This article is a repost of a guest blog I did for Rear Curtain. Rear Curtain is a great organization run by friends who are seriously passionate about telling stories. Do yourself a favor and check them out here
This is the final part of a three part series on how we can learn to relate to other cultures as photographers by embracing aspects of our own culture. Many struggle to realize that our own unique cultures are a good tool that can help us communicate and understand cross culturally. There is a correlation between understanding oneís own culture and engaging in a new and different one. Through embracing, valuing, and understanding our culture first, we can recognize and appreciate cultures that are not our own.
PART 3: PROCESS THE NEW THROUGH THE OLD
One thing that I’ve touched on in my previous two posts (Part 1 Part 2) on understanding new cultures through our own, is focusing on commonality in humanity as opposed to our differences. When we dissect culture we discover there are commonalities that exist from culture to culture despite their vast and easily noticeable differences. Even if your home culture looks nothing like that of the culture you are intending to go and photograph, trying to find commonality proves helpful in thinking the right way about culture.
The uniqueness of culture is often wrapped up in the things that all people, despite their location, do – eating, shopping, playing, family life, etc. Before we enter a new culture its a good idea to sit down and analyze these things in our own home culture. Think about what we do daily and why we do it, and what this says about us. This gives us a frame of reference for then viewing a new culture – what’s different about the way we do common things? Why? We are seeking to learn about the new through the lens of what we already know from the old. This is similar to learning a new language. We learn a new language based on the information from the one we already know. This idea gives us some hope for learning a new culture based on our own. We all have culture but are rusty or unfamiliar with how to speak the ‘language’ of culture. The very basics of that ‘cultural language’ is wrapped up in our commonalities.
Listed below are a few cultural commonalities that are healthy for photographers to observer in their own culture before entering a new one.
Culture in Eating
Everyone eats. One of the most poignant examples of commonality in culture is the mealtime. I’ve heard it said that you can learn more about a society’s culture by how they eat – whether that’s entirely true or not, there should be no doubt that making food, eating food, and sharing a meal is jam packed with the basics of speaking a new ‘cultural language’.
Some cultures view mealtime as a backdrop for social interaction. Some societies spend days and weeks preparing food. Some eat just for energy. Some have strong religious dietary restrictions and superstitions. Whatever the reasoning behind how they view food, there is cultural information to be learned from understanding food.
Think about our own food culture. Why do we eat and why? How much time do we spend preparing and then eating? Is it a social event? It varies from place to place based around local economics, availability, religion, tradition and available time and all sorts of other cultural norms.
Culture in Playing
How a culture spends it’s free time can reveal a lot about the underpinnings of that society. How a culture values competition, conflict, relationships, family, individualism, or even how they go about defining ‘rest’ is all pertinent information. Asking the question of why they spend their time the way they do reveal small glimpses into larger aspects of the culture.
For example, I spent all day last Saturday watching football. I was raised in a society that values healthy competition. Thankfully losing doesn’t reap unbearable shame upon my entire family, like it does in some cultures. I grew up competing, and I love it – but many cultures may not value competition for the exact opposite reason.
Alternatively, many cultures value spending time with people. Sitting around talking, eating, and drinking can reveal many aspects of their culture: valuing the society as a whole versus valuing the individual. They value the family and relationships over money or social rank.
What can that say about the culture at large?
These are just two examples. The point is to think about how we play, how we relax, and how we spend our free time. Our value systems, often indicative of our unique culture, will undoubtedly play into how we spend our free time. Furthermore, we can take that information and view a new culture with these things in mind.
Culture in Family
Every culture has specific views, opinions, and practices relating to the family. How many kids does the average family have? How do the care for the elderly? How is family defined? For example, Asian cultures often value extended family while Western Societies we tend to value the nuclear family. In some cultures the children are encouraged to venture out into society and have very little reliance on their parents, while in other cultures children stay much closer to home. Why is this?
Why certain cultures value specific aspects of family life can give us a preview into larger aspects of a places culture. For example, sustenance farming cultures will often value the larger family since it provides manpower for food. However modern cultures often encourage independence from the family. Even the definition of family can vary from culture to culture. Family dynamics are often dependent on larger cultural variables such as economy, living location, climate, religion, nutrition, political stability and so on.
Culture in Business
How we buy things is also pertinent in understanding cultures: not what we buy necessarily, but how we go about buying it. Do we buy things at a Super Market and then do a self-checkout, literally removing human interaction from the process? Or do we spend hours in a marketplace haggling with people? Do we use cash or credit? Can you sample the food first? All these things, as simple and maybe seemingly meaningless as they might appear, display important things about culture.
Paying attention to what we do and how we buy things can give us an idea of large cultural elements. Is a culture high context or low context? Does it value human interaction or does it value the individual? Think about it. What does this tell us about culture?
Be aware of the things you do the next time you go to the store or market. What does your purchasing experience tell you about your own personal culture? You will be surprised at the things you learn, which can help you engage a foreign culture better.
The common, the different, and the question of why
In these four examples, we’ve asked the question ‘why’ in scenarios that are common to all cultures. Asking this helps us understand the new and different culture we’re facing and puts us in a position of valuing similarities versus differences. We are essentially using the old culture to provide a framework to process the new. In these three posts, I’ve tried to show that we need to be in touch with our own culture in order to value and understand the new culture we’re photographing. We all have a unique culture, and understanding it is certainly useful to understanding any new culture we may enter. Few photographers realize this importance and consequently are ill-equipped to enter into a new one. Evaluating our culture first better equips us as photographers to communicate the beauty of a new culture – viewing the new through the old.