Culture Shock As (Not) Felt by a Photographer

Culture Shock As (Not) Felt by a Photographer

by Jim Hamp August 03, 2017 0 Comments

I was recently the driver and guide for an Extravagant Yak Tibet Photo Tour and learned some interesting things about hosting photographers. They are a unique breed of traveler. They appear less likely to feel culture stress. Though I’m not an expert on the subject, in my thirteen years of cross-cultural living, I’ve observed that there are varying degrees of culture stress, from PTSD-type emotional trauma on the one end (very rare), to wanting to take more frequent naps on the other (super common). Most of the time, it all gets thrown under the label of culture shock, but some shock can be…well, more shocking than others. Sometimes culture shock can make you want to curl up into the fetal position or click your heels together and say, “there’s no place like home, there’s no place like home,” like when you get lost in Hehuachimarket or every time you go to IKEA. But a less dramatic, longer-term exposure can result in something called culture stress(often poorly labeled culture shock).

Picture of Photography Students on Tibet Photo Tour in Easter Tibet

Culture stress happens because our brains like to be able to filter out most of the stimuli from our environment. This helps us to focus on what’s important and ignore the rest. When we are acclimatized to a culture, most of the external stimuli coming at us are familiar, therefore our brains don’t need to reprocess them. But when all or most of the external stimuli of our surroundings is unfamiliar, our brains work in overdrive to process all of the new data. The experience of new, unfamiliar sites and smells can be fun in the short run, but after a certain amount of time (hours, days or weeks) all of the new stimuli begins to feel very uncomfortable and frustrating. Everything begins to filter through a comparison test, and on most counts the host culture falls short of the expectations and standards developed in one’s home culture.

But for photographers, I observed something unique. They seemed impervious to these factors. I was so intrigued by this. It was as if something about being in the posture of an intense observer, looking at the world artistically through a lens, somehow shielded them from some of the challenges of a new culture. We all like to have a measure of control, so when we get put in a situation where we have very little of it (like in a tour group in a region where we can’t speak the local languages), we may feel some discomfort. But photographers always have something they can control: their cameras and their desired shot. They are also never lacking to-do-list items when they travel. When photographers aren’t shooting, there’s photo dumping, sorting, rating and post-processing. And when they aren’t doing that, they’re always looking for the next unexpected, breath-taking moment. Photographers expect to be surprised. Witnessing and experiencing that level of anticipation in the group made the overall atmosphere of the tour fun and exciting. 

So, while it seems that photographers have a leg up on the rest of us in the travel department, it may have more to do with the fact that they aren’t trying to process and judge the environment for understanding’s sake, but they’re leaning in to find beauty in their environment for art’s sake. Call it a left brain / right brain thing. I don’t know. Perhaps there’s other factors at play. But whatever the reason, I challenge you to try your next travel adventure in the posture of an artist and try to suspend all judgments and see if it doesn’t make a difference. You may discover not only a new way to travel, but a new way to be in the world all the time. That would be totally worth giving it a shot. (Pun intended).

Envious? Need a jumpstart on seeing the world through a different lens? Join our next photography clinic this June to see what you’re missing. Email info@extravagantyak.comfor more information.




Jim Hamp
Jim Hamp

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