ETHICAL DILEMMA: Photographing Cultural Ceremonies

Gabriel Shaya
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It is the crack of dawn in Luang Prabang and hundreds of young monks are filing through the streets. They wear orange robes, which paint the street in warm hues on an otherwise chilly morning. They walk barefoot, an exercise in humility, and open the lids of their alms bowls to receive balls of sticky rice, fruit, and money from local townspeople. The monks are the town’s spiritual caretakers, and the people who give alms receive spiritual merit for their good deeds. The entire process happens without a sound—a silence that reinforces its importance.

Suddenly, a caravan of SUVs pulls up and a huge group of tourists emerges. Men with badges and walkie-talkies push through the lines of monks, stopping the procession and instructing people where to stand, then loudly taking pictures of tourists and monks together. Many of the tourists give alms, despite the fact that they do not understand the ceremony.

And just like that, one of Luang Prabang’s most meaningful rituals has been turned into a tourist entertainment event.

What is the right way for tourists and photographers to engage with cultural ceremonies?

As a foreigner living in Laos, part of me sympathizes with these tourists. I understand their fascination with the almsgiving ceremony. It’s beautiful, and it’s a photographer's dream—the bald monks in matching robes neatly lined up, the steaming bowls of sticky rice, the weathered old women kneeling to make offerings.

I also believe that exposure to these kinds of ceremonies is important for tourists.  Cultural engagement is the key to understanding different practices and ways of life, and stepping outside of the activities we are so used to—to experiment with ones that differ greatly—can make for significant, enriching travel experiences.

But there is such a thing as going too far.

Tourists should be allowed to witness the procession, and should be allowed to take photos. However, there are some important rules that should be followed: Don't get too close. Don't walk in between the monks. Don't use a flash. Keep your voice down.

As for participating in the almsgiving, I have always felt that people who don’t have a good understanding of a cultural practice shouldn't participate. Many say, "When in Rome," but I say, "When in Rome, respect their ancient traditions and don't try to co-opt them for your entertainment.”

In Iran, do tourists get down on the ground to praise Allah during the call to prayer? In Israel, would tourists put on tefillin to show their devotion to God? The almsgiving ceremony is little different.

It was only after I moved to Laos, developed relationships with several of the monks, and came to an understanding of the almsgiving ceremony—and its significance to the community—that I began to participate. I would therefore strongly dissuade tourists from joining in unless they are practicing Buddhists, or have spent significant time in the local community.

In the meantime, I suggest taking photos—quietly, and unobtrusively.




Posted on 8/11/2010 by

Vilayphone Chouramany

Vilayphone Chouramany

Good piece, G.

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