Cultural Crossroads

During his lifetime Idries Shah promoted contacts and connections between different traditions around the world, believing this to be an important element in the advancement of human culture.

In this spirit, The Idries Shah Foundation has created ‘Cultural Crossroads’, a website forum where people from many walks of life are invited to talk about their own experiences crossing cultural boundaries, and the lessons that they have learned as a result.

You can find the full series here:

Cultural Crossroads- Sam ParkesAbout Sam Parkes

Sam Parkes’ work blurs the distinction between storytelling, journalism and fine art photography.

This cross section reveals a meticulous and dissenting eye for the spirit and essence of people and place. It explores the ground between the domestic and the ecstatic- finding the magic in the mundane and the extraordinary in the ordinary. Through these images we’re offered the chance to smudge our nose against the window of our time, to bear witness to its rapture, its cruelty, its comedy.

There’s a timelessness to Sam’s work that bisects the fleeting moment, a prism at the intersection of the ancient and modern, drawing to the centre the world of long ago and that of today. In discovering resemblances and correspondences he reveals more than what can be seen, illuminating through the layers of the everyday- of fishermen, market stalls and street commerce, farming and industry, architecture and landscape, worshippers and pilgrims, ceremony and ritual, a look, a glance, of mankind within nature and the nature within mankind.

With the vitality and coherence of all good storytelling, Sam’s photography probes beyond surface appearance to proffer a deep curiosity about human life in all its enigmatic complexity. It is a worship of the imperfect and reveals that nowhere is inopportune to unearthing magic, intrigue and beauty.



Q1: In photographing different cultures have you evolved different methods?

Sam Parkes - Pimentel, PeruI try to be as sensitive as possible to the particular idiosyncrasies of the culture I’m in. What works in one culture- ways of approaching people or simply ways of behaving- may not be appropriate somewhere else. This can require some research before I go, but more often than not it’s about keeping your wits about you and being receptive to what is in front of you. Local people are an invaluable source of knowledge. Even if you can’t speak the particular language, you can communicate with a human being wherever you are. Noticing the body language and even adopting similar body language can be a useful tool. Most of the images I take are candid and therefore I don’t want to be noticed, but occasionally I have to feign authority and a sense of calm control in order to be taken seriously. Other times I find somebody I can talk to and who can get me access to people and places I wouldn’t be able to access alone. The rapport I have with that one person can be the key to opening up a whole world. It’s about being adaptable. Photographing gun-toting villagers in the Omo Valley of Ethiopia requires a different sensibility to photographing an elderly monk in Yangon. ‘When in Rome’ is an adage invaluable to the traveler.

Q2: Is photography more important than in the past- are we moving into a more visual age?

Sam Parkes - Havana, CubaI’m inclined to say that it’s less important, but it depends entirely on what we deem worthy of looking at. The sheer proliferation of images renders most photography less important and unworthy of our attention and it requires a greater clarity of thought and judgement to determine what is worthwhile. With the advent of smart phones everybody is a photographer. We are bombarded with images more than ever in the history of man, but I think that makes it all the more important to recognise photography that is worthy of our attention. I think of the billions of words in print across the globe, yet still we read Shakespeare and Cervantes and Homer. The greater choice of mediocrity there is, the greater our hunger for quality.

We seem to have gone full circle in some sense. In preliterate societies the visual image (painting as it was then) was important as a form of allegory and didacticism, something from which people learnt moral and religious codes of ethics and certain truths before widespread literacy came about.  And now, again, the visual image seems key to our understanding of truth. However, we now interpret events and images with such a literalism as was inconceivable in the premodern world. Our sense of what truth is changes throughout time. We have become so used to seeing events from around the world with such immediacy that there’s almost a sense of disbelief in something having happened unless we see an image of it. So in that sense photography is more important than in the past and we are moving into a more visual age. I should add though, that as a photographer, I say this with an admonition; that all photography is to a sizeable degree contrived and therefore subjective, however earnest. The photographer chooses what is included or excluded from the frame. An image depends on the particular prejudice or whimsy of the photographer. It does not mean that the image does not speak a certain truth, but it is not an objective truth.

