I had never been to an Indian powwow before, but was asked to lead a meetup at this one, held in May 2013, near Richmond. Being unfamiliar with the etiquette for such an event, I emailed the tribe and learned that photography was fine, unless the MC, who essentially runs the event, announced that it was not permitted during certain ceremonies. We were also asked to request permission before taking photos of dancers and to not touch their regalia. These were reasonable guidelines and, as it turned out, the dancers graciously allowed photographers to take their pictures. I took most of mine while they were actually dancing, hoping to capture more natural expressions and motion. The dancers were friendly and one called me "brother" when he learned that my great grandmother was Navajo.
I was unfamiliar with the traditions of Native American drumming and dancing. Fortunately, the MC, who was from the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, explained what we were watching and hearing, making the experience culturally enlightening. The drumming was compelling and watching the dancers was almost hypnotic. The colorful regalia (they make a point of saying that they're not "costumes") are beautiful, brightly colored, finely-crafted works of art. Next time, I want to talk to a dancer and learn more about his/her regalia. I was too preoccupied with the photographic opportunities this time.
Shooting such an event isn't always easy. The dancers dance within a sacred circle set apart from the audience (experienced guests bring lawn chairs and stake out their claims at the edge of the circle) and as they dance they circle clockwise. If you set yourself up at a spot the dancers will come near you several times during each dance. Some dancers are languid and relaxed; others are vigorous and energetic. I found that I got the best shots with a telephoto, isolating the dancers from the background with a shallow depth of field. That means that focusing is critical. I was trying to take informal portraits of the dancers, and I was pleased with the outcome.
- It is important to learn the tribes' expectations regarding photography and to respect them. The powwows are held on Indian property and the ceremonies are considered sacred, so it is only right that guests honor their rules.
- Go with the expectation of learning, as well as photographing.
- One advantage of shooting with a long lens was I not stepping into the dancer's personal space. I made it a point to shoot only when they were dancing and to not intrude when they were talking with friends. If I had more time I would have tried to get to know some of the dancers better, but they were busy when they weren't dancing, so I was content to capture them while they danced.
- Do some research on the tribe or tribes that will be hosting or attending the powwow. They have web sites and Wikipedia is very helpful. I felt a bit more knowledgeable and at least knew enough to not embarrass myself.
- Being respectful simply means having good manners. The dancers, chiefs and leaders were friendly and happy to answer questions. I talked to several dancers and was impressed with how open they were.
You can see some of my images here: Upper Mattaponi Powwow.