best wishes. John

J. B. Colson - http://landscapeandstreet.com

Enjoyed your photographs and discussion of street photography.

RE photographing culture: Ideally a photographer of culture would include skills as a photographer, including special skills for relating to people, and special knowledge of the culture at stake, both academic and personal. Typically “photographers” are weak in detailed knowledge of their subject, and subject specialists who photograph lack photographic training and talent.

The closest training in tnis direction often comes under the rubric of documentary photography. This training ideally includes social science fieldwork theory and experience as in visual ethnography, but also an intensive program in the visual arts, design, image quality and presentation. Of course all this knowledge can be obtained with personal study and experience, but rarely is.

Picture editing and presentation design are also crucial to the success of a photographic study. I wish you had been able to present more of your work in Transylvania or Lhasa. The two upbeat photographs you present of Lhasa are charming, and I am sure true to a certain time and place, but for many of us the “culture” of the place requires attention to the Buddhist background you hint at and the horrible tension and repression implemented by the Chinese effort to destroy the native culture. You have the rightful argument that you are doing travel photography, justice to the best of what a traveler would see and not attempting anything like cultural study. I would also note that your writing about your experience in Romania was quite engaging making the picture presentation seem incomplete. But words and pictures is another subject. (And Bystander is a most important book – good reference. )

Thank you for presenting your work and sending me a link to it.

skeeter - Thanks for the long — and thoughtful — comment, Mr. Colson. I’m doing a talk (Photographing Other Cultures) at a camera club this spring and will incorporate your thoughts about study of the culture and mental preparation before leaving home.

Regarding Lhasa, I confess to presenting only the comfortable side. The other images reside here on my computer. As an aside, I’m very concerned — as are many others — that the railway from Chengdu to Lhasa will hasten the erasing of the Tibetan culture.

joyce. Tarter Rideout - Hi John~ Your blog is very informative about photographing other cultures. I’m a host for American express travel and have been on many cruises over the past 15+ years. It’s very difficult to photograph a culture or the people when you are in a port on the average of maybe 6 hours. Your blogs have given me a desire to try to get to learn more about the people and cultur rather than just snapping photographs of landscapes & buildings. We rarely take a group tour but rather enjoy having a local take us on a private tour. I’m director of a photo group in Carmel Ca. If you are ever in the area we would love for you to be a guest presenter. . Thanks for your great in site to photography.

skeeter - Hello, Joyce. I’m sending you (via email) a write-up I did for some friends a few years back on independent travel in Europe. And, yes, I would be very happy to present to your club in Carmel. We don’t have plans (currently) to be in California but…you can never tell. John

Shirley Bormann - John, I’ve looked through a few of your blogs and enjoy them very much. Did you ever follow up on this blog on culture?

skeeter - Shirley. No, I never did expand on the specific ways to photograph a culture. Your comment, however, has spurred me into action. Just this morning I was bouncing around (mentally) for a subject for my next blog posting. That’s it. Pleasant meeting you and Stan at the PSA conference in West Yellowstone.

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