During our recent travels in Panama, my wife and I navigated up the Chagres River via dugout canoe to meet the Embera indigenous people. This fascinating in-depth encounter offered a window into an ancient culture that has mostly disappeared from Central America as indigenous groups have been forced to resettle on national parklands where their traditional fishing and hunting practices are not permitted. Our Embera hosts are able to continue to live in the traditional manner by sharing their culture with visitors like us. Our lovely day spent with the Embera villagers included preparing and enjoying a traditional meal, visiting the two-room schoolhouse (supported by Grand Circle Foundation), exploring the village, learning about their government and way of life, and observing and participating in traditional singing and dancing. We will never forget this experience. In the spirit of sharing, today’s post is a photo essay featuring images from this special day. Click on any of the images to visit the Panama photo gallery on my website, where many more photos are available to view or possibly to purchase.
To make this portrait of a young Embera woman, I asked her to move a few feet to an area with pleasant lighting and an uncluttered background, then shot using a fast prime portrait lens (85mm f/1.8) at a wide aperture to throw the background into soft focus.
We enjoyed a wonderful visit to the two-room schoolhouse in the Embera village. As we shared songs and dances with the schoolkids, I made this portrait using only available light, intentionally blurring the girl’s hands to impart a sense of motion.
One of our group brought along simple dolls to hand out to the Embera children. Group portraits can be tricky in general, but are very challenging when the subjects are young children. My advice is to capture plenty of shots over a period of several minutes, interacting with the kids all the while. This allows the children to relax around the photographer, and maximizes the likelihood of getting a few really good images.
I’m never happier than when I can experience and photography traditional cultural performances (singing, dancing, theater, puppetry, etc.). Our new Embera friends were kind enough to show us some of their tradition of song and dance. I find that the preparations for these performances are often as or more fascinating than the performances themselves. Here, a young boy practices his drumming for the upcoming show.
I got to know this Embera teen as she helped prepare her sisters and brother for the traditional dance ceremony. We chatted and I captured photos of her preparations as she applied tattoos to her siblings using the juice of the jagua plant. It’s always a good practice to get to know your subject before making a portrait. Doing so will help put them at ease and allow you the opportunity to capture their true personality. To make the portrait, I asked the girl to move outside of the hut to a spot with open shade and a pleasing background, then captured the moment using a fast portrait lens and a wide aperture (small f-stop number) to get that lovely “bokeh” (artistic quality in the out-of-focus background areas).
This little one is all tuckered out even before the dance celebration begins. To make portraits more intimate and personal, try to isolate the subject using narrow depth-of-field and a simple, non-distracting background.
At the conclusion of our day in the Embera village, all the people of the village came out to demonstrate traditional singing and dancing for us. For large group portraits, it’s often best to work with a slightly wide-angle lens, but not so wide as to cause distortion. I chose a narrow aperture (high f-stop number) so that all of the people and the surrounding village landscape would be in sharp focus. Shooting from the same level as your subject has the effect of seeming to place your viewer within the scene rather than (literally) looking down on the action.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this photographic tour of our day spent with the Embera people in their small village located far up the Chagres River from Panama’s main city.
Do you have a memorable experience of meeting a group of people willing to share their traditional culture? Please share your experience by leaving a comment here!
Want to read more posts about what to shoot while traveling? Find them all here: Posts about what to shoot.