Isn’t Culture Worth More Than a Thousand Words?

Carnival, Coroico Bolivia, 2007, taken by Julio Alvarez

While the majority of my work is in the academic field, I still consider myself an artist. I paint, draw, and take photographs when I have the time…which isn’t as often as I would like. I started taking pictures when I was twelve years old with my sister’s camera and it is the one art I have worked on consistently from a young age to now. I like being behind the camera, not in front of it.

I cringe when someone tells me to ‘Smile!’ and I try to shift myself into the background in group shots. My theoretical training in the visual arts and the years of being a photographer have taught me that posing for someone lets them define you. The photographer chooses the people to photograph, the moment, the context, and chooses how to crop the image, discerning what information is kept, and what is left out.


At the Edge of the Amazon (cropped), Caranavi Bolivia, 2007, taken by Felix Alvarez


At the Edge of the Amazon, Caranavi Bolivia, 2007, taken by Felix Alavarez

Judith Butler refers to this as ‘framing’ information, photographing subjects so that specific information is captured and everything else is cropped out. The top image looks like a romantic kiss between two people, surrounded by nature. The bottom image is almost comical with a group of people witnessing the kiss and cheering them on. Photography is used to provide evidence; it is used to prove vacations on sunny beaches, weddings, atrocities in third world countries, unlawful acts, and what exotic places are like. However, photography only provides a glimpse without context.

Reading ‘Looking Pleasant, Feeling White: The Social Politics of the Photographic Smile’ Smile’ by Tanya Sheehan in the book Feeling Photography, had me think about how photography has defined people and culture over centuries, and how significant the ‘smile’ has been in how we perceive people. Looking through historical images at the beginning of photography (early to mid-nineteenth century), would give someone the impression that people had a serious demeanor.

The technical reason for this is because of how long someone would have to pose for the image to appear, and the difficulty of having to hold a smile for several seconds to several minutes. The aesthetic reason for the lack of smiling faces is because people wanted to be portrayed as respectable, dignified, and as part of an upstanding class of citizenry. The showing of teeth was considered to be demonstrating an excessive form of happiness (Sheehan, 129), portraying buffoonery, or a lesser state of mentality, morality or class.

While it was viewed as unseemly to portray respectable citizens smiling, photographers in the nineteenth century would portray African American people with toothy grins, impish looks, and performing uncivilized acts (such as eating with your hands). This created a distinction in visual representation that reinforced racial stereotypes, class systems, and otherness. Photographic representations of African American people highlighted the differences between them and Caucasians, it portrayed one group as being respectable and the other group as a joke.

Photographers visually defined an entire race of people as being lesser through the use of images. They took agency over their bodies and it is something that still happens today with many different cultures, especially with their representations of women. While reading Sheehan’s essay, I could not help thinking about contemporary photographs and the tourism industry. Photographs of people posing with Japanese geishas, Hawaiian hula dancers, or the Latin American women in their brightly coloured outfits.


Maui Luau, Hawaii, 2011, taken by Tanya Nielsen

My parents wanted me to know that there was more to the world than the Pacific Northwest, so I started travelling at a very young age. My father was from Bolivia, and we would travel there every five years to visit his side of the family. I was used to seeing the Aymaran women in their traditional dress, but I never took pictures of them outside of festivals. I would see tourist groups being led around by their guide and introduced to specific women who were being paid to have their picture taken. The tourists wanted to photograph an ‘authentic’ Bolivian woman, but on occasion, anyone who looked ‘Latina’ would do.


Lisa and Tanya Alvarez at Machu Pichu, Peru, 2000, taken by Geoff Simpson

One of the strangest memories I have of my travels was when I made it to Machu Pichu during one of my family’s many trips to South America and while we were looking around the ruins, tourists kept wanting to have their pictures taken with my sister and I.

“Why do they want their picture taken with us?” My sister wondered. “We’re not even part of their tour group.”

“Because we look Latina.” I told her. “And we’re not charging.”

“…should we?”

It felt surreal to be a tourist but still considered to be a part of the culture, something to be photographed as evidence of someone else’s exotic experience. I knew I was being defined by my Latin American traits, but those tourists only focused on a small part of me and did not pay attention to the fact that my skin is lighter, that I am taller, and that I spoke English.

I smiled for those photographs like those women who dress up in traditional garb for tourists, and let them capture their flawed evidence. Looking back on this memory has made me think that maybe the tourists who captured my image got a better impression of Latin American culture than those who took pictures of the women in traditional clothing. Those who took photos of the Aymaran women captured a stereotyped, traditional version of Latin American women, whereas those who photographed me captured the results of migration, of a Latin American girl in the twenty-first century, and the liminality of cultures crossing continents.

While the stereotypes of geishas and hula dancers are great for the tourism industries, they are a limited, or framed, interpretation of their cultures. No culture can be summed up in a photograph.

Butler, Judith. Frames of War. London; New York: Verso, 2010.

Sheehan, Tanya. “Looking Pleasant, Feeling White: The Social Politics of the Photographic Smile.” In Feeling Photography. By Elspeth H. Brown and Thy Phu. Durham: Duke University Press, 2014. 127-157.

© Tanya Nielsen (,  2016


One thought on “Isn’t Culture Worth More Than a Thousand Words?

  1. Pingback: See the World – Saltwater Stories

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