Cross-cultural understanding and photography

I write this at the start of my trip to Guatemala. This is the seventh or eighth time I have been here. When I can, I prefer to visit a place more than once so I can better understand the local culture, see how that changes over time, and of course photograph. Waking up in another country prompted me to think about what I have learned about working in different cultures, which might help other photographers who are planning to do the same.

I have to confess that an email from a friend showed up recently on this same topic and it is also part of what got me thinking about this. Talking about teaching workshops, he wrote:

“I know one question I wish people would ask me is, ‘How do I prepare for the cross-cultural part of entering into another place and photographing there?’ (But, of course, they are always asking for advice on what camera to purchase…they are usually terribly disappointed when I explain that this should not be their primary concern).

I wonder if you might offer some advice on how to better prepare for cross-cultural entry; how can one best prepare before landing on the ground and pulling out a camera? (Note, this might mean traveling around the world…or going from West to North Philly).

I’ve lead several cross-cultural teams in different countries and am continually amazed at how psychologically unprepared people can be even though they have great shoes and wrinkle-free shirts.” ”

I shared his question with my daughter, who is 16, who wrote me back her own thoughts:

“Have you ever watched the TV show “The Amazing Race”? On that show, teams of two race around the world trying to win a one million dollar prize. In the last season, they went to New Delhi, India. One team of two tall blonde women started out into India in skimpy little shorts and tank tops. Not only did they get comments from the other teams in the race, but also they got extremely strong reactions from the Indians they encountered.

The contestants left India after a few hours, but most of us travel for longer periods of time to whichever country we choose to travel. Making the effort to learn about the culture of the country that you are visiting is extremely important. The goal is to avoid the looks that this team got.

I have now traveled to India three times and my last trip to India, at the end of summer 2008, is the trip I remember the most. Before my first trip the only cultural “rule” I was given was to call anyone I met that was significantly older than me either “Auntie” or “Uncle,” depending on the gender. Another major rule I was told about before going to India was about the dress code; no low necklines, no tight pants, and even though it is summer no shorts. Simple rules like this can make your trip to any new country that much easier.

If you are going to a more exotic place, learning some basic cultural traditions is extremely important. But, no matter where you go, getting a guidebook never hurts, and learning as much as you can about a country is also important. Like I said earlier, you do not want to be that tourist getting the extreme looks from the locals.”

My friend’s point about the camera choice being insignificant is very important. It was Arnold Newman, the great portrait photographer who said “We don’t take pictures with cameras – we take them with our hearts and minds.”

My daughter’s point about dress is equally important, particularly in traditional cultures where the bare shoulders and exposed cleavage we take for granted here would be considered scandalous there. Both comments suggest the kind of two-track approach that I take as I plan to work in other cultures. In my experience, half the battle is attitude and the other half is research.

The first, more amorphous issue is developing the proper attitude. As my Indian wife reminds me (and I now remind others,) when traveling in India, one must let go of any Western expectations about time, personal space, cleanliness, noise, etc. It is pointless to judge other cultures on these points (and especially to express those judgments) because those societies deal with these issues differently than we do. So, suspending any judgments is important. This does not mean that I am any less analytical in how I look at and evaluate a given culture I am working within (and possibly reporting on.)

An appropriate attitude also includes putting our “settings” for trust on the “openness” rather than “paranoid” setting. Sure, crime can happen in other countries. But most people that travel a lot, especially in the backpacker circuit, will tell you that other travelers are just as likely to steal from you as the local people. So, I try to be open to all the people I meet, until something suggest I behave otherwise.

As for the research question, I ask everyone I can ask who has been to a given place, what I should know before I go. Similarly, if someone I know has family or friends living there (or who were raised there) I pick their brains. The Internet has certainly made this easier, but I like to read books on this exact topic from a great series of books called the “Culture Shock! Guides.”

If you want to see editions for other countries, search Amazon books for the title “Culture Shock! ______: A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette” and insert the name of the country you are traveling to in the empty space. These are not travel books about hotels and landmarks. They are about the culture and they are written by people with an inside knowledge of the country and an outsider’s perspective on how challenging it can be to travel and work in that same culture. They cover almost everything from how to dress, proper etiquette for greeting people, issues of personal space, speaking volume, etc.

In terms of photographing in other cultures, keep a few things in mind. First, try to understand the local culture and ideally have a local host. One of the great things about the class in Guatemala is that the workshop organizer has strong ties to the country and a community of friends in Guatemala. Liza Fourre who runs the Art Workshops in Guatemala (see: tries very hard to help the students connect with the culture on a human level.

That idea about connecting on a human level is the key to photographing people anywhere in the world. While many cultures have different views about images and photographs, knowing those overarching rules is not as useful as simply treating people decently as you are photographing. Smiling, asking permission and showing them what you have previously photographed on the back of your camera, makes a big difference. On this trip, I will be experimenting with a Pogo Polaroid instant printer in the field to give prints to people I am photographing. Read more about that at:

Lastly, I try to go to countries where I have some kind of personal connection. India is the most obvious example of this. As soon as people in India learn that I am married to an Indian, I move from being the unknown foreigner, in their eyes, to something like the trusted neighbor. Cross-cultural interaction is all bout breaking down barriers and inter-cultural marriage is the clearest example this.

When we visited Japan in 2006 we had the good fortune of traveling with two Brazilian friends who were living in Japan. She was fluent in Japanese and he was getting there, so though we were clearly outsiders, we were able to make some kind of connections to the people and the culture. I worked in China in 1986, traveling with a Western friend who was living and working there, developing fluency in both the language and culture. In the 1980’s and 1990’s I worked a lot in the Middle East and I even lived there for a year and a half in my own effort to developing fluency in both the language and culture. By contrast, Argentina, where we went in early 2008 was a place where we knew no one and so we felt more isolated.

All of this applies whether you are going to the Western Sahara or West Philadelphia. Arguably the strangest cultural adaptation I ever had to make was when I moved from my childhood home in sunny Los Angeles to take a newspaper job in chilly Syracuse, New York. In Upstate New York, living with snow for half the year is a culture all its own. For me, adapting to that was at least as culturally disorienting as my first trip to India.

One response to “Cross-cultural understanding and photography”

  1. I think our lack of preparation comes from too much emphasis on gearing-up (this speaking from an American perspective but it’s not, of course, uniquely an American problem) . We take great care to purchase all the relevant equipment as if we were going on expedition, yet don’t take the time to prepare ourselves for some level of cultural sensitivity. We go in with all the gear thinking we are fully prepared–whilst missing the main bits.

    David’s point about expectations is key; if one leaves home expecting everywhere else to conform to one’s ideal of “home”…might as well stay there. It seems obvious that nowhere else is home; but this fact is overlooked by many first-time travellers and can make for frustrating experiences.

    Connected to that, as he alludes to, it’s also important to have a solid sense of self-identity. The richness in travel comes out fully when you don’t just go to another place and let it all wash over; you go there, contrast the place with your own culture and then return understanding both better.

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