It's time for another article under our ‘What is Ethical Storytelling?’ series and today, we are delving into a term that you may or may not have heard before- ‘Exoticism’.
The term ‘exoticism’ ‘exotic’ ‘exoticize’ or ‘exoticising’ is an indication that the work of art in question is ‘different’ or ‘other’ to what is considered normal. Another definition is ‘ to portray someone or something unfamiliar as exotic or unusual’. Now, when you apply this definition into the photography realm, I’m sure you will be able to see where the problem lies.
A popular example of exoticism is when travel photographers travel to certain countries or indigenous communities that are vibrant and rich with culture and photograph individuals in their cultural settings clothed in their traditional wear and carrying out certain customs. Despite this sounding innocent and something that is commonly done especially by tourist’s, what it unfortunately tends to do is set those who are being photographed apart from what is considered ‘normal’, it highlights their differences instead of drawing attention to what make them similar to everyone else and unfortunately maintains the ideologies of the west and its customs being ‘correct’ indicating that everyone else is ‘backwards’.
A more visual representation of this is the work of English Photographer, Jimmy Nelson, who photographed various different indigenous cultures with the aim of documenting them and the way that they live before such practices are eradicated completely by civilisation. Despite the success of his book, he received extensive backlash and a stream of criticism with people claiming that he misrepresented those who he photographed and that the images were a simple romanticisation of what people from the west project onto indigenous communities. This case is not different to the hundreds of cases in the past and present of photographers feeling the need to preserve cultures and customs that are different from their own and document them for the whole world to see and appreciate the different ways that people live. The truth is, the intentions are indeed good and genuine but the outcome has been and continues to be problematic.
You don’t necessarily have to be from the west to commit this mistake, many photographers are doing it to their own people without realising it. "Does that mean I can no longer take photos of different cultural practices?” No, not at all, what it does mean however is that as Photographers, it is essential for us to be a bit more conscious of why we feel the need to take photos of certain individuals, is it to appreciate their culture? Is it for memories, how do you plan to caption the images and write about them? Do you have the full context or are you just working of presumptions and stereotypes? And most importantly, do you have the consent of those who are being photographed and are they comfortable with the way that they are being represented? As consumers of the images, we also have a responsibility not to compare or suppress those who have been photographed by seeing ourselves as superior than them. Instead of focusing on our differences it is important to remember what makes us all similar to one another and if there are differences, it is imperative to appreciate those differences and use it as a form of self education as supposed to criticism.
Always remember that as Photographers we have many responsibilities, however the responsibility of creating a world wide awareness of certain individuals and the way that they live may not belong to us but actually to them.