Photographing other cultures :: Digital Photo Secrets

Photographing other cultures

by David Peterson 0 comments

We live in a global society. There is no longer a single culture in the community where we live — influences from other cultures are everywhere, from China Towns to mosques to Native American community centers to cultural festivals. If you are lucky enough to be well-traveled, you have encountered many cultures outside of your own. But how effectively were you able to capture them with your camera? Capturing people of other cultures and the symbols of those cultures is challenging and requires great sensitivity. Keep reading for some tips.

If you've ever practiced street photography, you're probably used to the hazards of photographing strangers. Most good street photographers, when working in their own cultures and communities, have a techniques for approaching and photographing strangers that do not involve actually communicating with those people. Now, photographing a stranger without permission may or may not be something that you feel comfortable doing, but it generally works as long as you are operating within your own culture and community. When you're outside of your culture, things get a little more complicated. In theory, you can still operate the same way, but should you?

This is a particularly important question if you are a photographer from a developed, Western nation and you are photographing people in underdeveloped cultures and communities. Your activities could be seen as exploitative, so it is generally best to talk to the people and develop a rapport with them first, and then ask permission to photograph them. Failing to do so probably won't get you into real trouble, but on the other hand, there can be certain moral questions attached to your work. Consider photographer Kevin Carter, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his photograph of a vulture stalking a starving child in Sudan. His photo received praise in some circles but great criticism in others—people accused him of exploiting the starving child and not taking steps to ensure her well-being. He later committed suicide, and although he did not specifically name the controversy over his Pulitzer Prize-winning photo as the reason for his suicide, there is a lot of speculation that it might have played a role in his depressive state of mind. Now, this is an extreme example, however, it is something that you should keep in the back of your mind when you're photographing cultures that you do not belong to, especially troubled or poor cultures.

Cultural expectations

You get a little more leeway when you're photographing performers—performers are used to being looked at because it's their job to be looked at, and they're not likely to object to someone taking a photograph of them. But for your average man on the street, it's a good idea to obtain at least verbal permission before you start shooting. if you don't speak the language, you can ask permission with body language—just raise your camera and your eyebrows, make eye contact and wait for a nod or some other acknowledgment. If you're shooting someone from a distance, you may not need to ask permission in advance, however, it is polite to let that person know after the fact that you've taken a photograph of him. Show him the photo on your camera screen and delete it if that's what he wants. You can also offer to give the person a print in exchange for allowing you to take his photograph — that sort of exchange is often met with enthusiasm. Just remember that there is a fine line between shooting someone from a distance and acting like you're up to something. People in other cultures are often suspicious of the motives of Westerners, so if you seem to be arousing suspicion and your subject doesn't like what you're doing, it's best to confront the situation head on. Explain that you're just taking photographs for your own personal travel album (if that is the truth). Don't offer to delete photos unless it's specifically requested, but make sure you are open about what you have shot. Show the subject the pictures you've already taken and ask him permission to take more. Often establishing a rapport with that person after you've taken his picture will be enough to allow you to continue and to erase any suspicions that he might have.

Depending on the culture you're in, you may find that some people want payment in exchange for taking their picture. This usually doesn't mean handing the person a $20 bill, so don't worry too much that you're going to go broke taking photographs. You can usually make most subjects happy with a one dollar bill, although you may also want to bring other items to offer as trade (that's where a little research will come in handy—you should take note of which items are likely to be most appreciated in which cultures). There are some cultures that will actually charge you a fee upfront in exchange for allowing you to take photographs in a particular area. Again, this is not usually a large fee but you should make sure you carry a little bit of money just in case a place you really want to photograph won't grant you access without it.

Before you go out there with your camera and start photographing people of other cultures, it's important to understand the culture that you're operating within. In some cultures, for example, there are certain people or situations that you are not permitted to photograph. Religious ceremonies are one example. In Muslim nations, you may not be permitted to photograph women, especially women who are unaccompanied. the Amish would rather you didn't photograph them at all. And in some Asian cultures photographing groups of three people is considered rude, for superstitious reasons. And in just about every country, you shouldn't take photographs of children unless you explicitly asked the parents' permission first. This is a very short list of only a few of the potential restrictions on photography you might encounter in other cultures, so researching the culture you plan to visit is absolutely essential if you plan to photograph people while you are there.

If you're not sure whether or not it's okay to take a photograph of a certain person or situation, you can always politely ask. Most of the time you're going to get a polite answer in return, even if it's a "no." Just make sure that you respect the answer and move on to a subject that is permitted. This is just as true in a culture you don't belong to as it is in your own culture. So make sure you understand if there are any moratoriums on photography and that you follow those rules, otherwise you may risk somebody taking your memory card or even your camera away from you.

Another great argument for understanding the culture is that knowledge tell you where you should go and what you should look for. Cultural festivals are always a great place to start, but sometimes just walking around in the local marketplace can give you lots of photo opportunities. Remember that you don't just need to shoot your subjects' faces, you can also shoot hands, costume details, and other details to create additional interest in your collection of images. And remember that although a fill-the-frame portrait of a person with an interesting face and clothing can make for a wonderful image, it's often helpful to include some context. For example, a person who is running a stall at the marketplace may have an interesting face and outfit, but if you zoom out a little bit and include those cages full of chickens or piles of fruits and vegetables in your shot, the image is going to have a lot more meaning.

Don't squander this opportunity — try to create a meaningful series of images that can be used to start a dialogue. You want your viewer to be able to look at those photos and gain meaning from them. For example, photos of a performer should say as much about the meaning of the performance as it does about the person who is performing. This doesn't have to be literal—for example, you don't need to include a banner tells you exactly what event the photo was shot at, but you do need to capture enough emotion that your viewer can draw his own conclusions about the meaning of what he is seeing. Most of all, don't just shoot single pictures of single people. Spend some time with each person talking to her, shooting from different angles and perspectives, encouraging laughter or introspection—anything to create to capture a sense of realism and to give your viewer a real connection with that person and the culture that she belongs to.


Photographing other cultures can be a rich and rewarding experience, but you need to make sure you approach the process with sensitivity. Be aware, above all, of what you can and cannot photograph in the culture where you're operating. Then, be polite and make sure that you ask permission, or at least develop a rapport first with your subjects before shooting pictures of them. You may find that you get more compelling and intimate portraits that way anyway. And finally, spend some time, learn about your culture, and enjoy yourself. I think you'll find that the rewards extend far beyond simply having wonderful pictures—you will also have wonderful experiences to go along with them.


  1. First, have respect
    • Ask permission
    • Develop a rapport
    • Be honest about your intentions
    • Pay if necessary!
  2. What not to do
    • Learn the culture's photography taboos
  3. Other tips
    • Photograph details
    • Capture context and meaning
    • Capture a series of images of the same person

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About David Peterson
David Peterson is the creator of Digital Photo Secrets, and the Photography Dash and loves teaching photography to fellow photographers all around the world. You can follow him on Twitter at @dphotosecrets or on Google+.