We’re in pow wow season here in North America and with it comes a wonderful opportunity to create beautiful images while documenting a culture you may not be familiar with.
A pow wow is a gathering of native peoples which usually takes place in the summer months and as a photographer, offers an incredible opportunity to capture images that most of your friends don’t have and likely never will.
Many take place on reservations of course, but it’s not unheard of to find a pow wow being put on at a college campus or an appropriate location in a sizable city.
At my last newspaper, our coverage area, in part, covered the southern portions of Navajo and Apache Counties in eastern Arizona. Most everyone has heard of the Navajo and Apache tribes. As part of our coverage area, we covered the White Mountain Apache Tribe (WMAT) and every June that included their annual “Pow Wow in the Pines”. This great event brought thousands of people from all over the state of Arizona and other states with participants coming from tribes throughout the U.S., Canada and Mexico.
While a great opportunity for photography, there are some things to take into consideration before tackling your first pow wow. Some are technical, but some are cultural as well.
Ask Before You Shoot
When you’re at a pow wow, you’re at a cultural event. A culture that’s not likely your own so you may not be aware of customs, what’s appropriate and what’s not. While you may technically be in public, it’s considered impolite to take photos without first asking permission.
Often, there are signs posted near the entrance to the pow wow with a list of etiquette tips while other times you may see a “No Photography” sign. Most of the time however, photography is indeed allowed. Just ask first and you’re good. If you’re told no, please respect that.
Photographing the Grand Entry and dances (more on that in a bit) are generally allowed. It’s extremely colorful, fun and people want to shoot photos to show family and friends. This is where your best photos are going to come from.
They’re not costumes
It’s important to note that the clothing worn by the performers is called regalia. They’re not “costumes”. They’re not dressing up for Halloween. This is an important, honored part of their culture so it’s important to note that. In talking to the performers, should you be asking for permission to photograph them, make sure you refer to it as “regalia”.
It should go without saying, but I’ve seen this happen more times than I can count…don’t touch regalia.
You may ask of course, but don’t just reach out and touch beading, feathers, etc. This really is common sense, but I’ve seen people do it. They’ll approach someone and just start touching their regalia as they’re talking. Not cool. You wouldn’t want anyone touching your gear, so keep that in mind.
Anatomy of a Pow Wow
During the Grand Entry which opens the pow wow, the Eagle Staff leads a parade of participants with the flags and dancers following as the opening song is performed by one of the host drums groups.
Listen carefully for the emcee to announce whether or not photography is allowed during this portion. Every pow wow is different of course, but if photography is not allowed, the emcee should mention that. Much as the audience will be reminded to remove their hats during a prayer, the pledge of allegiance, etc.
Depending on the size of the pow wow, the Grand Entry could take quite a while as everyone makes their way in a spiral around the arena. It’s not uncommon for this to go 30 minutes or more as the Eagle Staff is brought in followed by the flags, dancers, and then an invocation with a Flag Song, Victory or Veterans’ Song with the flags and staffs posted before the emcee.
Dances are broken down by Men with categories such as Fancy, Traditional and Grass as well as by Women with categories like Traditional, Fancy and Jingle.
As a photographer, this is where you’re going to make some of your best images as the dancers, dressed in their colorful regalia, provide many opportunities to get some great shots.
If you can shoot from a higher angle such as in the stands, rather than at ground level, you’ll get what I think are better shots as you’ll have dirt and/or other dancers in your background rather than spectators.
In shooting pow wows, I’ve tried many angles and have found that shooting from a bit higher angle was more pleasing, but of course you’ll want to vary your angles so all your photos don’t look the same.
In addition to the dances and other opportunities to make images in the arena, there are various vendors who exhibit their handcrafted jewelry, figures and many other items on the pow wow’s grounds under canopies.
As with photographing performers in their regalia, it’s courteous to ask permission to photograph exhibitors with their items. I’ve found that if you ask nicely and are respectful, most will say yes. For those who say no, respect that and move along.
Flash is your best friend
Nearly every time I’ve shot a pow wow, it’s been on a bright sunny day. The kind of days which create deep, nasty shadows. If you’re able to get close enough and it’s extremely bright out, break out your flash. It’ll help fill in the shadows and improve your photos.
Your flash is only useful to a certain distance so keep the Inverse Square Law in mind. But within the working distance of your flash, you’re going to get nice results. Zoom the flash head to more narrow the beam or use A Better Beamer to get more flash downrange.
You’ll find that if you can put a little bit of flash on your subject that you’ll be more pleased with the results. You’ll often get a catchlight in the eyes and the colors will pop more.
If you’re shooting for a publication and you’re credentialed then you’re good to go. But I’ve heard of more than one photographer who’ve shot a pow wow and peddled their images later which ticked off the pow wow committee and performers. made things harder for photographers at subsequent pow wows.
Tribal law isn’t necessarily the same as laws off the reservation, so do a little research and it would be wise to contact the pow wow committee in advance of shooting the pow wow should you be interested in selling your photos. As always, if you’re planning on selling photos as stock photography, you’ll need signed model releases.
If you’re not shooting with the intent to sell your photos, this likely won’t be an issue. But it’s always wise to be aware of the committee’s rules regarding everything photography.
As photographers, we often get into a bit of a rut and it can be hard to think of something new to photograph. Hit PowWows.com for a pretty comprehensive list of pow wows and see if one is in your area. If you venture to shoot one, you’ll be photographing a wonderful cultural event which comparatively few photographers have shot. You won’t regret having done so!
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– Sharky James