This is the first 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 one’s 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.

One of my favorite things about my job leading tours in western China is that I get to watch people experience new cultures. I find it fascinating how people go about processing cultures, places, foods, and experiences for the first time – both the good and the bad. Looking at the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of cultural interaction can give us useful insights on ways to enrich our future photographic cross cultural experiences.

After living and traveling overseas, I’ve distinctly noticed that people, though undeniably unique, share a lot of the same wants, hopes, needs, and desires. These shared aspects sometimes reveal themselves in exotic and different looking ways, but rest assured, we do have something in common.

It’s amazing what we can learn when we focus on the commonality of the human race as opposed to what we more often focus on: the differences. It’s because of these common areas that I believe it’s important to have understanding and respect for our own culture when we enter into a new one.

Experiencing culture shouldn’t be a one-sided affair
When visiting a new culture we need to be aware of what’s happening when we interact with that culture’s people. The second we interact with someone from a new culture, we immediately begin gathering data on that person whether we know it or not. They are doing the same thing with us, and we’d do well to realize that. More times than not, I see tourists who only want to GET information on that culture and are refusing to GIVE any information about their own culture.

Perhaps we don’t value our own culture. Perhaps we don’t know how to engage a new culture. Perhaps we’re lazy.

I guarantee you the vast majority of people you photograph in a new culture while traveling want to know about you just as much as you want to know about them. Give them a second and they’ll rattle off more questions than you know what to do with. In fact part of being human is this special interaction: an offering of shared culture. And if we refuse to offer something of ourselves and our culture (or maybe haven’t thought about how to do so or why it’s important), we run the risk of shutting down the beauty of the human exchange.

We become selfish, though maybe unintentionally so. We must be prepared to offer as much about our culture as others are offering to us. Accomplishing this puts us in a unique position to value other people, to let them know we esteem them as a human instead of making them the subject of our photography. Granted, it’s more work and maybe takes longer – but it’s worth it, is it not?

It’s easy to enter a new culture with an unintentional, selfish mindset or a desire to learn from that culture without realizing we are also teachers of our own culture. I don’t mean people are intentionally selfish in these positions, but how do you describe a tourist or photographer who is only interested in what they can ìgetî from that culture? Granted, valuing other people takes more time and it’s by no means easy, but without at least this realization we run the risk of being selfish.

We must be willing to relate on a human level first and foremost.

It’s important to be ready to make that cultural offering, which can become a problem if we don’t respect, understand, or know anything about our own culture in the first place. Language is a barrier, but the less you are willing to know and share about your own culture can cause you to learn less about the culture you are photographing. If we are disconnected from our own culture, the cultural exchange can be one sided and exploitive at times.

Cultural exchanges that are one-sided are incomplete. Consequently, as photographers we must make the direct correlation between the importance of understanding other cultures and a healthy respect for our own.

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