Awkwardness and Cultural Responsibility | Photography and film advice with indigenous cultures

I spent much of last year living with foreign societies, including a large stint with a couple of hunter-gatherer groups—the indigenous of Fiji and the Batek tribe of Malaysia. During that time I did my best to film and photograph a snapshot of their fascinating way of life—to portray honestly the individuals I came to know.


Nana: master of the Fijian kitchen


To do so with sensitivity and success is a challenge, particularly in cultures very different to our own. Making it up as I went along, with neither a prior understanding of the cultures themselves nor of the media recording that I was trying to figure out in the process, I learnt a huge amount from the experience, and achieved, by my own amateur standards, results that I’m proud of.


Though much of the advice I’m about to write may seem obvious, I found that it can often be difficult to apply in the moment, when the high stress of cultural differences and many curious faces makes taking that perfect shot somewhat more challenging! To that end, I hope that the pointers below may prove useful should you ever be faced with the same exciting, if daunting, opportunity.

Related articles

Batek | Last of the forest people

Cirisobu | Fiji’s indigenous interior

Batek Mouse Hunt [COMING SOON]

Finding home (Pt. II) [COMING SOON]


A couple of links (here and here) to Survival International’s guidelines on filming tribal peoples. I found these soon after completing the article and they’re a very good summary on the ethical aspects of it all.

WHY WORRY?


CULTURAL SENSITIVITY


It’s a delicate balance. In going into another’s culture we have a responsibility to neither overstep their kind hospitality nor impose our own paradigms or psychosocial constructs upon them.


To film or photograph someone is by necessity an imposition, and a very personal one at that—even amongst tribal societies where the full concept of media recording is little understood, this appears to be immediately clear. Thus, to do so without awkwardness or disrespect requires a high degree of cultural sensitivity and understanding.



CANDID OR POSED?


https://www.jimmynelson.com


Perhaps the king of anthropological photography, and certainly one of the most well-known contemporaries, Jimmy Nelson has captured beautiful portraits of many of the world’s most spectacular and exotic human cultures. His approach is highly posed, and in doing so he succeeds in achieving a depiction of each culture at its most magnificent.


To accomplish results of such quality requires an enormous amount of skill and cultural competency, and in no way do I mean to detract from such a premier craftsmanship. However, candid photography requires a different approach.


To capture a reality—the true emotion and expression of the moment—is near impossible, since the introduction of a camera (and foreign photographer) will always result in some change to the situation. The job of an anthropological photographer or filmmaker therefore, is to minimize this impact to the extent of possibility, thus capturing as close to the genuine atmosphere and emotion as is feasible.


This can only be achieved by making the subject/s fully comfortable with the camera and, perhaps more importantly, the camera operator (you!), such that they all but forget they are being observed. That is the focus of this article.


National Geographic's Charlie Hamilton James is a master of ‘capturing the moment’ with indigenous peoples. His photographs portray their lifeways and emotion in a truly genuine fashion.


A NOTE ON ANTHROPOLOGICAL RESEARCH


Much of this article applies also to data collection and research. For centuries anthropologists have collected data on indigenous communities through the eyes of their own society. Without entirely surrendering to the subject culture’s mode of living we can only ever view their lifeway and society by our own understanding—under the paradigm of our own society.


To achieve truly accurate and unbiased data collection requires not only complete integration—and thus non-alteration of the goings on—but also a complete understanding of their culture and, to some extent, language.

As an example, for many years persistence running as a hunting method was underrepresented in anthropological data as a result of simple oversight by researchers as they observed individuals simply ‘going for a walk’, unaware of their capacity to run down prey with little more than their loincloths. When compared to the easily observable and frequently asked-after technique of bowhunting, it’s easy to see how incomplete cultural understanding can lead to skewed or inaccurate data.


The only way you’ll ever see the true reality of a culture and its lifeways is from the inside, by living entirely as one of them and adopting their social and cultural paradigms to the point that they accept you as one of their own.



With enough time, even the shyest open up


CONSIDERATIONS AND ADVICE | HOW TO GO ABOUT IT


1) PREPARATION


As with anything, the more thought you put into it in advance, the better the results you’re likely to get. That’s particularly true here. If you know what you’re trying to achieve and the context you’ll be working within, you can be better prepared to manage the stress of the moment, engineer the situation you’re looking for, and be in the right place at the right time. It’s worth considering each of the points below in advance, and being aware of how you might apply them in your specific context.


Perhaps the most obvious and useful planning step is to consider the sort of shots you’re looking for. Of course you want to avoid over-planning to the point that you remove spontaneity, and quite frankly in my experience most of the interesting stuff happens entirely unexpectedly anyway, but to have some idea of how you might go about capturing the basics is hugely valuable when you’re caught up in the moment.



