Powwows are a public celebration of Native song, dance, food and culture that are open for anyone to enjoy. No one tribe can claim full ownership of the powwow but each nation has added their own style and flavor to the family friendly celebrations. Capturing the colors and movement of a powwow is as rewarding as it is challenging. Conditions at powwows can range from bright sunlit outdoor arbors to dark indoor gymnasiums. Both venues have unique challenges that a photographer needs to overcome.
Photography is encouraged at powwows; however there may be a small photo and video fee that is requested by the powwow committee. This fee is almost never required of participants using cell phone and smaller digital point and shoot cameras. If you are using a DSLR camera with larger lenses it is best to ask about these fees at the dancer registration desk before shooting. You will be handed a photo/video pass that needs to be displayed prominently on your equipment. There are also some basic behavior rules that photographers should follow during their shoot.
10 Powwow Photography rules –
- Listen to the Master of Ceremonies the MC, he is there to not only inform and instruct he will have an endless supply of really bad jokes to throw out during the powwow.
- The MC will ask spectators to stand during the grand entry, invocation, flag song, and victory dance, please stand when requested to do so.
- Dancers in the dance circle are free game, shoot to your heart’s content. If dancers are not dancing and outside the circle please ask permission first.
- Do not interfere or chase the dancers, stay on the edge of the dance circle. A good rule of thumb is to go no further into the dance circle than the drum groups.
- There will be an arena director, if he asks anything of you or gives you directions please follow them. In the old days arena directors carried whips or sticks and would use them on dancers and spectators that were not following instructions.
- During the competitions there will be judges standing or moving around the outside of the dance circle, stay clear of them so they can do their job. You can identify them by clipboards and their serious looks.
- Please do not photograph any feather pickup ceremonies. When an eagle feather drops from a dance outfit; 4 veteran dancers will be asked to dance around the fallen feather and retrieve it from the ground. Once again listen to the MC he will let everyone know when this is happening.
- Flash or Speedlites, I must confess that this is a personal rule. Before I picked up a camera I was a traditional dancer and I developed an intense dislike of photographers using a speedlite. It was distracting to me, especially during contests.
- During intertribals if you ever feel the need to get out there and dance, go ahead and do so, that is what intertribals are for.
Feel free to talk to the dancers, singers, spectators, and vendors interact with them when not behind the view finder.
It is not necessary to have large and expensive equipment. I have made some spectacular images using a point and shoot digital camera and even the camera on my cell phone. The disadvantage of a point and shoot digital is many seem to have a serious lag time between hitting the shutter button and actual shutter response. I have found that it is nearly impossible to get a good image of the fast moving fancy dancers. If you have a quick reacting point and shoot give it a try. Cell phones and DSLR cameras have much faster shutter response and are therefore easier to use.
I will follow up this post with more information regarding suggested equipment, and the more technical aspects of powwow photography in the near future.