Going Slow: Culturally-responsive photography

Añangu elder & guide Jorge Rivadeneira with Cristian Cerda

A message from RawRainforest Photography & Educational Tours Director Bruce Farnsworth…

One of my greatest motivations in founding Raw Rainforest have been really explore the great biological diversity and cultural values of the rainforest with a learning approach which is also oriented to that diversity.  It’s also an opportunity to validate the educational work of respectful photographers and use the medium to give back to communities who have hosted my work in the past.  Our host in Añangu apply their tourism profits to  community projects in education, health and conservation.

On this website are photographs I made of  members of the Añangu lowland Quichua community as early as 2006, to help them promote their community-based tourism venture, the “Napo Wildlife Center”.  This work came after some years of continuous relationships with lowland Quichua communities in the upper Napo river basin that included my masters fieldwork in Environmental Education. When Añangu elder Jorge Rivadeneira saw some of my photographs on the backscreen of my camera, he said “estas fotos muestran el argullo de la gente” (these photos display the pride of the people) and “se nota el modo de vivir autóctono” (you notice the authentic way of life), which was really gratifying.

I’ve given some thought to this concept of culturally-responsive photography.

To use the images of Añangu children, I obtained written permission from parents in conversations that were facilitated by an elder of the community.  Jorge  introduced me to Bolivar Cerda, another Añangu elder.  Bolivar’s the father of Cristian, the boy pictured with Jorge above and on our home page. The young lady in the canoe on our home page is Cristian’s sister, Katerine Cerda.

Jorge explained to me that the Añangu Quichua are concerned for the future, and committed to manage their own resources. He believes the children should be part of the tourism operation and a part of these photographs. While working, I might be asked by community members to join in the events around me.  It’s important that I set my camera down for awhile. When I’m making photographs, I move between the role of photographer and participant, also playing and interacting with those I’m photographing.  The scenes I photograph are natural and found. During your tour with us, you will not be presented with anything that is staged or contrived.  You will meet a few of my friends, and photograph them in their community forest, doing what they normally do. No one is paid to pose or asked to “act more native” during our programs. This is not Nanook of the North.

Before Raw Rainforest participants arrive at Añangu, an orientation is provided on what might constitute environmentally and socially-conscious photography. I want visitors to know that the Añangu people will recognize your kindness and sincerity, and that language will not be a barrier to a wonderful experience.  Your Añangu community guide will let us know which areas are private during our tour, and it’s important to respect that. Some community members might like to look into your viewfinder or the LCD screen of your camera, or even take a turn with the camera. That’s an opportunity for interaction, and I hope you’ll oblige. Many community members are familiar with the cameras, binoculars and spotting scopes from their work in both tourism and wildlife research projects on their communal lands and the surrounding Yasuní National Park.

The Añangu people are forming their own ideas of what responsible photography should be, and your performance as a guest in their community is very important. We ask participants to take time observing, and participating in, that which they photograph. Spend time away from the viewfinder and go slow. Ask permission before you photograph. Consider giving a set of complimentary prints to the community as a sign of good faith. I have given large archival, fade-resistant prints to Añangu community members who display them inside their family huts. Bolivar Cerda has my photographs of his children proudly hung on his walls. Many photographers promise to send photos, but disappointingly few deliver.

During tours, we work proactively to ensure participants interact on a personal level with our host communities. Images which are respectful are also given back to our hosts for their personal use or for promoting their tourism.   If our host communities – even those members not directly involved in the tourism business – have good experiences with us, this helps to preserve not only the good image of photographers, but community-wide support for ecotourism in their local rainforest.