Using Elements From Other Cultures in Your Images, the Right Way

Using Elements From Other Cultures in Your Images, the Right Way

As Halloween comes to a close and we reflect on all the creative costumes roaming the streets, I think it’s a good time we take a moment to talk about cultural appropriation. We are blessed as photographers to be able to view images from any culture in the world through the Internet. It’s pretty cool that we have access to unlimited inspiration from just about everywhere, something the founding fathers of photography had nothing close to. It's important for photographers to have a vast basic knowledge of cultures, subcultures, and social classes so that we can always use culture with respect and honor in our images.

Aside from sacred things, it isn't wrong in itself to share the cultures of the world, but we have to do it right, to leave people feeling positive about the images knowing they are looking at something close to what they'd see traveling to these places. Before choosing elements to use in themed and styled shoots it’s important that we take the extra step to learn the background of what we want to photograph in order to leave little room for disrespectful images. Although you should care, even if you don’t personally find it important to avoid conflicts with your viewers you should still do this. It’s never a negative thing to receive messages like “you portrayed my culture really well” rather than, “this is a disgusting insult to my culture.” Although constructive and sometimes not so constructive criticism can be good for us, we would all rather see the compliments and appraisal in the comments under our photos online.

I want to share this short video from Teen Vogue below. It's an eye-opening and straight to the point explanation of why we should all care about culture and the proper capturing and sharing of it. The women in this emotional video share their history, and their stories are the reasons we should do our research before using elements from other cultures to break the heartbreaking patterns of appropriation. They share the real meanings behind the garments that we often see poorly redesigned and mass produced into inaccurate costumes and fashion.

In addition to this powerful video here are a few essential steps to take before executing a photoshoot inspired by an unfamiliar culture. Before creating my own photoshoots from the ground up portraying a culture, I prefer to look for local subjects who are actually immersed in that culture I am interested in. The images become powerful when you bring real people with the traditional clothes right out of their closet and a whole lot of true stories to tell to your lens. Instead of replicating, by photographing people who are part of a culture we are sharing the truth. But if you can't find anyone to help you out here are some tips to keep in mind when recreating culture through your own imagination and renderings.

1. Do Your Research

We have the world at our fingertips, get on the web and gather a few credible sources documenting the culture or elements you'd like to use.

2. Ask Around

Your friends and family online and in real life have a vast amount of cultural knowledge. The stories you get from real people are far more valuable and one of a kind than what you'll find on Google. Because the idea of culture is so vast, a lot of it is missing from the Internet or hard to find on your own. Face to face conversations about culture is as real as it gets. 

3. Have a Solid Plan

Leave no room for any "winging" it, as that's when appropriation starts to happen quickly. Get the proper materials, a model that will mesh well, appropriate makeup and hair, and a posing plan appropriate for the culture. 

4. Make Some Prints of the Real Deal

When I aim to do justice to something when photographing it, I make sure to print out a few images as reference to look back at throughout the shoot. This is a great way to stay on track and not take the culture out of context. 

5. If Your Images Aren't Doing a Culture Proper Justice, Try Again

Rather than potentially offending people if you don't nail a culture's elements in a proper way, fix what you need and re-shoot it. This is worth the extra time and effort.

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Eduardo Francés's picture

How about we lay down the sexual insults first? Is this the way to have an intelligent conversation??? Geeez

Ben Perrin's picture

Intelligent conversation? We are talking about cultural appropriation here. Nothing about the idea of cultural appropriation is intelligent. This is about keyboard warriors telling other people what they can or can't do because of what group they belong to. Well sorry but I won't comply and I don't feel guilty about it.

jonas y's picture

Sexual insult? If you are referring to the "get stuffed" phrase, it is not sexual if you put it in context. You do need to know more about other cultures for sure.

