Cultural Sensitivity and our Responsibilities as Photographers

Image courtesy of bplanet at

I originally wrote this post for members of the TAoPaN Facebook group back in December 2016 after a photographer posted an image of a young child in a Native American style headdress and a debate over the appropriateness of the image insued.  Some people found the image to be incredibly offensive, others saw nothing wrong with it. I wanted to share it here in an effort to further the reach of the discussion, and initiate an opportunity for self reflection 


Ladies and Gentlemen, I understand that there has been a bit of controversy sparked by this beautiful image of a child in a feathered headdress, and I just wanted to address it as a page admin.

This image is GORGEOUS. Lighting, editing, colors, and capturing that moment of childhood innocence are all paired into a very visually striking picture that is worthy of ‘likes’ – so understand that I have nothing but admiration for the beauty of the picture itself.  And I truly believe that the OP, like many before her and like many to come, are not out there seeking to create controversy or disrespect a people group.  So first of all, to the OP of the image, know this is NOT addressed to you in any way – your image may have opened the discussion this time, but this message is for all of us.

We are image makers; we are storytellers.  We are the people who cram 1,000 words into a single picture (sometimes more!) and as such we have a responsibility to where our story stands in the great narrative of the world.  For that reason it’s important that we remain aware of the power of our images in history; to recognize that we are capturing moments in a historical archive of families and cultures.

Through our lenses we have the ability to honor and respect the traditions and values of those we photograph. We celebrate opportunities to include pieces of family heritage in portrait sessions, and in doing so further those families connections throughout the generations.

This image speaks to many of us who grew up in one social narrative; ‘cowboys and Indians’ as a game, Thanksgiving as Pilgrim and Indians in harmony, and “Pocahontas and John Smith were in love.”    For people with this American experience it’s only natural that your reaction to this image be positive.

But understand that this isn’t the whole story; that there is another narrative of cultural destruction that hides beneath these tales.  That in America we don’t have a great track records for how we treat our minorities (African Americans, the Irish, the Japanese … the list is a long one and many of our offenses are more recent than we realize).  That while we may have good intentions, to essentially create a caricature of a people group can be viewed as one more small attack against the people group that has been hurt so many times.

We would never be okay with dressing a child in ‘blackface’ – and to many of Native Americans to dress up in the “feathers and war paint” the same thing.  The feathers, the designs, all those elements of what to us is an “Indian costume” to many of us outside of the culture – those are deeply symbolic religious elements that tell a story and are deeply personal in value and belief.

It’s a hard line to walk sometimes: where do you draw the line on celebrating diversity, cultural beauty, and incorporating style elements from a variety of cultures and people groups? Not just the use of a  headdress, but the use of sari and bindi, incorporating henna tattoo designs as purely artistic body paint, utilizing kimono or traditional geisha elements, or bringing tribal or other influences into an image….

It’s complicated for certain, but all I can tell you is to try and be sensitive to the concerns of minorities whose identity has been subsumed by a conquering power (and let’s face it, America isn’t the only place where a native people group were conquered or converted in history).

But we can take steps as individuals to celebrate the beauty of our diverse world, and do so in a culturally sensitive way.  We have the ability to change the world with our images; in many ways we control the narrative of history. It’s a tremendous position of power and responsibility so I invite us all to tread with an awareness of our faults and limitations and a mindfulness of the scope of the power in our images.

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