Expand your cultural awareness
When I left the photo industry in 2007, I took a completely different career path and began teaching English as a Second Language to adults from all over the globe. As I spend more time re-immersed in nature photography through social media, I’m starting to realize that most of us take the culture (history, environment, social constructs, values, access) of nature photography for granted, just as I took/take my own White U.S. American culture for granted.
Most of us, without thinking, believe the nature images we share are Universal. The majority of us talk about composition from a certain perspective, we value particular aesthetics, we uplift a specific type of expert, we measure success with similar criteria. We rarely question this dominant narrative, but rather set it as the standard with which we compare everything else. But culture exists within nature photography, too.
When I worked in the photo industry in the late-90s/early-2000s, my perspective was that nature photography primarily centered adventuring into dangerous terrain in order to "shoot" sweeping landscapes, and "capture" high contrast, highly saturated dramatic images that would be enlarged to take up physical space.
With more options now (both for photographers and those who enjoy experiencing photographic images), the photographers I follow on social media are interested in slowing down, caring for the planet, and using their cameras mindfully. Because those are things I value, I have surrounded myself with others who have the same values and my perspective has become this: nature photography is for creating intimate landscapes, stunning beauty, and a sense of peace.
During a training with Cornelius, a woman who taught in the public school system commented on how she desired a more "peaceful" classroom. He asked her to describe what that classroom looked like. I can’t remember her exact words, but it was something to the effect of ordered, quiet, students on task. Ah, yes, that’s the pinnacle of a well-run classroom, we can surely agree on that, right?
Cornelius then asked us to consider that not everyone would define a peaceful classroom in that way. Wait, what!? My brain screeched… I spent the past decade trying to achieve this peaceful vision... with little success! An entire decade of stressing about peace!! Ha!! But, when I'm honest with myself, my favorite class day ever involved debate, raised voices, and lots of laughter.
These adults with life experience in the Congo, Somalia, Kenya, Bhutan, Thailand, and Burma (Myanmar) seemed to be experiencing the symbols in this painting from their own cultural and experiential perspectives. And that was more than ok! No one got angry, no one refused to work with another, no one stormed out of the room. They each shared their view points and we had an opportunity to see the painting through different lenses.
It took me a year or two after this experience (when I started teaching Workplace Readiness) to understand that my students weren't the only ones with cultures that influenced their perceptions.
I feel that if we are ever going to live in a more peaceful world, all of us must realize that we each have a world view shaped by our culture and our personal experiences, and that our world views impact the way we understand/experience life events.
When, through your own lens, you look at the images below which would you describe as peaceful? Why?
Over the years, I've realized we can’t ever truly experience what another is feeling or accurately see the world through another person’s lens, but we can get glimpses into other's perspectives if we keep an open mind and heart. And we can believe people when they share that they’ve experienced the world (or a color, symbol, rule) differently than we have.
I believe that nature photography changed with digital - more access, fewer expenses = images that are less grand adventure and more "everyday." I'm also seeing it change with the pandemic - reduced ability to travel = images that are near home and closer...more macro. How could we be intentional about including the perspectives of those who've never been able to afford grand adventure? How could we be intentional about including the perspectives of the local photographers who get overlooked by travel photographers? How could we let "unheard" (ignored, undervalued, intentionally silenced) voices tell their own stories rather than telling their stories for them?
If we're not intentional about expanding photo culture to include a variety of perspectives, the culture will remain essentially the same.
This concern is the foundation for why I insist that only sharing beautiful images and educating people about nature will NOT solve our social and ecological crises. There are innumerable, easily accessible nature photos, communities, and documentaries, and, yet, we continue to destruct our planet - photographers included. Let's try something deeper, more complex, and more relational to get to the root of the problem. Explore a list of books I recommend for this approach here.
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To bring it back to your perspective on photography, first take a look through your images and pay attention to what feels most you. Make notes, make comparisons, and begin to define your cultural perspective so your perspective doesn't become the default or norm that you compare (and judge?) everyone else's images against. Consider what experiences shaped your perspective.
My work is heavily inspired by Japanese aesthetics, which you can read about here. I make sure I understand the underpinnings of this inspiration/influence as deeply as I can (not just as a technique, but as a way of life based on culture, history, spirituality, environment) and I give credit where credit is due.
Next take a look through someone else's images and consider.
Now that you have a good idea of your preferences and influences, ask yourself, "am I living the values of this aesthetic?" For example, if you value minimalism, check for excess in your camera bag, home, closets. If you value the Slow Photography Movement, check for speed in your schedule, extra-curricular activities, modes of transportation. Some of our preferences may serve us, our communities, and Mother Nature well, and some of them may need to be dismantled to create a deeper sense of relationship and reverence for people and the planet.
As nature photographers who want to help shape a more nurturing culture, it's important we acknowledge that photography can serve as an accessible, culture-shifting art form when we are intentional, considerate, and honest about what influences our images, and when we live our lives with those same values.
How does your culture influence your life and photography practice?
Kristin Perry is a nature photographer navigating life's complexities by focusing on beauty.