Oliver Kmia's picture

Hey Ben. Feel free to disagree with the author but your "get stuffed" comment is not necessary. Personally I'm not into PC and SJW things so you are more than welcome to voice your concern and share your opinion but insulting people is not going to contribute much to your argumentation (quite the opposite actually).

Ben Perrin's picture

Hey Oliver, I understand your sentiment. Know that in the past I have commented on these topics but there are a few on Fstoppers who seem to persist regardless. That comment is a sign of frustration, that your own readers feel like they are being berated with a series of left wing political articles recently. Subtlety hasn't really got the message across. So hopefully you'll take that statement as it is meant; as a sign that perhaps continuously publishing polarising articles that push readers away isn't a great strategy from Fstoppers. Now I know this is only my opinion and you have the right to travel in whatever direction you'd like to as a company without my consent.

Having said that, I also believe this is the type of comment that is inevitable when the content of the articles are deeply divisive. I don't think articles like this would ever receive completely neutral, untempered feedback without resorting to some sort of filtering.

All the best,

Ben Perrin's picture

By the way, I'm bemused at the reaction to the term "get stuffed". Where I'm from it simply means "go away", maybe it's a slightly stronger term. It's got nothing to do (at least in my mind) with sexual insults and it's not even a personal attack so I'm a little confused at the response. That's the thing with the internet though, it's hard to get intent across without using body language and inflection.

Oliver Kmia's picture

Sounds good Ben. Thanks for the explanation. Just know that Fstoppers is a very diverse place when it comes to writers and Gabrielle has her own opinion and sensibility which I imagine was shaped by her personal experience. Personally I think that people can dress however they want for Halloween but it's just my opinion which is not better or worst than Gabrielle one. The good things is that you may find completely different content in the articles depending on the writers. Comments are good to share readers' point of view in a civilized manner but unfortunately things tend to escalate very quickly. Cheers.

Actually, "get stuffed" is the equivalent of "go f@#$ yourself."

Anonymous's picture

A phrase originating in Britain/Australia, frequently used in BBC comedies. (Some good examples of shows where this phrase is used frequently are Little Britain, Red Dwarf, and The Mighty Boosh.) Depending on the severity with which one utters the phrase it can mean one of four things;
1. Be quiet
2. Go Away
3. Go fuck yourself
4. All of the above

From the idioms dictionary:

An only slightly politer version of f@#$ you. For example, When the taxi cut in front of him, he yelled at the driver, " Get stuffed!" [ Vulgar slang; mid-1900s]

In any case, it is meant to be a vulgar insult.

Thanks for the heads up. Are you on phone or desktop?

And I just read the article. Agreed.

Anonymous's picture

Desktop. I tried IE and Firefox

Did you bother reading the thread between Sam and myself? We resolved this 5 hours ago and came to an agreement, which by the way, I agreed with Sam that I shouldn't assume the original poster's intent behind the phrase since it has several meanings. Your comment adds nothing to a resolved discussion. What's the saying? "Day late and a dollar short"

jonas y's picture

Learning and taking elements from every culture, that is how art progresses. It is also how we build a bond with members of other cultures. I get to know my Japanese friends and Muslim friends by asking questions and learn their crafts, specifically food making.

If you have a strict enforcement of cultural appropriation, you can't even make beer because you are appropriating Egyptians.

I feel happy if one likes my culture enough to apply it to his art, especially when the result is beautiful.

We creatives have to be extremely against this type of thought policing and censorship efforts, this kind of regressive policies will create a world of boringness and divisiveness.

TImothy Tichy's picture

I miss the days when we used to celebrate the "melting pot" idea.

jonas y's picture

We have to abolish these cultural censorships completely.

I am a so-called minority, I am welcoming anyone to learn my culture and apply it to their work.

Alex Cooke's picture

Timothy, we still celebrate the melting pot. That's cultural assimilation and acculturation, which is distinctly different from (mis)appropriation.