2) CULTURAL AVERSIONS


Different cultures have different ideas about recording images and film. At the extreme end, there are societies whose beliefs even forbid it—famously many Native American and Australian Aborigine groups—fearing that a camera could steal their soul.


I’ve personally never come across such an extreme cultural aversion, and in fact, after getting to know the individuals most have been eager to be photographed. However, it is certainly an aspect worth researching and asking about.


Cila at her best—the kids are always a good place to start



3) A NO-CAMERA INTEGRATION PERIOD


The most important of all.


I firmly believe that in order to achieve representative shots, not to mention respect for the subjects, their trust must first be gained. Personally I would suggest that it is worth spending at least a week or two with the group before even getting out the camera. This is doubly important if the group has had prior interaction with tourism or anthropologists—you don’t want to be just another outsider to them.


Doing so makes clear to them that you’re not only there for the photos, data or whatever—rather you have a genuine interest in them and want to know them for who they are as people, not just models. An integration period also allows you to begin to understand the culture, enabling you to better consider how to record in the most effective and appropriate manner.


I believe it to be extremely callous and disrespectful to take photographs, especially portraits, without first speaking to and getting to know the individual or group. That’s not to say you have to warn them before every shot, but you’re not on safari and it’s not a zoo—don’t act like it. Unfortunately this is too often now the case with indigenous cultures around the world, as people visit them on a whim, taking photos as if sightseeing around a city.


Indigenous and traditional cultures are people just like you and I, and frankly, if you don’t have the time or will to interact with them and learn from their way of life, you have no business snapping photographs of them. You’ll gain far more from getting to know them and gaining their trust than any trophy photograph will ever achieve.


There’s always one…



4) ASK PERMISSION


Perhaps simplest of all, this simple courtesy is easy enough to do even if you don’t speak a common language—show them the camera and how it works if they don’t understand.


Yet whilst this may seem obvious, it isn’t always so straightforward. Many indigenous groups are extremely shy—often the result of many years of persecution—or just so culturally polite that they’d never outwardly object. This is where understanding the culture becomes invaluable, and to gain their trust you must see beyond outward appearances and act appropriately.



5) LET THEM USE THE CAMERA


At the very least let them see the images you’re taking, especially if they don’t really understand exactly what you and the camera are doing. With the groups I have lived with I’ve only had positive responses to seeing themselves on camera, and it’s the very least you can do with regards to courtesy.


If you can, get them to actually use the camera and take some pictures—the kids absolutely love it, and you may have trouble getting it back! It certainly goes a long way in dispelling the suspicion surrounding your actions, and in achieving their trust and appreciation.



6) PICK YOUR MOMENT


Whilst at first shyness and even distrust is likely to be the major obstacle, if you take the time to integrate and gain trust, sooner or later a new problem emerges. So keen are individuals to pose and have their picture taken, whether for the novelty, attention, or simply because it’s more fun than day-to-day life, that achieving candid shots is all but impossible.


This is especially true with the children. Whilst living with the Batek, whenever I aimed my camera the young boys would run to frame as if my lens were a laser pointer and they cats.


When it gets to this stage aim to take shots when there’s a lot going on. It draws less attention and there are other more interesting diversions. That said, be sure that they are comfortable being recorded by this point, otherwise background camera work can appear sneaky and underhand, breeding distrust.


At the same time though, harness the attention you do get for portraits and posed shots. You’ll quickly find that some individuals are more eager to be photographed than others. There’s a reason Chengkling graces so many of my photos…


Chengkling: Queen of the limelight



7) ALWAYS HAVE YOUR CAMERA WITH YOU


For all your preparation you never know when the best shots will present themselves.


After the integration period, gradually begin to carry your camera at all times. In cultures very different to our own, the surprises and unexpected are frequent and unpredictable. Often they’re also the most interesting subjects to shoot.


It became a bit of a running joke during my time with the Batek (albeit limited to myself…), that every time I thought I had them figured something new would happen that completely threw me—a pet monkey, resuscitation of asphyxiated mice, diving for river turtle, backflips into streams, and many other unforeseen turns of events. Unfortunately, most of these times I wasn’t carrying my camera!



8) KNOW YOUR SYSTEMS


In the same vein as above, when the unexpected does strike, you need to be rapid. These events often don’t last long and you won’t have much time to capture the shot. Know your equipment and how to operate it efficiently; know your systems and logistical procedures.


This might sound insultingly obvious to the professional photographer, but I’m not a professional, and to the many amateurs like myself it is advice worth considering. A few hours of practice and manual reading in advance can pay dividends in enabling you to capture the shot of the expedition.


