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Cultural concerns every traveling photographer should know about

Photography requires gear. Duh. That’s a given. Yet, the most important tool any photographer has is their mind, their eye, their humanity and their adaptability. Those are priceless, both in the fact that you can’t buy them and the fact that they are what will help you make exceptional photographs whenever you travel. Before you leave for any other culture, smart photographers prepare by reading up on cultural concerns they may encounter on the road.

These cultural concerns include:

When to shake hands or not (especially with women in more traditional cultures.) In many parts of the world, even more “modernized” cultures, I meet people who may or may not want to shake hands. In the case of meeting women, I always let them lead the interaction. If their hand comes out, so does mine. If their hands are pressed together in front of them, as is common in much of Asia, I do the same.

When should you be wearing or removing shoes in houses and other spaces around the globe? In much of Asia, shoes are not worn in homes, offices, religious centers, etc. If in doubt, look at the entrance of a given building for a shoe pile. Between airport security checks and removing my shoes for these cultural reasons, I always wear slip-on rather than laced shoes.

Learn a bit about local greetings such as the Asian gesture of putting palms together and bowing or the Islamic gesture of tapping ones heart with the right hand and swinging it slowly towards the other person. This alludes to how the sentiment comes from the speaker’s heart and often accompanies verbal greetings. In most cultures, if someone make this gesture to you, it is appropriate and expected that you will reciprocate.

Consider the cultural origins of the handshake, which is thought to have originated as a way of showing that the greeter holds no weapon. In many countries, handshakes are not as firm as in North America and Europe and so a firm grip will be considered rude. People shaking hands in parts of Asia and Africa often hold on to each other for some time after the initial greeting. Shaking hands with the left hand and also shaking hands with gloves on are both problematic in many cultures. Ironically, of all the greetings, the handshake is the most unhealthy, since it is a known way to spread germs.

The bottom of shoes are considered considered the “lowest” and “dirtiest” part of the body, so showing the sole of your shoe is an insult in different cultures. This can make for slightly contorted poses when sitting on the ground and photographing. On the other end of the body, the tops of heads are sacred in much of Asia, so when there, don’t pat or touch people on top of their head, especially young children.

In my own experience, hands in general (and hand gestures in particular) are disasters-in-the making. Our inoffensive thumbs-up, OK signs and other gestures have completely different meaning around the world. When in doubt, keep your hands by your side.

Eye contact, or lack thereof, is strongly culturally determined. It can establish a sense of intimacy between between people, which may not be such a good idea in some cultures. Some Muslims, for example, try to lower their eyes and to look only at the the hands and face of members of the opposite sex. In other cultures, one lowers ones eyes as a sign of respect when speaking to a clearly dominant person.

The rituals around food and meals are worthy of an entirely separate blog entry. Valid concerns about allergies and diets can clash with local cultures. I have had pretty good luck trying almost everything and only deferring on rare occasions. When I decline a food item, I lay the blame squarely on me and my temperamental stomach. Since no physical contact is involved (and thus no moral values are compromised,) I have found my hosts pretty understanding since they usually see that I will try MOST anything once.

The key to proper preparation is research so you know what to expect. You also need adaptability so you can change your approach on a moment’s notice. With the spread of globalization, I find these lines ever more blurred. I just was in Morocco and I am writing in this in India. In each place, I was again surprised by which very traditionally dressed women wanted to shake my hand and which more secularly dressed ones did not.

As a photographer, I am expected to know my gear inside and out. I need to be able to work fast and efficiently. I need to be just as prepared with these cultural tools. No matter how good a photographer I am, if I can’t get in the door and into people’s lives, I can’t make the photos no matter what gear I use.

Click HERE to download this as a PDF.

This originally appeared in the January/February 2015 issue of Shadow & Light Magazine, along with many other interesting articles, photos, etc.

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