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Panama: Two or three things I’ve learnt about ethnic minorities

August 26, 2009

It’s taken a while to figure out my travel style, call it age or learning from past mistakes. By travel style I don’t just mean luggage, planning and accommodation. I mean the type of resources I go to for research, how and when to bargain, how to dismiss touts and beggars with one solid “no”, and how to work around ethnic minorities.

My first encounter with minorities was in Tibet and Yunnan provinces in China. I was mesmerised by the women’s clothing, accessories, scarves and general beauty even the weathered old ones at that. My camera was always in the ready position trying to sneak candid shots, going up to people in the markets and just snapping a photo or zooming my 300mm lens in as close as possible. Basically trying to be the perfect obnoxious tourist.

Then there was the hard core bargaining with the women selling their crafts. I had to get the cheapest prices because all the guide books told me that’s how it should be done. Not taking into consideration the amount of labour needed in making the craft or portering the goods to the market. In following the directions in these often misguided guidebooks, I become the perfect sheep.

Things changed — I grew up. Thinking about my past behaviour now always makes me shudder. So here is my take on how to work with minorities without exploiting.

Lesson Number One: Not everybody wants to be in the picture

Ethnic minorities hold different beliefs and values to westerners when it comes to capturing a static image, particularly the elderly. It could mean death, a ghost revisiting, or bad luck. This may seem nonsense to western thinking but we are not the ones having our picture taken.

Don’t assume women and men want their image taken because they look colourful. What they wear is their normal daily outfit. Personally I hate being asked to have my photo taken, which made me re-think the assumption that everybody likes to be photographed. Unless I visit a village and they encourage pictures, I don’t take shots of  minorities on the streets and at the markets.

I figured out that there are other ways to photograph people and learn about their traditional dress at the same time. Often with women, stories are told through their clothes, jewellery and scarves. The designs they use, subject matter and colours.

I’d like to you meet a Kuna woman. Kuna are reputed as being the most colourful ethnic group in Central America. Based on the Caribbean side around the islands of San Blas, the women dress in bright tops, applique style wraps around their waist called Molas, and beaded arm and shin bands. Some older women wear gold nose rings.

by Cate

by Cate

Incredibly colourful outfits.

by Cate

by Cate

Handmade, intricate and hot-looking. Wearing these beads would make me swelter.

Molas are a famous indigenous craft made by the Kuna women. Hours of needlework, cutting and quilting go into each one. Generally the size or a cushion cover, they tell the stories about the Kuna culture: religion, beliefs, relationships with nature.

by Cate

by Cate

Lesson Number Two: Good artwork is worth paying for 

If I can see hours of work have gone into a craft, and it’s unique I don’t bargain, as long as they aren’t asking a ridiculously high price. Good artwork is often hard to come by as artisans stop producing the quality and focus on the cheap sellable products. If no discount is offered and it’s beyond my budget, I opt for something within the price range. 

Now for the head shot: I asked this woman to hold the blanket up so I could take a picture. Only too willing, the blanket was bigger than her — these women are small —  she struggled and had to sit down.

by Cate

by Cate

Lesson Number Three:  Paying for photos?

It took me sometime to figure this one out. Paying for photos puts them in unnatural poses, gives a zoo like nature to the ethnic minority experience, and can discourage them from producing their crafts because photos may be easy money.

I do hope to capture some more images later on when I return to Panama at the end of September. But this will be while I’m staying over at one of their villages around San Blas.

Caffeinated Traveller

  1. August 26, 2009 9:00 pm

    The underlying theme here is “respect”. Taking a photo can be like pointing a finger. Impolite. Bargaining for an inordinately low price on a high quality item is, at root, dishonest.
    You seem to flow into the places you travel. Your outlined principles are valid and make that merging experience possible.

  2. Bear permalink
    August 27, 2009 2:06 pm

    Too true and well said. When it gets down to it — we are guests when we visit so shouldn’t be rude or unapreciative, should we?


  3. August 28, 2009 3:21 pm

    It was in Jodhpur that a native once said to me, “It is important that you tell our stories and show our localities else how will people learn about us and feel like visiting our place.”

    And where the concept of ‘guest’ is strong, allowing for photographs to be taken is actually considered a honour. Might not be the case always, or in all cultures.

    Deep in the jungles of Tadoba once we reached a village that had neither light nor a road. It had taken us all of morning to reach the village. It was Naxalite territory, and our presence frightened the tribals.

    While I shot pictures, a woman hesitated before asking me, “Will you give these pictures to the police?” I was stunned to say the least. In that moment her fears told me a different story.

    But I do hope documentary photography survives, it needs to.

    • August 28, 2009 5:42 pm

      Heather – you’ve got it – respect and honesty. Things I would like to be shown and two things I like to give.

      Bear – true, always some no points of wisdom coming from you.

      Anil – this is a pertinent story you just told me. When we think it’s simply taking a picture we become too focused on ourselves and forget everything else. I hope documentaries survive and good travel programmes not the party focused stuff that’s popular right now.

      Thanks for sharing everyone.


  4. August 29, 2009 9:37 am

    Got confused there seeing a comment by another ‘Anil’ 🙂 Anyway, I usually have the opposite problem and shy away from asking people or trying to take pictures of them which is why I end up mostly with architecture photos.

    It’s a hard medium because you don’t want people to feel like you’re taking pictures of them because they are strange. Sometimes pointing a camera at someone can make them feel looked down upon as well.

    • August 29, 2009 8:23 pm

      Like you I was confused when two Anil’s started commenting but both of you have different blogs – both excellent ones at that. Taking photos of minorities can be done well if done right One thing I found is that they are more amiable if you buy something from them (not just pay for a shot) but show an interest in their crafts, purchase something and ask for their photo with their artwork. It also helps if you have a guide who comes from the same tribe to translate. Although I’ve found that some of these guides make people have their photo taken. .

      But taking secret shots while they’re walking down a city or town street, or sitting with their friends etc to me is like stalking. I did see some tourists behave this way in Tibet. It’s all food for thought. Cate

  5. September 2, 2009 7:08 am

    I loved this write-up of yours, which I felt was thoughtful and insightful. I just had a dinner conversation two days ago, on photography and what it means to some people and why some Asian cultures shy away from cameras. I’ve witnessed some people get downright angry / upset when their pictures are taken and it isn’t always easy to understand their point of view 🙂


  6. September 2, 2009 7:09 am

    Beautiful pictures, btw. I loved the beads and the blanket – the colours are totally vibrant and alive!

  7. September 2, 2009 3:46 pm

    I’ve seen people get angry at others and also experienced the anger myself. Most of the animosity I’ve experienced has actually come from Chinese /Malay and Singaporean Chinese included. I remember walking through Chinatown in Singapore and seeing all the “no photos” signs everywhere. People would look at my camera and then at me with that anti look in their eyes.One guy got really angry at me because I took a photo of a guy sleeping on a scooter. He claimed it was bad luck etc. To be honest I never saw the guy I was busy shooting something else, plus I didn’t know he was Chinese as he had a cap pulled over his face. Just goes to show.

    I got a different reception in Little India – they were very welcoming. I guess a lot of it has to do with beliefs etc. Thanks for your story Cheryl.


  8. October 9, 2009 9:35 pm

    hello greetings to all as you are me and I’m writing about crafts in Panama Panama also sell molas are hand made by indigenous women in Panama with cool glasses do portfolios of equipment, all kinds of crafts because I hope their answers show that it is thanks molas.

    Thanks Betzy for your comment about Molas – cate


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