Cultural appropriation. That word du jour that has heavily permeated discussions of race in the past few years.
Enter celebrated photographer Benjamin Von Wong. Von Wong’s epic imagery has inspired and garnered the attention of photographers around the world. He shares his photography techniques and donates his time and skill to various charitable causes. Most recently he took to the Big Island of Hawai’i for a photo shoot on the lava fields of Kilauea to “bring attention to indigenous communities at risk.” Von Wong pledged to donate 100% of the print profits to victims of Hurricane Matthew in Haiti where over 1,000 people died and thousands more are at risk of cholera.
One cannot criticize his heart.
However visual imagery can influence perception, building false narratives and reinforcing stereotypes. In this case, Von Wong declared his intent to highlight the plight of indigenous communities. But instead of paying respect to indigenous Hawaiian culture, which reveres the volcanoes and the goddess Pele, he used the lava as a backdrop and outfitted a model in an ambiguously “native” costume that bears no resemblance to traditional Hawaiian dress. It would be a stretch to say the costume was inspired by kānaka maoli – the native Hawaiians – as traditional dress is plant-fiber based, with the exception of royal costumery that incorporated now extinct bird feathers.
Similar criticisms of cultural appropriation have been leveled against the likes of Steve McCurry, who incorporated white models dressed in haute couture in a Maasai village in Kenya, as well as British photographer Jimmy Nelson whose portraits of vanishing cultures around the world have been criticized as a “photographer’s fantasy.” Steve Corry, director of Survival International, told The Guardian that Nelson’s photos bear “little relationship either to how these people appear now, or how they’ve ever appeared. Of course, rendering people more exotic than they really are is a timeworn tradition.”
The issue of cultural appropriation can be an academic concern until it happens to you. I liked Nelson’s images when I first saw them. But now I believe that his imagery represents his inaccurate gaze of the world. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with interpreting the world as you see it, but when your stated purpose is to highlight or celebrate a culture, I would argue that you should strive for accuracy. The people of Hawai’i don’t own the rights to volcanoes, but if you’re going to show up there, why not pay more heed to the culture?
Because I was born and bred in Hawai’i (albeit not native Hawaiian), I was immediately turned off by Von Wong’s imagery. Of course, I realize I’m in the extreme minority. But at a time when many native Hawaiians (although not unilaterally) are struggling to oppose the construction of the massive TMT telescope atop Mauna Kea, it bears mentioning that the volcanoes are not props and the Hawaiians have a long and deep relationship with nature that are not justly served by Von Wong’s project.
That said, I hope he sells a ton of prints.
Allen Murabayashi donated $100 to the St. Boniface Haiti Foundation in support of Von Wong’s efforts.