How to Capture the True Nature of Indigenous Cultures with Sensitivity

How to Capture the True Nature of Indigenous Cultures with Sensitivity


This article is definitely going to be a switch from my normal contributions here on dPS, but it’s a topic that is quickly becoming relevant in today’s society. As more people travel and snap photos, it’s becoming increasingly popular to shoot photos of various indigenous cultures. Indeed many different indigenous groups offer travel packages where you can experience their culture and way of life.

Photographing Indigenous Cultures is Important

How to Capture the True Nature of Indigenous Cultures with Sensitivity

When you think of photos of indigenous people this image probably doesn’t come to mind but this is “us” too.

The additional attention is certainly not a bad thing. For far too long various indigenous groups throughout the world have suffered from racism and just plain poor treatment. As a member of an indigenous group, I see a lot of positives in the awakening and the growing awareness of the plight of these groups of people.

My mother’s side of the family is Algonquin. My ancestors and other members of the Algonquin nation inhabited a large territory that extended through the Ottawa area of Ontario, Canada into the province of Quebec. Algonquin Provincial Park (the largest Canadian Provincial Park) was established in the early 1900’s and essentially annexed my family’s traditional hunting grounds.

It’s a beautiful park, and many of my relatives were born on our family’s trap lines. After the creation of the park, my family members were considered poachers. (I only mention these facts to establish perspective.) So while the awakening of the public consciousness to the beauty of indigenous culture is definitely a positive occurrence, there are certainly some things to take into consideration.

How to Capture the True Nature of Indigenous Cultures with Sensitivity

Originally sewn by my great Aunt Helen. This is the fringe detail on a women’s dress.

We are friendly and welcoming

The first being that 100s of years of bad treatment cannot be erased in the blink of an eye. Hard feelings still exist. Canadian indigenous groups are slowly moving toward reclaiming their heritage and learning about the traditions that governments tried to erase. This holds true for so many other indigenous groups around the world. The indigenous groups of Australia have faced similar struggles to their counterparts here in Canada.

When attempting to make connections with various groups for photography, you may experience some skepticism. Sometimes people are suspicious. We are welcoming and loving people but when you’ve been beaten down as many times as most indigenous groups, you might experience some quiet reticence to requests to photograph various groups.

How to Capture the True Nature of Indigenous Cultures with Sensitivity

Photograph by Michelle Glassford Mackenzie

Educate yourself on the culture

My second recommendation would be to educate yourself about the people you wish to photograph before your visit. Become familiar with some of the language. For example, in the Algonquin language, you would say “Kwey” meaning “Hello”.

Knowing some words and showing respect for the culture may allow you to gain a more personal and friendly relationship with the people you wish to photograph. So look up the words. Ask questions of those who speak the language and try to greet people respectfully. Never just jump in and spout words without being sure you know how to use them properly. Generally, “Hello” and “Thank you” are enough.

How to Capture the True Nature of Indigenous Cultures with Sensitivity

Used for various ceremonies and during nation gatherings, my aunt also made this drum.

Get permission

Thirdly, and I make this point in very general terms, some ceremonies are very special and you always need to ensure you have permission before you photograph the event. In some cultures, photography is not allowed. There have been incidents where photographers have invaded very sacred events and angered the individuals involved.

Quite honestly, being ignorant and disrespectful just continues to create feelings of hostility and suspicion between indigenous groups and the general public. So please ask questions, be polite, and be respectful. The idea is to move on and repair the divisions created by years of colonial assimilation tactics.

Indigenous perspective

Finally, there’s just one other point I wish to make. I hope it doesn’t ruin your desire to learn about and experience an indigenous culture, but I hate to burst your bubble. We (all indigenous people) are regular people. We are not the romanticized “savages” of a bygone era. We get up in the morning and brush our teeth just like you do. Fellow indigenous photographer Nadya Kwandibens sums it up best in her mission statement.

