Your research can begin by referring to a chapter on “Festivals” or “Special Events” in any guidebook. Magazine articles are another valuable source of data. Finally, Websites from around the world can provide timely information that’s difficult to find elsewhere. Spontaneity can only be cultivated while working in the field.
Once you’ve arrived at your destination, it’s a good idea to check in at the local tourist office–they can often tell you where celebrations are taking place. Most visitors to Tana Toraja, Sulawesi, come to see the death rites that the area is famous for. The Torajans spend a lifetime saving money to be used after their deaths to finance lavish funerals, sometimes attended by as many as 1000 people. These celebrations can last a few days or go on for as long as two weeks, with as many as 100 water buffalo being slaughtered. The hospitable Torajan people consider it an honor to have foreigners at their celebrations and often welcome them as guests.
On a recent visit to Tana Toraja, I went to the tourist office in the city of Rentepao to find out where funerals were taking place. It happened to be the first day of a huge celebration of the death of a Torajan woman. Having come prepared with my camera equipment and a lot of film, I hired one of the guides recommended by the local officials to accompany me, and I was off. The guide helped me find the spot and provided an introduction to the host family. I brought cigarettes as a gift and entered the compound of temporary bamboo housing-constructed just for the occasion-and signed in with the family.
Most tourists and guides spend a couple of hours at the celebrations, but I spent the entire day, and returned for the next four days without the guide. On the third day, the appointed executioners sacrificed the water buffalo. By this time I was photographing an injured animal, who lurched at me, his blood spattering my camera lens. On the fifth day, the family took the body of the deceased through the rice paddies to the burial ground, five kilometers away. By that time the family had accepted me as an honored guest, and I accompanied the spirited procession, photographing the entourage every step of the way.
Knowing that a cultural event is going to take place is only part of the preparation. Next, try to establish when and where it will take place. In much of the developing world, time is not as important as it is in the west. In Bali, the best way to find out when a small festival will take place is to ask the opinion of several local people, trust the information you have been given, be there with all of your camera gear, and hang tough. Often, after a long wait, I would see some activity just as I was about to walk away from the site of a festival I had been told about.
After waiting on one such occasion, musicians appeared with batiked sarongs draped around their waists, carrying their instruments down the dusty paths. Women in their best dress and tall towers of fruit on their heads also arrived. Within minutes the preparations were in full swing, and the waiting was over–the payoff was a series of colorful photos.
Finding the Best Photo Vantage Point
In Bangkok, Thailand, the King’s birthday (December 5) is an annual festival. Businesses erect temporary monuments all over the capital city to the popular regent. City workers set up huge screens on the blocked-off streets for free film viewing. Food vendors wheel their carts around the large movie screens and the throngs of Thais and tourists enjoying the festivities. While trying to figure out a way to photograph this event, I looked up to see a rooftop filled with tripods and photographers. I found the appropriate stairway and used a letter from a stock company I was associated with to gain entrance. An official-looking letter from a local newspaper that states you are a photographer/writer can help gain access to a good vantage point from which to shoot a story.
At the festival in La Paz, Bolivia, I elected to split the day between a position on the street–eye-to-eye with thousands of festival participants–and my reasonably priced hotel room three stories above the procession route. The patterns created by identically dressed dancers in their swirling skirts made for scene-setting photographs. If I hadn’t had a hotel room overlooking the festival route, it would have been worth looking for a building with balconies facing the street, and trying to get access to one of these.
On the morning of the final day of the Muslim holiday of Ramadan, I was wandering along the streets surrounding the large mud mosque in Djenne, Mali. Suddenly it became obvious that the local men and boys were all walking in the same direction, wearing the most colorful robes. I followed them through the dusty streets of this hot sub-saharan city to a big field where a prayer ceremony was about to begin. The male members of the community sat in rows on their prayer rugs, waiting. After hundreds of them had gathered, they began praying, which meant they were often prostate on the ground, the colors of their robes making a large patchwork quilt. After shooting photos of rows of men from ground level, I decided to photograph them from above. Nearby there was a mud building where several people were standing on the flat roof, observing the ceremony. I asked permission at the door of the building and was allowed to enter and go up the stairs. After the event, I was asked for a small donation to the community. I gl adly gave more than the amount of money requested, having gotten the photos I wanted.
Creating a Celebration
If you want to photograph a celebration, but nothing is going on, you can sometimes create a festival. While I was in Northern Thailand a few years ago, I teamed up with a videographer and we hired an experienced, multi-lingual guide with connections to many of the Hill tribes. We went through fields that produced the opium poppy, and came to a circle of raised huts belonging to a group of Lahu Shaleh people. The husband of the Shaman was ill from opium addiction, and the group felt the need for a healing ceremony. Our visit was viewed as an auspicious occasion, especially since we agreed to buy a pig for sacrifice. We photographed the pig’s slaughter, as well as a ceremony in which strings were tied around our wrists, and ate a special dinner of fatty boiled pork. In the evening, the young women danced around the campfire. Our creative guide, afraid that we wouldn’t be able to “get the material,” as he put it, arranged for the headman’s pickup truck to be parked in the appropriate position to shed light on the dancing women and girls. The unusual light source made for some interesting shots, and I did indeed “get the material.”
Nuts and Bolts: The Actual Experience
1 If you are shooting a religious festival, do everything you can to find out if there are any rules. These might include regulations on wearing apparel (a sarong and a temple scarf are required attire to enter a temple festival in Bali), use of a flash or tripod, and what (if any) is appropriate in the way of a donation or gift.
2 Even if there are no specific rules, it helps to attempt to be culturally appropriate. Dress should be generally modest and not too flamboyant. While every photographer wants to get the perfect angle on the shot, try to never block the view of the other onlookers. Get in position, shoot as quickly as possible, and move out of the way whenever possible.
3 Always make eye contact and get permission, even if it’s simply a nod of the head, when taking a close-up photograph. The good news is that most people, when participating in a celebration, are more willing to let their picture be taken than they would be otherwise. This is true in South America where the Andean people usually refuse photographers when they request a photo. But when the local people are masked and costumed, they often perform for the camera.
4 Be conscious of your own safety. During the chaos of festivals and celebrations, there are often people who see an opportunity to take advantage of the situation, and rob visitors. Whenever possible in a big celebration, it’s best not to carry any valuable items with you except your camera equipment. If you have to carry other valuables, do so in a concealed money belt. If you are with another person, watch that person while he or she shoots, and take turns photographing the event. Also, watch the other person while he or she changes film, documents the action, etc. (As for other dangers, beware of wounded water buffalo.)
5 Prepare to shoot very quickly. I often use my camera’s automatic mode if the action in the festival is happening fast and furiously around me. I will often change to a manual mode if one of the participants is willing to pose for a close-up portrait, in which case I may use fill-flash, and will make other adjustments. I also set my camera so it can focus on moving objects (with my Canon SLR, it means using AI Servo, as opposed to the One Shot setting).