Here's some thoughts on cross-cultural photography that I wrote over a month ago and I'm just finally posting it! It's sort of a good follow up to the previous two, but I hadn't planned it that way actually. It was just scheduled to go live today! Anyways... Enjoy & share your reactions...
When you cross-cultures you have NOT entered a theme park with dressed-up characters. Seems obvious to say this, but I know firsthand how easily we can fall into this trap--especially early on in our photographic journey. This is something humanitarian photographer, Esther Havens (on IGVP), and I recently discussed. We both had done this during our first experiences making photographs in cultures different from our own. Perhaps a bit embarrassing to admit, but talking about it and learning from it is transformational.
Let me illustrate by making you the photographic subject. Imagine this: You are sitting at your favorite coffee shop, typing away on your laptop, and three tourists pass by you. They stop, backpedal, and begin pointing three very large cameras and lenses at you. One smiles as if to request your permission. Seems strange. You're just doing your daily thing. But these folks find you interesting. Shouldn't they be at the Grand Canyon, Niagara Falls, Big Ben, the Eiffel Tower or the other monuments that all tourists take pictures of?
So this is a little awkward, but you and the photographers can get past that. There's nothing wrong with awkward situations--that's life. However, this is where the photographer's intention comes into play. Say those tourists were not really seeing you, but rather seeing an image in their portfolio for the advancement of their pursuit. Say they saw someone so different from themselves that they were thinking about how cool it will be to show off where they've been and the exotic people (you) they've "encountered." I personally wouldn't be too offended by this, but I'd rather they not waste my time. Now had I been suffering or in hardship or clearly much less well-off than they... then I'd feel like, "If you can't really see me, as a person apart from my circumstances, or as a human being who transcends culture, then don't pretend like you've seen anything at all by snapping a picture that's really all about you." OUCH!
Esther Havens has her own story that you can hear in this interview with Adorama [ http://estherhavens.com/blog/archives/1815 ]. For me, the first couple of times I ventured with my new DSLR in 2004 while living in Kashmir, India, I ended my days feeling an emptiness. I quickly realized that in previous art forms I had practiced--whether pencil drawing or guitar--that I would absorb into my own little artist world--my iSpace. I was doing the same with a camera. But now the "art" was images of actual people. It was as much about them as it was about me and my vision and expression. Thank God that living there afforded me the time to process this and to live with a Muslim Kashmiri family in their context. Once I began photographing them and us at home, I learned how to go out into the culture and begin to really see people. People first, then their context.
Photo: Mario Mattei, A kind Kashmiri man in India
It's a slippery slope, friends. We do need to be artists with personal expression. We must work on our craft, study light, manipulate camera settings, and experiment in post-processing. How can we communicate our vision of the person that we really do see if we're clumsy at capturing that vision in the camera? We can't. There is much about cross-cultural photography that is about you and your craft and about communicating your creative expressions. But you must also keep your creative vision in check. Your vision cannot be all about you. It's about them, too. When you see and respect people, and (sometimes) interact with them, a genuineness and integrity will be added to your intention. Listen to your own vision. And listen--perhaps merely visually--to your subjects as well. They are an integral part of the story within the frame. Vision starts in the heart. Go inward. Then get outside yourself. Hard words here, but you are not a visual peacemaker just because you have images from around the world.