Cultural Awareness Begins at Home: Some musings on this week’s US election

Like most Americans, I was surprised at the outcome of the US presidential election this week.  This is not a political forum, and I won’t discuss my own personal politics (although for what it’s worth, most travel photographers do lean toward the progressive side), but I would like to share in today’s post a few thoughts on the surprise results.

The big question being asked across the entire political spectrum is how could nearly all of the polls and analysis point toward one outcome (a big win by Clinton) when the actual election went the opposite way (a big win by Trump)?  There is likely quite a lot of complexity behind the answer, but the simple truth is that very few people truly understood the full extent of the anger and frustration so many Americans have been feeling in recent years.  For many, their vote was not cast in support of Mr. Trump so much as it was a cry of protest against what they view as a broken government by the elite that left them out of the economic recovery of the last few years.

And this has gotten me to thinking.  As travel photographers, we roam far from our home, and often far from our home country, seeking to better understand the ways people are similar and different.  In other words, we strive to learn about, document through our images, and share with others a cultural understanding of each place we visit.  I’ve written frequently in this forum about the importance of traveling with sensitivity and an open mind so that we can get to know people from all walks of life in our destinations.  I often discuss here how photography is a wonderful tool to bridge the gap between our culture and that of the people we meet around the world.

But in the wake of this week’s surprise election results, I am realizing that I don’t understand the full range of cultural diversity in my own country.  I may have spent time with a tobacco farmer in rural Cuba, but how much time have I spent getting to know the challenges faced by a small farm owner in rural America?  I’ve had conversations with religious minority groups across China who felt oppressed by Beijing’s rule, but I haven’t spoken much with Americans who feel our federal government isn’t in touch with their religious beliefs.  And I’ve visited a wide range of villages and nomadic settlements in Tanzania to learn how the residents differ in terms of their unequal sharing in that country’s economic growth, but I haven’t been exposed to enough communities across America who feel left out of our country’s economic recovery.  In summary, I open my eyes and mind while traveling abroad better than I do in my own country.

As travelers, and especially as travel photographers, we are in a great position to meet, listen to, and learn from diverse communities all around the world.  Let’s make an effort to do the same in our home countries.  From such learning comes insight, and from insight, perhaps, can come workable solutions to pressing problems without having to resort to hate and extremism.

What’s been on your mind in the wake of the US election?  Do you have thoughts about how we can better understand the differences among our fellow countrymen?  Please share your ideas here.


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