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10 Tips for Filming in Other Cultures

Allie Bombach of Red Reel Video captures the last of the evening light while working on a documentary about women and girls and the lack of access to clean drinking water in Ethiopia. Photo by Dana Romanoff

By Dana Romanoff

I recently returned from Ethiopia, where I was shooting a video documentary and photographing people in rural, traditional areas. Access was key in this project, and I was a little worried about how we were going to get in with one tribe in particular: the Afar people. The Afar are nomadic pastoralists that live near the hottest place on Earth, hours from the closest road. They are known as fierce warriors who, as recently as several decades ago, would cut off the testicles of any outsider male. YIKES!

So how was I ever going to gain the trust and acceptance necessary to document and communicate true life? First, I can say that in this situation, I was happy not to be a man! But I trusted what I’ve learned over the years working as a photojournalist in the U.S. and abroad-- and within a day, we were sharing meals, sharing animals skins to sleep on, and even sharing traditional dance moves (in this instance I considered the Macarena to be a traditional dance!).

Moral of the story: Whether you're traveling across the ocean or into someone's backyard, being sensitive to their culture will be your ticket into their lives and authentic storytelling. Here are ten tips for how to get there.

1. LEARN THE LOCAL GREETINGS. I can’t emphasize enough how much the locals will appreciate your attempt to speak their language. It’s okay if you screw it up! In Ethiopia, there are 84 languages, and I had to learn new words every time we went to a different village-- but just trying them opened many doors (figuratively speaking, since many of the huts didn’t have doors). To pull from an example closer to home, last week I was working on a cattle ranch in Nevada where I was warned that if I didn’t pronounce the state “Neveeeda,” I would be deemed an unwelcome outsider. I quickly corrected myself, and have since been invited back to rope cattle.

TIP: Some phrases to focus on in other languages:

  • Customary greetings
  • "Yes" and "No"
  • "Please" and "Thank You"
  • "What is this?"
  • "May I take your photo?"
  • "Beautiful, I like."
  • "Go on doing what you do, ignore me and the camera."
  • "Can I help?"

2. BODY LANGUAGE. How you carry yourself is very important, and people can pick up on the vibes you give off just by observing your posture. Appear humble, calm, and appreciative. A smile is a universal language. When introducing yourself, conducting interviews, or filming, be aware of your presence. What impression does it give if you're towering over someone?

TIP: In smaller towns especially, people will be curious about who you are and why you're there, so don’t just rush by like you're on a street in L.A.-- take time to stop and exchange a greeting, even if it’s just a smile. I also prefer to sit lower than my subjects when I speak with them; I prefer to be a smaller presence in the room and not the center of attention.

3. USE A FIXER. Find a local that is well respected in the community to act as your "fixer." This person will connect you to the place, the people, and the story. They can introduce you to those whose approval you'll need (the chief, mayor, president of an organization, etc.) and introduce you to potential subjects. This person can also act as your translator, and as your eyes and ears when you're busy with the camera.

TIP: I like to work with nonprofit workers, school teachers, or college students, because they usually speak English, are respected in the community, and understand my goal.

4. CLOTHING. How you dress totally depends on where you are-- but I always aim for being more conservative and covering my body when appropriate. If the women cover their head, I cover my head. I can say from first-hand experience that it is humiliating to realize your underwear was sticking out during a shoot. Beware of crack and cleavage!

TIP: It’s fun to get clothing made locally and, if the people you stay with could use your clothing then leaving your initial wardrobe with them can be a nice gesture or gift.

5. GENDER ROLES. My host mother in Africa once told me, “A woman is no stranger in another woman’s kitchen.” As a woman, I can comfortably find a place amongst the other woman, sharing conversation (often in the kitchen) and witnessing intimate moments. But then I also get to sit with the men because I am seen as a guest. As a man, you also have advantages and can instantly bond with the other men-– just make sure you aren’t seen as a threat to their women!

