Cultural Awareness and Photography

Traveling and photography go together. Being able to bring your adventures and experiences home to your friends and family is a large portion of why we do what we do in the first place. When traveling to a new destination everyone wants to get the bests shots of the landscape, architecture, wildlife, and of course, the people and their culture. No travel album is complete without the photographs of the people you met and how they live their lives. The people are truly what tell the story. Its easy to get carried away with taking pictures, and being from America where having your picture taken is not too big of a deal, we sometimes forget that different cultures do not always feel the same way. If you want to enjoy your travel experience, get the best images you can, and avoid uncomfortable or dangerous situations, you should take these cultural differences into consideration whenever you are traveling abroad.

Palestinian man naps in the Christian Quarter of the Old City, Jerusalem.

When traveling overseas, we must consider that not everyone is okay with having his or her picture taken. Some people accept that they will be in photos in tourist areas, but pointing your lens right in their face might not be ok. Many of the people you take a picture of are trying to make their living by performing or selling some kind of goods or service. They may expect you to give them money or buy something if you take their picture. Some people are happy to oblige, so they smile and pose for you. Doing your research on your planned travel location and the culture of its residents is important. For example, in many Middle Eastern countries women will not want their picture taken, and their men would likely get upset about an unwanted photo taken of their wives, sisters, etc. Also, certain establishments or ceremonies may not allow flash photography, or photography in general, as to not distract or disrespect the people involved. Be sure to follow these customs and respect their rules.

Hasidic Jew Prays at the Wailing Wall.

The first priority you should have as a photographer is to stay as low-key as possible. Walking around with your camera to your eye and having a camera bag that screams electronics equipment draws a lot of attention. Low-key messenger style bags or sling packs carry your gear and do so in a manner that doesn’t scream “I have thousands of dollars of equipment on me.” For street photography I prefer a Black Rapid shoulder strap. This is a one-point sling that allows the camera to hang down at your hip and not draw too much attention. When you are ready to take a picture you can easily bring the camera up to your eye, take a burst of pictures, and lower the camera back to your side without drawing a ton of attention. Remember, if you want to get candid pictures of people going about their daily lives, then staying low-key and quickly lining up the shots are imperative. For this reason, I usually walk usually around with the camera on aperture setting and the frame rate set to burst so that you can take 3-5 pictures really quick and likely get the shot where the subject’s eyes are not closed, etc.

Tourists pray on the stone where Jesus's body was washed after crucifixion.

If you are trying to take a photo of someone and don’t want them to know that you did, you can always get your shot and then play “Dumb tourist” by quickly transitioning to the nearest wall, rock, building, etc., and pretend that you are still snapping those cheesy, not so well thought out pictures that many tourists take. Once again, not having the camera in sight and up to your face until you are ready to take the picture buys you a lot of time and allows you to not spotlight yourself. If you want a portrait of the person, or you feel that taking someone’s photo may cause some problems, never be afraid to ask for their picture. You don’t have to know the language, just hold up the camera and point to it, then give them a smile that asks “Hey, do you think this is ok?” In one particular circumstance I was walking around the city of Acre, Israel. This is a primarily Arab town, and I have often learned that even when you ask for an Arab man’s photo, they will often say no. There was a group of young men, maybe 17-20 years old and they were sitting around and smoking hookah. The scene was perfect and I contemplated getting a candid photo, but the thought of making four young guys angry with me in their city outweighed that idea. I waited until one of the young men looked up and made eye contact with him, motioning to my camera and asking permission. He nodded yes to me then went back to his conversation, letting me take my shot that wasn’t posed.

Young Palestinians Smoking hookah. The gentleman on the far right is the one who agreed to let me take the photo.

Shop owner in Nassau.

Sometimes asking the subject for their portrait and for them to pose for you is just as rewarding as taking the candid photo. When you ask a person for their portrait, you are asking them to pose for you as they see themselves. It would surprise you how many people want to be a part of your experience, and are more than happy to help. The people I met in the Bahamas were flattered that I wanted to take their picture. Sometimes they will ask you “Why do you want my picture?” Tell them what drew you to them. One Bedouin man in the Old City of Jerusalem asked me this. Well, his friend next to him did, because he didn’t speak English. When I told the man that I wanted his picture because of his “awesome beard”, he smiled and posed for me. The key to street photography in foreign countries is to do your research, remain low-key, always be courteous, ask for a picture if you have any doubts, and always approach people with a pleasant demeanor. A smile always goes a long way, especially if you don’t speak the language.

Bedouin Shopkeeper.

This was the pose I got when I asked for this shopkeeper's portrait.

This wonderful lady owned a tiny restaurant in Nassau. She was thrilled that I asked to take her picture.

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© 2019 by Justin Graham Photography.