This article was originally for a guest post that ended up getting cancelled due to time.  If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll see lots of themes we’ve talked about in the past discussed in this article. If you are interested in exploring these concepts more, take a look at my previous posts on engaging culture photographically:


I’ve been able to travel to many unique places and cultures as both a photographer and a traveler. With my job at Plateau Photo Tours I get to help people experience some of the truly unique cultures that western China has to offer – often for the first time. I love the excitement, awe, and intrigue that comes with people experiencing new cultures with fresh eyes — all while discovering the unique parts of those cultures. It has to be one of the best parts of the job.

Unfortunately, I’ve seen the damage that can be caused and the disappointment that can be experienced by first time photographic travelers when they enter a new culture unprepared to experience that culture respectfully and thoughtfully.

With that in mind I started to analyze the difference between those ‘healthy’ travelers and those that leave disappointed, unsatisfied, or worse – caused cultural strife. I believe there are many things we should do before entering into a new culture, but listed below are five points that I truly believe will help a person become a better first time photographic traveller.

Off we go!

Research is obviously important. It will give you a broad and useful overview of what a certain culture looks like, it’s history, and it’s norms. This gives us a backdrop for what we can expect to experience and see in a particular culture.  Consider research your compass pointing you north; it’s the guideline that tells you how to photographically engage a new culture.

Why is research so important? First, we are always bringing our own concepts, paradigms, and ideas into cultural situations. When these expectations aren’t realized, we become disappointed – and a disappointed photographer creates uninspired images. Second, without appropriate research we can misperceive things that are happening, which in turn can lead to story telling that isn’t even close to accurate, true, or fair. Third, research allows us to develop the stories we want to tell before we get on location, which is so important. There is nothing like research to spur the imagination!

The best way to curb disappointment is to do research. Research undoubtedly allows us to tell more accurate visual stories. We all know the camera can lie and tell stories that aren’t accurate. Research helps position us to not only be respectful of a culture but also be inspired storytellers.

Even the best information you find on a culture isn’t even close to 100% accurate.

Bad research can be dangerous. Think about it: What’s the first thing we do when you want to research something? I immediately Google the location and try to find as much information about it as I can. However, simply Googling a new culture is really not enough, and worse it could provide you with inaccurate, biased, or outdated information about that culture.

It’s best to go with a combination of sources. I prefer to talk to someone who has been there before me as well as researching the location online. This gives me a good cross section of what to expect. Every person, website, or blog you read will have their own opinions, experiences, and biases that effect how they view a culture. We need to be careful to not accidentally buy into those same biases. Furthermore, it’s important to remember that while your research can be immensely helpful, it can also skew your view of the culture and make you think you know and understand more than you actually do.

Accurate research is so important, but it’s also important to experience the culture and try and draw some of your own conclusions.

We don’t just need to do research, we need to do good research.

Many travelers make the mistake of not being prepared to talk about their own culture. Here’s the thing: we all have unique culture whether we know it or not. We often undervalue our own culture as a tool for learning about a new culture.

When we visit a new culture we should be prepared to share some part of our culture with the the people we interact with.  Often times we are not prepared. Every culture you visit is going to want to know something about you, especially if you end up putting a camera in their face. Some of the best pictures I’ve ever taken came after hours of cultural interaction and exchange…and honestly just sitting there hanging out.

Not being prepared to talk about our own cultures can turn conversations into one sided affairs. We can run the risk of accidentally becoming ‘selfish’ in the sense that we are just taking and not giving. It’s very difficult to understand a new culture in just a few days, and it’s even more difficult if we haven’t sought to understand or share our own. Too many people enter into a new culture without considering these things and then are left without a framework to process the new culture.

This one is simple. The camera can be your worse enemy as a photographer. They see you coming with that huge monstrosity of a camera and they think you are just after one thing – taking their picture. Have you ever had someone take your picture without even trying to interact with you? We all have – it’s a little bit unnerving, to say the least. It’s important to remember them as humans versus simply objects.

The rule that I try to live by photographically is that I want to try and value the person I’m taking a picture of just as much (or more) than the image itself. Try relating on a human level first. Many times that means putting the camera down for a while. Your subjects will undoubtedly appreciate it, and I can guarantee you’ll capture a better, stronger, more authentic image for your troubles and have a better story to tell.

Slowing down is often not in a photographers vocabulary — especially when visiting a new and interesting culture. We simply don’t want to miss anything! Beyond that, our time is almost always limited.

Slowing down allows us to see culture more clearly. We also gain balance and perspective that we might not have if we were busy simply photographing things. It’s easy to miss very rich culture because we were busy photographing it. We need to learn to experience new cultures as a travelers, explorers, and humans as well as photographers.

Listen to any cultural or travel photographer and you’ll discover that slowing down makes better images. Slowing down helps us think about our images, make less cultural mistakes, and in the long run create better images.  It’s not about more, is it?  It’s about better.

What now?
Wherever I go and whatever culture I encounter, I follow some variety of these steps. Experiencing culture cannot reduced to a formula — and that’s a good thing. It means the culture is alive, vibrant, and always changing. It’s that aspect of culture and people that makes it worth photographing in some ways. However, I’ve personally found that these points have helped me become a more sensitive, inspired, and informed photographer and I hope they will do the same for you.