Alex Cooke's picture

We see this issue a lot in music as well. A lot of Western composers (often students) blatantly rip Asian elements or Asian-sounding pieces and place them in their music, and it often sounds both basic and almost mocking in nature (though obviously unintended) because of the ignorance in understanding the original context of the material and its proper usage, and I know it often offends a fair amount of people when that happens.

jonas y's picture

I am an Asian, and I actually enjoy the modern interpretation of my culture. Also, a lot of the traditional craftsmanship is dying, I rather someone who is interested in it to learn it. Here's an example: Japanese culture is largely "appropriation" of Chinese culture of Tang and Song dynasty. Thanks to the "cultural appropriation" lot of the cultural elements last through the bloody dynasty changes and most of all, the disaster of communist revolution.

Alex Cooke's picture

Don't get me wrong; I'm not discouraging someone who was not born into a culture from learning —truly learning — it and applying it with thought and understanding. I'm talking about people who hear a single piece and lift one idea that sounds cool to them without regard for its context or even worse, make up music that they think sounds Asian. It's willful ignorance that bothers me (and that willful ignorance is obvious in the music, and it sounds bad).

jonas y's picture

Thank you for your opinion, Alex.

Art is highly subjective, therefore different individuals may have very different interpretations regarding the same work. While most artists do not have enough academic training nor time to learn about the whole culture does not stop them from creating something new and wonderful from it. For example, cannabis consumption was a tool of religious ritual, most people who work in that industry today who smoke it has zero understanding of the cultural context at all.

Also, I think one's art has nothing to do with his birth.

Alex Cooke's picture

Of course you're right in that art is subjective, and I agree most people don't have enough time to learn an entire culture (although an honest attempt to be thorough is really what I wish I'd see more of), though I think one can be relatively objective when speaking of the source materials. Either way, I think it's more I think it insults the culture by oversimplifying (along with misrepresenting) it: for example, a lot of Westerners know Asian music as the pentatonic scale and nothing else. It's a shame to reduce such a rich history down to one trope because people continually go for the most obvious solution.

jonas y's picture

It is true most westerners do not know much about the Asian culture. The same holds true for almost everyone regarding everything, even most young Asian do not know much about their own culture. Also, the interest on a culture has to start somewhere and from a simplified version, therefore I would argue it is a good thing. A lot of young Chinese start to be interested in their own culture and tradition because of a game called“The Legend of Sword and Fairy”, and it is a very simplified version of traditional Chinese worldview but done well. Again, I personally against any self-censorship regarding art.

Alex Cooke's picture

That's certainly fair and I see your point about the gateway for young people. Would you agree that full-grown adults who have been devoting years of study to music should show a more nuanced understanding, though (especially considering their music in this context is intended to be the epitome of refinement of the craft)?

jonas y's picture

Here's what I believe, Alex. Every element from any culture could be an inspiration for new work. There should not be any boundary for anyone to use these elements. I only judge a piece of work based on its quality. Again I do not know enough about Japanese or Chinese traditional music, but I will not be offended just because someone tried to create something beautiful.

BTW I bring my friends to Asian restaurants I enjoyed all the time, and according to the latest intersectional ideas, this is cultural appropriation. That shows the level of ridiculousness of these ideas.

Alex Cooke's picture

Just to clarify, the restaurant example is not cultural appropriation; that's cultural assimilation. I agree that to call that (mis)appropriation and regard it as inappropriate behavior is totally wrong. There's nothing wrong with your example.

jonas y's picture

Also, not that many artists have the intention to mock a culture. Most of us only want to create something wonderful. Even if one created a mocking piece based on some silly rituals from my culture and make it funny, I will laugh just like everyone because my value does not solely depend on the culture I was born in.

Eduardo Francés's picture

Sadly as you can read in the comments people aren't as cultural sensitive and ethic as you and Gabrielle... they think everything they do is fair play (unless you touch their political beliefs)

Sigh... I hope more people like you and Gabrielle comment more often...

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