When the unexpected hits, speed is of essence. Here Serena resuscitates an asphyxiated jungle rat



9) GIVE THEM THE PHOTOGRAPHS


In taking a photograph you are exploiting an individual for your own purposes, however well-meaning and harmless those may be. It is only fair that you give something in return.


Whilst of course every situation is unique, the idea of giving money or sweets in exchange for photographs is to me very distasteful. It’s a very tourism-oriented practice that, to me at least, seems to be a conscience-driven attempt to justify swooping in and taking safari-like trophy photographs of a foreign culture. It also further promotes the reliance of indigenous people on monetary subsistence, external dependence and non-traditional economy, that we have no business in influencing.


Giving back printed copies of the photographs you have taken is, I think a perfect solution. A polite extension of the courtesy of showing the results on camera, it gives the individuals something concrete in return—something that may be far more valuable to them than you might imagine. For tribal societies the opportunity to see themselves and their relatives in print is a rare novelty.


Both in Fiji and in Malaysia, the groups I lived with each possessed a few faded photographs on the walls of the headman’s house—of past generations and a couple of anthropologists from years before. How they’d got hold of the former I have no idea, but in a society that lacks any real form of material wealth or its accumulation, such careful preservation does make a point.


When I left Fiji, on arrival in Australia I printed a selection of my photographs that they’d requested and sent them back via the district school—I wonder if one day I’ll return to see those images lining those same corrugated iron walls alongside the others. I return to the Batek soon, and I intend to do the same for them.

Giving back photos does also have a number of other benefits too. The transparency helps breed comfort with what you’re doing, directly involves the individuals and even gives them a harmless incentive to be a part of it all.



Above is a selection of photographs from my time living with the Batek tribe and indigenous Fiji. I’m certainly not about to be called up by National Geographic, but it’s a start and I’m proud of the emotion and feel of moment that they capture. I hope I can expand on these in the future, especially with regards to capturing more of daily life and group dynamics.


View the main image galleries from Fiji and the Batek



FINAL THOUGHTS


INTEGRATION, INTEGRATION, INTEGRATION


All these ideas and pointers may seem complex and difficult, and it’s easy to question yourself overmuch in the name of cultural morality. They’re not and there’s no need.


To photograph, film, or even just to spend time with an indigenous culture, simply requires a culturally open and receptive approach. A smile goes a long way, and in my experience as long as you are genuine and with good intent, that will soon be sensed, with trust and willingness soon to follow. We’re all the same species after all, and goodwill is very much a universal language.


Secondly, I cannot stress the importance of integration and trust-building. You can get photos without, but regardless of their technically brilliance they won’t encompass an accurate representation, nor will you gain nearly as much from the experience.


It is an undeniable truth, that whether your intention be media recording, data collection, or simply to learn, you won’t even be aware of the reality of a culture until you’ve integrated into it, regardless of how genuine it may appear to the outside. Only when the people trust you and are unaffected by your presence will they live and act truly naturally. And when that happens, even in the slightest degree, it is a beautiful feeling.


The only effective way to capture genuine emotion and reality is to integrate yourself—to become one of them and gain their trust. Only then will they fully open up. The truth, equally frustrating and exciting, is that to achieve this level of integration may take months.



THE IMPORTANCE OF UNDERSTANDING | A SOCIETAL RESPONSIBILITY


Finally, don’t get so caught up with the camera that you fail to involve yourself and learn from what is actually going on. To live with and learn from indigenous people is huge opportunity and honour. They have so much to teach us if we choose to listen. Theirs is the wisdom of our ancestors, but it won’t shout or fight to make itself known—if it did humanity wouldn’t be in such a state.


Remember, the image or the film is only as effective as the story behind it.


These cultures are the heritage of humanity, and many of these communities are quite possibly the last in human history to possess a true sustainability in lifestyle and in health. In recording them you have a moral responsibility to portray and communicate them and their culture accurately. That only comes through a dedicated effort to understand their society and gain their trust.


In a world of cultural appropriation and racial discrimination, this responsibility becomes even more important. Particularly with indigenous tribes and cultures, persecution, identity loss, displacement and disregard for basic human rights is a serious (and rapidly increasing) problem. To portray a culture to the outside world is to put that culture up to judgement and consequent reaction, and as such it is deathly important to portray them accurately, and especially to avoid imposing any personal preconception, psychosocial paradigm or romantic notion upon their lifeways or character. To do so is only damaging to their often-precarious position on a global scale.


Ultimately though, don’t be afraid to make the effort. These forgotten peoples desperately need to speak, both for their own sake and the sake of our planet. If we can help their voices be heard in a way that both promotes their own conservation and raises the awareness of wider society then we have a duty to do so.


A future voice for the earth?


Do get in touch if you have any other ideas or questions—it'd be great to hear from you. I’d be interested to hear if you’ve had any similar experiences.


George


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