I have two left feet but wherever I go in the world on assignment people ask me to dance. I arrive in a village and the townsfolk provide a meal and entertainment for the foreign guest. It is considered polite to reciprocate and I can, on occasion, be expected to perform an Australian song and dance. Once I tried Waltzing Matilda but dancing to this was a serious challenge, and Banjo Patterson’s lyrics made absolutely no sense to my interpreter. Waltzing Matilda, swagman, tucker bag or billabong are not the sort of words you find in the average Myanmar/English dictionary.
Photographers on location are expected to have the skill to develop the trust of their subjects while working in many different cultural contexts. Respecting another culture is important because if one wants to be respected in a foreign country then one should learn about that country, appreciate it and try to understand its people. Sometimes dancing and singing, even off key, is a way of showing and gaining respect.I once worked with Gauchos in Argentina on a cattle drive and in the evening they would grasp each other around the waist and tango across the Pampas. Luckily for me they thought an Anglo-Saxon incapable of dancing to the tune of a concertina.
Dancing skills as a photographer are even more important than you might think. When watching Henri Cartier Bresson at work you will notice how he moves like a dancer through a crowd. Two steps forward, one to the left, one step back and then to the right. He appears to be moving to the tempo of some secret musical accompaniment in his head. In the Middle East I saw a photographer move through a minefield like a ballet dancer. I’m sure it’s not what his parents had in mind when they forced him to learn dancing at an early age. While working with stone throwing Palestinian youths in the West Bank, I rapidly learnt to perform the foxtrot (a ballroom dance that alternates longer slower walking steps and shorter quicker running steps) in order to avoid the gas cylinders fired in response by Israeli soldiers.
In recent times I was in Papua New Guinea villages with tribesmen who used masks and dancing to tell their traditional stories. It took quite a time for the men to prepare themselves for the rituals and ceremonies so we couldn’t refuse when younger members of the tribe begged us to dance. My companion Neil McLeod and I flung ourselves about with arms, legs, hats and Fuji cameras flailing in all directions. It is important for photographers to connect with people when working on location and that’s what we managed to achieve.
I was shooting a project in the provinces of Yunnan and Sichuan, China, when I came across a tribe known as the Mosuo. In this tribe the matriarch is the head of the household and she makes the decisions about those living in her house. There is no traditional marriage in the Mosuo culture but there is what is known as walking marriage, which is based on mutual attraction. If a woman likes a man she will invite him to visit her. There is also a ceremony known as the courtship dance where a woman can choose a man for a night, a month or a lifetime. While working in the region I became friendly with a family and spent time with them. My interpreter told me that the young woman of the household had asked if I would like to visit her. I said it was very kind of her to help me understand tribal life but we had to move on and besides… I can’t dance, don’t ask me!