Q3: What experiences in your youth or childhood lead you to becoming a photographer?

Sam Parkes - Omo Valley, EthiopiaI’ve always had a fascination with the exotic, what I considered the opposite of life as I knew it. Perhaps it was growing up in the English suburbs that predisposed me to a life of travel. The sense of conformity and straight-laced rigidity I found stifling. I specifically remember a copy of the Times World Atlas we had in our house. It was one that contained photographs. I still remember them. I remember the photo of a Native American Chief, I remember the turquoise waters of the South Pacific and the mountains of the Himalayas. When I look at a map now I still feel six years old. The sense of wonder and curiosity and adventure it inculcated in me is still there. I feel lucky to have retained those feelings.

One of my earliest school memories was of drawing a world map. It wasn’t the project we had been assigned but for some I reason I started it and it got big, quickly! I remember the teachers helping me stick the papers together and allowing me to continue because they could see that I was enthusiastic and entirely involved in what I was doing. I became obsessed with learning the capital cities of countries. I loved wildlife and still do, and I used to collect the National Geographic wildlife folders. I knew every capital city and every species of animal in every country!

As I got older I read a lot of books about distant lands and tales of adventure and wanted to become a writer myself. My parents encouraged my siblings and I to travel, and when I was old enough to travel alone I would write to family and friends about my experiences. Years later I decided to take a very cheap camera on a trip to India and found that I really enjoyed taking photos. I found that the things I wanted to write about could also be expressed visually. Frankly it seemed so much easier!

Q4: Which photographers do you like that are underrated in your opinion?

André Kertész, Graciela Iturbide, Marc Riboud, Jason Eskenazi. Although they’re all highly regarded in certain circles, I do I think they’re underrated.

It seems absurd to mention Arnold Newman as underrated as he was one of the most famous photographers of the 20th century. His portraits of artists, politicians, film stars and writers are widely known. However, mention his name and very few people ever seem to have heard of him. His style seems to have fallen out of fashion, but his work should be sought out by all interested in photography.

Q5: How has traveling as a photographer helped you in other areas of your life?

Sam Parkes -Zumbahua, EcuadorTraveling by yourself engenders a self reliance. There’s no one familiar to help you, there’s no running home when you’re tired and fed up. You are forced by circumstance to think for yourself and think on your feet. You understand the importance and the value of others when you are in need of their help. Traveling has helped me understand that there are no fixed interpretations of life, and how you choose to interpret what happens to you is a question of perspective. It also toughens you up and helps inure you to the injustices of the world. I’ve discovered for myself through trial and error that there are no shortcuts. If I have not put in the requisite time or effort into something from which I hope to gain, the results will speak accordingly. My personal definitions of patience and tolerance have been greatly improved by travel, as I soon learnt that things rarely go to plan- trains will not run on time, buses will break down, you’ll get sick, you’ll lose your passport- learning to accept things as they are rather than as you want them to be is something that applies to the whole of life.

I think more than anything though, traveling has taught me to dethrone myself from the centre of the universe. You cannot judge the life of another from the vantage point of your own privilege when you are on the ground and seeing things first hand. Travel is known as the great dissolving agent of ignorance. That’s true only in part, if you travel with a fixed set of ideas you will only confirm your own prejudices. Its not hard to find evidence to support your personal theories. To the receptive mind it disrupts assumptions of thinking that your local laws are the laws of the universe. You realise that the centre of the universe is not just where you happen to live and the town you grew up in and the people you know, but the centre of the universe is everywhere. Everybody is living from the centre of their universe and their lives matter as much as yours. And rather than having the effect of making you feel insignificant, it can have the reverse effect when you realise just how interconnected everything and everyone is. You realise that the Socratic trope of ‘wisdom being the realisation of how little you know’ will always hold true. And wonderfully so.