For any tourist destination, imagery of its indigenous culture can be what defines and differentiates it from its competition. In some cases, it can be its singular drawcard. Think where Kenya would be without the imagery of its Maasai warriors or – more locally – where Papua New Guinea would be without the imagery of its Huli wigmen, where Vanuatu would be without the pictures of its Land Divers, where Australia would be without reference to its traditional Aborigines.
After all, a desire to experience a different culture first-hand is (hopefully) one of the main reasons we all look to travel abroad.
As a professional photographer working with tourism authorities to market their destinations in a competitive international environment, I’m particulalry keen to photograph a country’s traditional and contemporary culture in ways that make their destination both distinctive and appealing. To this end, I look to shoot culture from two different angles. The first is to capture a romantic notion of its traditional past. This tends to be in a documentary style as well as a more friendly version of the same thing (because so many documentary images look way too serious). The second approach is to project the destination’s contemporary culture as being welcoming and accessible.
Both approaches require considerable planning – particularly if the destination’s looking to capture an authentic interpretation of its culture. For example, when using traditional garb, it’s vital to ensure cultural protocols are observed (I remember using a Tongan tapa cloth on a Samoan dancer for a big promotional shot and barely survived the fire knife dance that followed). And, when shooting a contemporary scene, it’s important to capture an experience you’d expect to see as a visitor when you’re there.
So I thought I’d post a few images (below) that show the difference between the two styles. The traditional images tend to be strong, rich documentary style photographs that capture a distinctive traditional element of a culture such as its indigenous people or a traditional event (Europeans, in particular, love this sort of imagery as they are forever in search of interesting cultures and new frontiers), while the contemporary cultural images tend to be a more welcoming, friendlier version of the same thing or scenes of travellers genuinely engaging with the local culture in an everyday situation.
It’s worth baring in mind that both styles of cultural photography are important and have their place in marketing a destination to what is likely to be its key audiences and their interests.