In Religious Studies, fieldwork is an expected practice, and when introduced to approaching fieldwork, it is quickly taught the potential dilemma that will arise: Insider vs Outsider.
Insider is the person or group being studied. The outsider is the scholar. Being an outsider causes limitations both needed and impeding when conducting fieldwork. As an outsider, one automatically has a different understanding of anything seen or spoken by the group because that scholar comes in with personal biases, constructs from his or her society, and sometimes, paradigms of the academic world that only permit certain interpretations or theories to be published or accepted in the mainstream. The easiest example would be when Catholic priests would go into indigenous tribes around the world. They interpreted that group’s rituals through the scope of understanding within Christian teachings and beliefs. Therefore, a ritual to a particular deity would likely be interpreted as heretical, demonic, and so on because the point-of-view of the priest was constructed by different societal structures and religious beliefs. However, the ‘outsider’ status is necessity because it maintains enough metaphorical distance that the scholar can still analyze and critique the group’s beliefs and practices. (Note: critique isn’t meant in the negative sense)
But, this still creates a predicament. An outsider will remain too distant, too ignorant of the group’s practices, if there isn’t some stepping over into ‘insider’ domain. To know the language and comprehend through the contextual meaning the people do, to live with the people, to not only witness ritual but perhaps participate in it and all the while, attempting to suspend enough of one’s own beliefs long enough to make the leap to understand someone different. But this too can be problematic because where does a scholar draw the line between insider and outsider? When does too much of one or the other corrupt or jeopardize the research? And there really doesn’t seem to be a conclusive answer.
I’m bringing this up because I’m facing the same ‘Insider vs Outsider’ dilemma in my photography. Perhaps not to the same extent. But today served as an example of how I teeter on that border, never wanting to fully commit to one or the other. I attended a candlelight vigil to commemorate 50 years of Tibetans’ plight, to remember those tortured and murdered, to vocalize the atrocities committed by China, to ask with our hearts for peace. Immediately, I stand out with my camera not being the tiny point-and-shoot. I always explain I’m a freelance photographer because I’m not hired on with any publication nor do my images ever get published unless an image from an event is needed and it just happens no other photographer working for a publication went (I usually leave this part out). But I notice the skepticism that comes as well; I’m not necessarily trusted. And anyone has reason to be skeptical, and after all, I prefer people practice good hermeneutics even if it revolves around me.
Personally, before going into an event, I determine an ethical or etiquette code to follow, with allowable adjustments depending on how things unfold. When it comes to religious events, I’m especially cautious. I refrain from photographing during prayers, moments of silence, and usually will consult someone about any particular restrictions I may not be aware of. An example is when I photographed a Native American Pow Wow, there’s no photography permitted during the opening ceremony and dance, and I would not have known had I not talked with the organizers; so, though I usually advocate “do and ask forgiveness later,” I don’t in the case of religious and spiritual events because if bonds of trust are so quickly tainted, that group will never want me to attend another event nor will I meet people who can help connect me deeper into that world.
As the event began, people circled around a small table with candles and an area with a mic where several speakers stood nearby. I stayed to the sidelines with the group, but maintained a front position. The crowd was small, an intimate gathering, so I decided to choose a spot wisely based on the setup and not move too much, perhaps only kneeling or small shifts to the side because I didn’t want to distract. When they prayed, I put down my camera, when there was a ten minute moment of silence, my camera was off; when they handed out candles after the opening speeches, I took one and did my best to not let my flame die (it did twice, eek). My behavior leaned a bit more towards the ‘insider,’ but due to respect, my background in Religious Studies, and my personal history and interactions with those in Dharamsala.
There was another photographer there, obviously professional with his long lens and hood cover, which it was overcast so I wasn’t sure why he even bothered with a hood cover, but I digress. He moved around constantly. He didn’t take a candle and actually stepped away for several minutes during the moment of silence. And all this isn’t really that bad, but what did irk me was during the group prayers, he walked into the middle of the circle on several occasions to photograph the table of candles. And I’m just sort of looking at him, wondering if he realizes how obnoxious he’s being by stepping into the empty center enveloped by a crowd and getting right in front of the speakers while they’re reciting prayers aloud? It was just sort of tacky. Tacky because that was a particular image he could have gotten at another time. It’s a shot that requires a closeup, macro frame, but it wasn’t the type of image I’d even consider being obnoxious for. When people started accepting candles, I stood to the side to photograph the more ‘intimate’ images I wanted, but I didn’t push people aside or interrupt a poignant moment. He was a complete ‘outsider,’ perceiving the situation from a standpoint of photographer only. What shots do I need? When the opportunity comes to get those shots, take it. Find different angles. And so on.
I understand his thought process as a photographer. But I also understood the purpose of the event, the type of gathering it was, and indeed, I sacrificed some good shots because of my choice to behave a certain way.
In my short time as a photographer, I’ve learned two things very quickly. The first, a lot of people say they’re a photographer. I have never met so many photographers in my life until I became one. Seriously. And the second involves photographers’ etiquette. Many people I meet who aren’t photographers usually have a story about an obnoxious photographer they’ve encountered whether it’s been at an event, a friend’s wedding, their own wedding, etc. I’ve taken those stories a bit to heart, knowing I don’t want to be that type of photographer. The more that I can make myself ‘unseen’ though clearly visible, the better. And that ability to be ‘unseen’ in plain sight is possible when many variables are weighed and varying strategies and techniques are used to make me insignificant in a person’s or group’s awareness within that moment. And in truth, I find that to be the key in capturing a moment. It doesn’t always work out like I want, and I don’t always get the photographs I want, but this method has given me enough good/great images that I consider it effective.
So, the dilemma of ‘Insider vs Outsider’ now finds itself in my photographic ventures. I keep wondering when Religious Studies will stop popping up in each facet of my life, but it is a steadfast thing. Granted, one could say my personal scope is merely biased based on the constructs of my field of study…and I couldn’t say that’d be wrong.