“We, as Indigenous people, are often portrayed in history books as Nations once great; in museums as Nations frozen stoic; in the media as Nations forever troubled. These images can be despairing; however, my goal seeks to steer the positive course. If our history is a shadow, let this moment serve as a light. We are musicians, lawyers, doctors, mothers, and sons. We are activists, scholars, dreamers, fathers, and daughters. Let us claim ourselves now and see that we are, and will always be great, thriving, balanced civilizations capable of carrying ourselves into that bright new day.”

If you’re going to photograph our culture then, by all means, go ahead snap away, but please capture us as we are. We are living breathing human beings just like you. Don’t look for the past and the romantic notions of characters like Disney’s “Pocahontas”. (By the way, that whole story is so twisted the truth is buried in myth just like stories of King Arthur)

Never take that as the truth about the lives of indigenous people. Meet us, know us as humans and capture our heart and soul in the same way you would any other person you meet. Take the advice of my friend Michelle a fellow indigenous photographer.

How to Capture the True Nature of Indigenous Cultures with Sensitivity

Photography by: Michelle Glassford Mackenzie

“While photographing these public yet sacred events one must be both respectful and gracious. Despite being a public event it is best to ask permission to photograph individuals in their regalia, more than often the person will agree. For my photo of the gentleman (above), I asked if he would allow me to photograph him. He replied, only if he could return the favor and photograph me. So after I took this photo, he took my camera and photographed me. Sometimes, it is obvious when a person doesn’t want their photo taken and I will respect their wishes. Other times, you see the joy on their face, as in the female dancer. You don’t necessarily need to capture faces to tell a story, as seen in the photograph of the jingle dress. Also, during these ceremonies, there are Honour Songs and other sacred moments when Photography is not permitted….listen to the MC. Final words….Please be respectful.”

How to Capture the True Nature of Indigenous Cultures with Sensitivity

Another shot of the dress. This is a self-portrait.

Resources to help you

For those of you wishing to learn more and to explore photographing indigenous cultures, I’m leaving you with a list of resources. Ones which I hope will help you in your quest to capture amazing images and also help in capturing the true powerful nature of indigenous cultures and groups around the world.

It is my hope that this article helps to continue our journey. Indigenous people are moving towards a brighter future heading down the path towards the revitalization of our pride and our culture. Please don’t hesitate to ask me any questions. If I don’t know the answer, I will find those who do and share with you. This is not just about my family history but about the lives of millions of individuals who are moving forward in a modern society. We are still here, and we are amazing.

How to Capture the True Nature of Indigenous Cultures with Sensitivity

An indigenous mother and her children.

  1. The controversial book by Jimmy Nelson – I will let you decide how you feel about the photographs.
  2. Diego Huerto – Same thing with these images? What do you think?
  3. Aaron Huey’s Ted Talk – America’s Native Prisoners of War, a heart-wrenching account of the history of Native Americans from their perspective. Please note Aaron Huey is not an indigenous person.
  4. Matika Wilbur – Compare her photographs of indigenous women to the photographs by Jimmy Nelson and Diego Huerto. I think this difference speaks volumes, especially her Project 562.
  5. An example of the awakening and continued efforts to promote and reconnect with our culture from Windspeaker.
How to Capture the True Nature of Indigenous Cultures with Sensitivity

Photography by: Michelle Glassford Mackenzie

Note from the Editor

I have photographed a couple of Round Dances, which is a ceremony to celebrate the lives of those who have passed on. It is put on by a local charity organization; they provide the venue, food, and safe place. There were a few rules to doing photography such as no use of flash, and that at certain times no photos were to be taken. I was honored to capture this event and easily and happily abided by those rules. High ISO (12,800 in some cases) and a fast lens (f/1.8) did the trick. Respect is so important. Respect each other and gain understanding. I feel richer for having had these experiences and been allowed to photograph such a sacred event. Here are some of the images I capturedDarlene, dPS Managing Editor.

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Erin Fitzgibbon is a freelance photographer, writer, and teacher, from Ontario, Canada. She specialises in portrait, sport, and fine art photography. In her free time, she escapes to the backcountry or the beach with her family.

