A conversation with Kath Dewar of GoodSense NZ
Whether abroad or in their home country, one thing that all photographers should be mindful of when taking their cameras out is cultural sensitivity. This means being aware of and understanding the background and underpinnings of what they are about to photograph – be it a religious festival or place of worship; a particular individual or community; a sacred landmark or an endemic species – and finding out if, in the eyes of the local culture, that should be the subject of a photograph. Researching customs and norms, as well as respecting them and behaving accordingly, is the job of a conscientious photographer. The job of a conscientious image buyer, on the other hand, is to ensure the photos used in a given project, campaign or even a social media post respect the culture they portray.
“One thing that is of concern for us with landscape and nature images, as well as people images, is cultural sensitivity,” says Kath Dewar of GoodSense, a sustainable marketing company based in Tāmaki Makaurau / Auckland, Whanganui-a-tara/ Wellington, Ōtautahi/ Christchurch and Melbourne. Kath joined the Sustainable Business Network in 2003 and developed GoodSense through insights from fellow members. “I realised there was an entire community of businesses that were doing extremely good work that lined up with my values, but needed support with marketing,” she says. “We shared a focus on doing what is right by our fellow humans and the rest of nature and I knew how to build a like-minded, expert team which could help them with marketing on a flexible, outsourced basis.”
Kath had spent ten years working in various roles in marketing agencies and client roles in the UK and New Zealand when she started her own business. “This move gave me the opportunity to do a bit of soul searching,” she reflects. “I wasn’t at ease with the fact that the dominant paradigm in my industry is, essentially, to trigger dissatisfaction in people so they buy stuff to make themselves feel better, most of which quickly ends up in a landfill – and with very low questioning of how we condemn people to be consumers.”
Part of GoodSense’s philosophy is to be transparent, do right by nature and people, and address their client’s needs with authentic storytelling – hence the preference to use only images that are culturally appropriate in their projects. “A lot of our most iconic New Zealand landscapes that we might want to use (in photographs for work)... are taonga/treasures or ancestors for the people in Aotearoa who whakapapa/lineage Māori,” says Kath. “So when searching for photos online, I would like to choose images of landscapes where the images have been sourced in a way that is culturally appropriate, and where the local hapu/subtribe have given approval for those images to be used. This applies in general but especially when we're working with our Māori organisation clients. When we make an image recommendation, we need to be able to say, This image is all good.”
When looking for culturally appropriate photography, the three main factors buyers should keep an eye out for is whether the photographer a) has knowledge of their subject and has portrayed it in a respectful way, b) has the required permission (from government bodies and/or local authorities and/or local community) to photograph, and c) has included any relevant descriptions and acknowledgments when necessary and appropriate. Besides carrying out all other general FairShare photography practices, of course.
It’s also important that buyers take the time to double-check if the image they are about to purchase can be used in its current condition. That is because, with widespread travel, certain cultures are seeing the matter of photography from a different angle – literally. As Kath highlights, in the case of Mount Ruapehu, “the local hapu/subtribe ask that not the whole mountain is shown; that it's only shot in a way that shows part of it. Stuff like that is quite specific, and I imagine what a photographer did 20 years ago may have been seen as ok then, but may not be now.”
In the Ethics Statement of their Enduring Voices Project, National Geographic states: “We understand that the photographing of people and their land is an act of trust and is completed with respect and understanding to the laws and traditions of the people involved.” That couldn’t be more true. Indeed, taking a photograph is not a one-way street. It is symbiosis; it is as much about enriching oneself and the viewers as it is about enriching the subject; it is as much about the moment as what it comes to represent.
For the majority of companies and organisations, imagery is a way to convey a message, to say something without words. As such, using a photograph that hasn’t taken the local culture into account is much like telling a lie. Or, at the very least, omitting an important part of the story. Therefore, striving to find an image whose story aligns with the story you are trying to tell is not only the ethical thing to do but also the approach that will make the biggest impact.
For amazing, culturally sensitive photos of New Zealand, check out the Excio Library.