Learning DSLR Photography with Guha Shankar

Learning DSLR Photography with Guha Shankar

On Monday, May 13, eleven folklorists congregated at the New York Folklore offices in Schenectady to learn the ins and outs of DSLR photography. The two-day workshop was led by Guha Shankar of The American Folklife Center of the Library of Congress, who explained to us the interrelations of aperture, exposure, and ISO, as well as techniques for managing light and flash photography. We also explored the nuances of ethnographic photography, and strategies of photographing tradition bearers in natural settings in a non-intrusive yet engaging way.

The workshop had a healthy mix of instruction, hands-on fieldwork, and review and critique of our efforts with the unfamiliar DSLR cameras. After the initial overview of photography from Guha, we carpooled to Armando & Sons Ironworks, and were treated to a fascinating tour of the shop.

Folklorists photograph at Armando & Sons

A folklorist paparazzi! Workshop participants practice photography at Armando & Sons Ironworks

Our goal was to practice photography in a natural ethnographic setting, and develop our own photography skills rather than adjust the environment to pose less challenges for us. I found that the two most challenging aspects of photographing at Armando & Sons were the multitude of light sources (each requiring a separate white balance in order to appear true white) and the fast pace of a metalworker in action. Each photographer experimented with their camera settings in order to compensate for the environmental factors.

Later during the workshop we visited and photographed the Electric City Barn in Schenectady, an impressive space designed to enable a variety of artists (carpenters, studio photographers, theater actors, dancers, textile artists) to practice their craft. Next was Perreca’s, a 105 year old authentic Italian bakery, with its wooden work surfaces covered in flour and texture from decades of nonstop use. Each of these locations provided their own challenges of lighting, space, and motion, to be overcome by the photographers’ wits and camera settings. Each provided an intriguing look behind-the-scenes into the history of the businesses and the stories of the people who run them.

Guha Shankar assists Beth Bevars with her camera

Guha Shankar assists Beth Bevars with her camera at Armando & Sons Ironworks

After our photography sessions in the field, all returned to NYF for critique, review, and photograph analysis. We examined how different camera settings were successful or unsuccessful in specific situations, and considered how to improve in future ethnographic photography situations. By the time the workshop wrapped up, we had absorbed lots of information and had taken a great leap ahead in the ongoing process of learning DSLR photography and its application to ethnographic fieldwork.

This photography workshop was sponsored by NYSCA Folk Arts through its Mentoring and Professional Development Program. We are indebted to Guha Shankar and the Library of Congress, and Robert Baron of the Folk Arts Program of the New York State Council on the Arts.

My Mentorship with Eric Charry about Jola Bougarabou Drumming

My Mentorship with Eric Charry about Jola Bougarabou Drumming

Within five minutes of his arrival on April 6, 2018, my mentor, Professor Eric Charry of Wesleyan University, taught me something I did not know about interviewing musicians. Pulling up a photo of Nfamara Badjie playing bougarabou, Eric immediately notices that drum bodies are the traditional bougarabou shape, but the drum heads are not bougarabou. They are djembe, relating to the way in which the drums are tuned. Bougarabou drums are traditionally tuned by heating (putting the drums close to a fire), while the djembe is tuned with a hammer, a more viable system in the United States. I now know to ask how an instrument changes as it moves from one country to another and over time.

The difference in drums led to a discussion of the notion of ethnicity tied to a particular instrument. Is the essence of bougarabou and Jola the instrument or the rhythms and songs associated with it? Or a combination? At what point does the instrument change enough to not be bougarabou? Who gets to decide? Eric and Nfamara helped me to place the tradition of bougarabou within the Jola and within the various tribal cultures found in Gambia and Senegal. We also discussed the lineage of bougarabou musicians of which Nfamara is one of the last. Nfamara told us that some Jola believe that he is killing the culture because he is in the United States and not in the Gambia sharing and teaching the bougarabou.

Eric reminded me that I need to apply these same questions about changes in instrument or materials, across the genres and not just in music.

For information about applying for the Mentoring and Professional Development Program in Folk and Traditional Arts, please contact me at [email protected] to discuss an application.