You know what they say about making assumptions, don’t you?

Take a look at the picture above.  My first impressions when I watched this scene play out in front of me were seriously mixed  – something to do with people of faith being in proximity to money tends to stir uncomfortable emotions.  Some find this picture absolutely humorous while others simply find it appalling.  So much rides on the context of this picture and the assumptions we make about it.

Assumptions about situational context are something we generally always take into consideration as photographers.  Most of the time we are in a context that is familiar to us. However, those who prize themselves as photographic story tellers, especially cross-cultural communicators, should give it even more consideration.

To shed some light on this image, it was taken at a popular monastery in Western China that is completely Tibetan run, but due to provincial and state tourism laws, the location must run as a tourist site.  One of the trappings of this law is a required entrance fee. Someone has to count the money and on this day, that responsibility fell to this guy.

I watched this monk and spoke with him while he counted several days worth of admission fees.  He could have been doing anything other than counting money.  There seemed to be no shame or guilt in his voice as if he was committing some social faux pas – he could have been counting rocks instead of money for all he cared.  Now imagine a American mega-church preacher sitting out on the sidewalk counting cash in broad daylight.  What’s the difference?

The difference is that we all carry around culturally loaded thoughts which we use to bring context, even implicitly, to any photographic situation.  One of the dangers here is that we miss the actual story we might be trying to tell due to our assumptions about certainly cultural contexts.   Now, don’t get me wrong.  I’m by no means attacking the foundations that allow photography to stir strong emotions with people without them needing to know specific context.  I’m not attacking the ability of a strongly composed image to stand on it’s own.  I’m not even  suggesting that a picture not having explicit context is a bad thing.  It’s certainly not.  I’m simply suggesting that in the process of intentionally telling a story with our cameras, we need to be well aware of our personal assumptions of what the context is versus what the real context is.

A significant portion of us tell stories about cultures that we aren’t from.  Part of or battle to not make assumptions is to understand that culture as much as we can before we enter it.  Without doing that we can do all sorts of damage  – assuming someone is ok with us taking their picture or assuming the social norms are one way when they are another.  Assuming that a religious man counting money in broad daylight is unacceptable.

Not recognizing our automatic assumptions can lead to a significant loss of integrity when it comes to actually telling the accurate stories we saw.

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