3 Photography Tips for Capturing Culture and Traditions
To catch the true spirit of a people is not easy. It’s not enough to travel in a foreign country to understand the culture of people you visit. You need to do a serious research and, most of all, to observe and be open to everything that surrounds you.
There are many things that can give you insight into local culture and traditions. Architecture, museums, monuments, festivals and celebrations are just a few of them. To put all these in a picture takes sensibility, courage, and a very good eye.
Do your homework long before your photo journey. Read about the history of the place you want to visit. Read its legends and stories. Make a list of the places you want to see. And also make a list of festivals, celebrations, local fairs, and cultural events.
Be prepared to follow the local rules and to respect people’s traditions. For example, in some countries, you have to wear clothes that cover your arms and legs. In other countries, you are not allowed to smoke in public or is disrespectful to photograph women. Some places are sacred and you are not allowed to take pictures there. Learn everything you need to know before starting your journey.
Another type of preparations is the one involving your equipment. Depending on what kind of pictures you want to take, the gear will be different.
Best places to submerge in the local culture
If you are interested in traditions a good place to start from is local ethnographic museums. Many countries have open-air museums where you can find the entire evolution of traditions and way of life. In these types of museums, you can find costumes, tools, even houses in natural size.
Photograph details and look for unique signatures. You should have a circular polarizing filter with you because some objects might have protective glass and you don’t want any reflections in your pictures.
Another good place to see local culture is at the market. Temporary or not, local markets bring together many specific items like local foods and crafts. A market can be a very busy place, think of an Oriental bazaar. Here you can meet locals and find out about events less popular with usual tourists.
A national day or local celebration is another good place to discover traditions. Traditional costumes are always a delight. Music and traditional dances, street parades (just think of Rio de Janeiro), and spiritual rituals are also places where you want to be.
These types of public events can also be crowded. Get just a few pieces of equipment, give up the tripod, and enjoy the moment. These events are alive and if you want to take the best pictures you need to feel them rather then see them. Try to find a high position from where to take pictures of the entire event (a church tower, a roof or a balcony will do just fine).
Pay attention to details
Sometimes you can say a lot with just a small detail. A facial expression or a gesture can be enough to give you the perfect photo. Usually, traditional clothing and dances catch the eye first. But there are many other details which are waiting to be discovered. Flags, symbols, emblems, handmade items, jewelry, even the materials can be very interesting.
To travel is a privilege. To get to know and understand how other people live is also a privilege. You should always be respectful, especially when religious celebrations are involved. Even if your beliefs differ, remember that you are the observer, not the judge.
A photographer should always tell the true story and not the one he or she likes best.