Learn how to handle photographing a foreign culture on location. This is part two of my three part series about cultural photography. If you haven’t read it yet, make sure to check out part one about preproduction as well.
Spare some days at the start
You arrived at this foreign place on the other side of the word. Everything is new; you’re excited, frightened, and not sure what’s next. Relax. Take some time to get used to the surroundings. Inhale the unknown air. How long it takes to make oneself feel at home differences from person to person and from place to place. I usually take one to three spare days to feel comfortable in a new country.
Get to know the locals
Time to meet your local anchors. Grab a coffee together and talk about the projects you have in mind. Get to a common ground to build on. As I said, it’s critical that you can communicate with them. When I’m working with multiple locals, I try to stay in touch with them during the time I’m there.
Attending public festivals will help you understand the culture better.
Learn some words
Next to all the standard tourist stuff at least learn «may I take a photo of you» and «over there». For me «only a test-shot» is also very important, as I am often balancing flash and ambient.
Backup your data
I can’t stress this enough. Backup your data! Carry an external hard drive and mirror your laptop. When you don’t take your computer on location, copy your data on your phone. For iPhone-users I recommend the “PhotoFast SD Card Reader”, the “Apple SD Card Reader” is horribly slow. All the expenses you took for this project are placed into your photos. If you lose them, your investment is gone.
During my stay in Peru, one SD Card broke down. Thanks to daily backup on my phone I only lost an afternoon worth of work (and one good photograph). Since then I always mirror-record on SD and CF cards for all my projects.
Paying only hurts your pocket
In cultural photography, I do consider paying my subject for their time. It depends on the project of course. If I’m shooting for an organization, they are a part of I see my services as payment. Other times you’ll leave a good tip behind. We photographers need to be aware of our usage of peoples time and resources and don’t take them for granted. While saying so, I never paid anyone specifically for a photo, but I don’t think it’s something I’d never do. After all, I don’t expect a model to work for free either.
Research never stops
As I mentioned in my last post: research never stops. Ask questions on location and learn about the daily routines of the people. By doing so, you get more and more involved with them, and they will feel more comfortable in front of your camera. Also, by making fun of yourself, you’ll take away the uncertainty they hold against you.
For me, cultural photography is more about the people than the photographs. It is a collaborative effort, and one has to be willing to adjust the vision to the team. In the end, it’s a gratifying process and a ton of fun as well.
Being able to learn constantly is one of the aspects I appreciate about photography. Here Santos showed me how they usually prepare the field for planting.