TIP: Observe the gender roles, and learn when you should respect them. Do men and women eat together? Do men and women touch in public?

6. PARTICIPATORY PHOTOGRAPHY vs. FLY ON THE WALL. Cultural anthropologists use this term in the field when participating with-- and therefore learning about-- the community. We often have to make a decision whether to participate or observe. I have two philosophies: 1. I’m human first, and a photographer second. If I see someone in need of help, I’ll help them, even if it means not getting the shot. But there is a grey area here-– are others around to help? Would documenting the person in need do more good than lending a hand in that moment? I really struggled with this one in Ethiopia while filming young girls carry heavy loads of water for hours at a time. 2. When the light is not great for shooting that’s my time to participate-– if at the farm at high noon I might as well help harvest!

TIP: When invited to dance by all means, join in, but bring your camera!

7. PUT YOUR CAMERA DOWN. When you first enter a space, give yourself time to learn the surroundings, meet the people, help out, show your appreciation, and allow for time for people to feel comfortable with you. Once people are comfortable with you (and you with them), then take out the camera. The images will be that much better as a result of your patience.

TIP: Nervous? Start by hanging out with the kids, which is usually fun and less intimidating.

8. ASKING PERMISSION and TO PAY OR NOT TO PAY. I like to establish a relationship with those I’m filming. I make sure they know why I am there, and make sure they're okay with it. I start by getting permission from the head of the town, village, or organization I’m working with, and ask for permission from the individuals I work with as well. If someone asks not to be photographed, then I make sure not to point my lens at them.

I don’t pay to take my photos, so I stay away from touristy areas and instead find individuals who understand my mission. However, I do pay for meals and lodging and try to stay with a local family. If it’s not an arranged payment involving money, then I offer other items in exchange-- like helping out with meals, or offering a gift at the end. It’s a fine line to make sure people don’t want you there because you can be a source of income, but you also don’t want to take advantage of people.

TIP: Sometimes the best gift is a photo! Can you bring a Polaroid camera or small printer with you to make prints at night? Is there a photo store where you can get prints made to distribute?

9. BREAKING BREAD. Sharing food and drink is a universal form of bonding. It can be considered rude to reject a meal or drink. I’ve had to eat some food that I'd never dare serve at my own table-– raw goose liver and moose brain soup to name a few. I've even taken shots of gin with an African priest at daybreak! If you do have strict dietary restraints, most people will understand, but it may take some explaining. If I eat a bunch of meals with a family, I like to contribute as well, just like you'd do when invited to a friends house for dinner back home.

TIP: Brings snacks, and carry Vitamin C packets to mix with your bottled water. Wear clothing with pockets for those food offerings you just aren’t sure about.

10. LAUGH AT YOURSELF. Often, and within limits, I'll make a fool of myself on purpose. Laughter or a shared joke can be a great icebreaker. When you're just learning the language or the culture, there will be many uncomfortable situations and odd hand gestures–- best to make the most out of those moments and keep your sense of humor.

TIP: Be careful with sarcasm-- it doesn’t always translate well!

Did I forget anything? Do you have any other tips or anecdotes to share? Leave your comments below!

Dana Romanoff is a Boulder-based photographer and multimedia producer and a contributor to TDN. See more of her work at danaromanoff.com.

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Reader Comments (2)

What a great article. I don't do a lot of international travel or even plan to, but it's fascinating to get an insight into so many cultural issues.

February 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterScott

Loved the article Dana! I think we can learn a lot from these words of wisdom. I'd say a tip I learned is to understand the pace of other culture's lives. I can't tell you how many times we had plans, and just had to change them because a trip to where we hoped to go would first involve stopping at three other places along the way, and might involve random stops to catch up with people on the street. As you see your light vanishing, or worrying about how much you have left to do, it would be easy to want to rush people. But it's important to remember that in other countries, people have a different speed for life and different priorities. If you stay kind during these times, you're often rewarded by either being more welcomed, or witnessing things you didn't know were out there.

March 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMo

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