If you are ever lucky enough to be invited to attend, or even photograph a cultural event you need to make sure you do it with respect and sensitivity.
In this article, you’ll learn 5 tips to help you do that so you get invited back for the next event.
- Learn a little bit about the cultural significance of the event and any ceremonies ahead of time.
- Always remember that you are a guest.
- Abide by their rules.
- Make sure you have permission to photograph.
- Make new friends.
#1 – Educate yourself ahead of time
I have had the opportunity to attend and photograph a few Pow Wows and I’m always honored to be there. When I was in Turkey, I also saw an actual Whirling Dervish ceremony.
For me, the key to attending such events is learning about the culture and the event ahead of time. Know why the event is significant and learn about any protocols that you may need to participate in. Having a gift as an offering goes a long way to earning respect. Make sure you know what is an appropriate gift as well.
Start online, then dig in further. Read authors that are part of that culture or ethnicity. Learn about the history and their values. Go to local or online events and learn a bit about them. Go deeper.
You must know how to dress, how to act, where you can go, and which parts you can participate in or not. For example, wear long pants or a long skirt to Indigenous events, and cover your shoulders and knees (and a head scarf for the ladies) at a Muslim one.
Lastly, and most importantly, learn the right terminology. This is VERY important. It is very insulting to call Indigenous Pow Wow outfits costumes, for example. It is called regalia. It’s no more of a costume than a Scottish kilt, Dutch wooden shoes, or an Indian sari (dress).
#2 – Remember you are a guest
As photographers, we tend to get excited when we see new things and want to photograph everything from the best viewpoint. But remember – you are a guest!
This is event is not being put on for you. So getting the best shot comes second to being respectful. Don’t be THAT photographer that annoys the organizers or attendees and ruins it for all others afterward.
Which brings me to . . .
#3 – Abide by the rules
If they say to stay behind the yellow line – do it.
When they say no photos of video – respect that and don’t take any. At Indigenous events when the Elders are doing prayer or smudging – NO PHOTOS are to be taken.
Don’t sneak a quick shot and think you got away with it. You’re being THAT photographer if you do! Even if you get a good one, you should never share it or post it anywhere. This is VERY disrespectful and remember . . . you are a guest. They allowed you to be there.
If they say no flash – don’t use one. It could be for the safety of the participants. At Pow Wows for example the dancers may lose their step and fall or become disoriented and get injured.
#4 – Make sure you have permission
Permission might involve asking ahead of time if you can attend, and if you can take photos. So you may need to get in touch with the organizers.
Or if it’s a public event that anyone can attend, permission might be individual. When you are aiming your lens at someone you can tell if they want to be photographed or not. If they indicate they do not – respect that and put the camera down.
The Whirling Dervish ceremony I mentioned I went to in Turkey was NO CAMERAS allowed inside. I was a little miffed at that, but I followed the rule and was very glad I did because it was a wonderful experience.
YES, sometimes you can have a good experience just watching something and taking it in – instead of taking photos! Imagine that hey?!
#5 – Make new friends
Once you’re at the event, don’t keep to yourself or your own little group. Get out and mingle and meet new people, make new friends.
I truly believe my life is richer and fuller by having a wide range of diverse friends – not just where I live but around the world. When we get to know one another we are both enriched and uplifted.
Learn from each other. Invite a new friend out to lunch.
Over the last two years (since covid started) I have attended roughly 16 Indigenous and cultural events. Through my skills as a photographer I have made many new friends, several of who I’ve had over to my house, and meet for lunch or to go you dancing regularly.
My life has been Indigenized and I’m so grateful to have all these new friends in my life. Open the door to new friends and new opportunities will follow.
I loved hanging around outside the entrance of the arena where all the dancers were waiting to enter. The late evening light was amazing for making some candid portraits.
I was totally enamored with the man below, I couldn’t get enough photos of him. He caught me doing it once and smiled at me. Warmed my heart.
I was hired to photograph a TV show premiere with an all-Indigenous cast, did portraits for the Indigenous Law Students at the university, did a fabulous family portrait, and have a few other things in the works as collaborations and ideas with Indigenous artists and dancers.
If you want to view more of my images like this – head to my Smugmug gallery and look in the Event category.
Play the slideshow below to see all my images from the Enoch Cree Nation 2022 Pow Wow.
If you are interested in photographing a cultural event like this – please fill in the survey below. We are currently brainstorming a photography workshop idea, to be held in Central or Southern Alberta.
Have you attended any similar events? Tell me about it in the comment area below.
What did you learn about the culture? What did you like most about it?
I am drawn to Indigenous cultures and the people. Their way of living, and being, resonates with me, and they are welcoming and kind. I love the supportive community feeling, the family values, and their connection with the natural world or Mother Nature.
Here is a list of some of my favorite Indigenous artists, singers, and authors.
- Lance Cardinal – artist, designer, performer, photographer, you name it he does it.
- Shawnee Kish – singer.
- Crystal Shawanda – blues singer. Check her out, she will blow you away!
- Crystle Lightning – actress, singer, producer.
- Thomas King – author. His mysteries are fantastic, love them and his books about Indigenous issues tell it straight but with a little twist of humor where you wouldn’t expect it.
- Richard Wagamese – award-winning author. Read any and all of his books.
- Louise Erdrich – author, I highly recommend The Round House and The Plague of Doves.
- Eden Robinson – author, her books on the Trickster were made into a tv series on CBC. Great stories!
- Michelle Good – author of Five Little Indians – just read it! So heart-wrenching but powerful!
- Norval Morrisseau – artist, painter.
- Leah Dorion – artist, painter. She uses a lot of symbolism in her paintings, read about some of the common ones here.