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.