  • Von Will

    Great article, I’m a Saskatchewan Photographer with family from the Sakimay FN. First Nations people of the plains are very welcoming, when respect is shown and they in turn provide you with respect.

  • Michael

    I enjoyed your pictures and the obvious care you took in creating them. I also enjoy your perspective on Indigenous Peoples and their culture. I find it funny, living in Albuquerque, that Pueblo Peoples do not feel the need to study and photograph those of us who are not Indigenous to the area.

    In defense, I think the rest of us are trying to figure out who we are and what our culture is.

  • Erin Fitzgibbon

    An interesting insight Michael. I think identity is a huge topic so many of need to explore further. Thank you for commenting.

  • Erin Fitzgibbon

    Beautiful photographs. Thank you so much for sharing. You are correct. Everyone is welcome. It is those that come expecting to be treated and pampered as tourists that can cause difficulties.

  • Von Will


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  • Rob Norton-Edwards

    Lovely photos. I am especially drawn to the one with the braid detailing on the dress.

    I do wonder, though, at the need to classify and separate folks all the time. There is a lot more that makes us the same than what makes us different, after all.

    Your example photo of the mother with her children: there is nothing about that that says “indigenous”. It is just a mother with her kids. Yet your title calls out “indigenous”, and I am left to wonder why you chose to do that. Does it somehow give the photo more weight or credibility? In which case, isn’t that exploitative?

    Shouldn’t any photo of a person or place be treated with sensitivity?

  • Erin Fitzgibbon

    Hi Rob

    You are right every photo of every person should be treated with sensitivity. The photo you are mentioning is me actually, with my kids. The point of the image was to illustrate just that point. The image was never taken to have any weight. It’s a family photo of a common day experience, nothing more. You can’t tell without the caption that I am from a certain cultural group. Too often we are pictured the “other” way not as human beings. The point of the image was to illustrate this point and to say hey this doesn’t fit the stereotype. She’s not wearing feathers.

    All too often we are portrayed as romanticized “savages” who used to exist. If all that is shown of our culture and our way of life is these stereotypical images then this is all the rest of the world knows about us.

    There’s more to us as a cultural group. So much more and the point is to portray the entire spectrum of who we are. Darlene’s images show a traditional round dance. People are using drums but they are also dressed in jeans and they use cell phones. We are real people.

    The reality is we have a culture and traditions and they are different from those of other peoples and it’s not about becoming a part of the melting pot and erasing differences but celebrating the beautiful mosaic created when all cultures have value.

    Indigenous people wish to have their way of life and values considered equal to those of all others in the world. To be apart of the mosaic that values each culture, each perspective and way of life. Indigenous people have an identity that is just as important as being Canadian or American or being proud of being Christian or Muslim or Sikh. We are here. We are modern not dusty memories of a romanticized past.

    I hope I don’t sound too pushy. That’s not my intention. My hope is that I am clarifying the message within the article. Thank you so much for your questions and comments. It’s a great discussion to have and an important one.

    Please keep asking because the more we openly discuss the more we understand each other.

  • Rob Norton-Edwards

    Hi Erin. Great post, and thanks for the response. We are totally on the same page.

    Please do not think I was being critical. I was only curious, and I figured that was your point (hey, she’s just like anyone else). It was my point too. : )

    One way or another, we are all “savages”.

    I also come from a place where ethnicity and culture have soooo much focus and weight. Culture and heritage and identity are important. No question. The thing is, though, cultures change.

    To your point about cellphones, I loved the photo of the old dude all decked out in his paraphenalia. With shades and a stetson. In many ways, culture is fluid.

    When I think about it, my attraction to the photo of the dress detail is not because it is indigenous, nor even that unusual any more. In these days of instant access to any information, we have all seen this sort of thing before, so there is really no (for me) ‘exotic’ value in the image.

    I just like it. It looks good to my eye. I can’t say why, really. It just does. I’d have that on my wall.

    Have a good one.

  • Erin Fitzgibbon

    No offence taken and thanks so much for the compliments. Discussion is always a good thing. :)))

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