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You Are Here:  Home  >  FAQ  >  Humor
Dan Heller's Tutorial Series:

Humorous Captions: Are They Offensive?

Table of Contents

Chapter Word Count: 1636
1 Introduction  (279)
2 Cultural Differences  (256)
3 Context (1101)

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1 Introduction

Got Food?
(California, USA)
animals, dogs, looking, sammy, vertical, photograph

    "We should treat all the trivial things seriously, and the serious things in life with sincere and studied triviality."
      --Oscar Wilde

    "Life does not cease to be funny when someone dies, any more than it ceases to be serious when someone laughs."
      --George Bernard Shaw

Humor. It's the most difficult thing in the world. Some people get it, some people don't. But, no matter what, humor is guaranteed to offend someone—there's no way around it. With my photos and/or captions, I shouldn't have to spell it out, but the long and short of it is that the target of my humor is not the subject in the photo, it's deeper than that. While it is rare, I get some very uptight email now and then from someone who finds my photo captions offensive, that I'm making fun of the people in my photos, that I am lacking respect for other cultures, or worse, that I am simply ignorant of others' feelings. This article isn't really going to change their minds on the subject, but it does spark a consumate philsopher and deep-thinker such as myself to ponder the more interesting and fundamental roots of humor: Why is something funny? Why do people find offense at what others find funny? To me, these are intensely interesting questions which I'd love to discover through a dedicated a six-year doctorate degree, where I could spend my time on lecturing tours around coffee shops and bookshops around the country.

But, I've got other things to do first. Instead, this article addresses the much, much norrower subject: why my captions really are funny, even if they don't make you laugh.

Could someone tell him my diaper needs changing?
africa, mali, neck, people, seats, subsahara, vertical, photograph
Humor is a distinctly human characteristic, but what we find as humorous is strictly a cultural phenomenon. When people find offense at my humor, 99% of them are Americans, or from countries very close to America. The primary reason for this (among many) is that, as a percentage of our population, we (Americans) rarely leave our own country. Hence, most of our knowledge of the world comes either from television, or from foreigners who come to live in America. The Americans that do travel, tend to do so either as tourists, or with a specific and focused cause, such as the Peace Corps, or to do humanitarian aid, or to evangelize the gospel, or to teach or feed poor, starving people. While every one of these are wonderful, noble ambitions, the one thing that all of them have in common is that they are activities that maintain the American perspective. More directly, they do not see the broader context in which peoeple live, they do not understand the full historical precedent that made circumstances as they are, and most of all, they don't really "get" ideas and views and cultures that are different than their own.

As a result, these people tend to "project" what they believe people think and feel based on how they themselves would think and feel if they were in similar circumstances. And this is the root of the main misunderstanding not only of humor, but of America's foreign and economic policies.

But, let's not get too far afield from the main subject. The reason the humor veries among cultures is because humor is only funny if you know the context (or lack thereof) from which it came. Things that Americans totally misunderstand about people from other cultures include "humor", "respect", "God", and daily lifestyle, because these views are often totally different from their own. In almost every case, people I talked to in third-world countries are often extremely laid back about themselves and their beliefs, taking everything with a very large grain of salt. So, what they find funny is often us because they don't see the context. That is, they love American culture, not because they want to emulate it (although some do, usually kids and teens), but because they think we're so "out there." I mean, way out there. Things like our musical idols, cultural icons, obsession with material things, etc. Don't get me wrong, they don't always find humor in this—many see it as a sad reality about the world's military and economic leader, and thus the source of most of the world's problems. But, there's some very dark, sardonic humor associated with that. But, humor exists because the context of what makes it so different. Even things that we take seriously, like music idols and other celebrities are sources of much giggling around the Maasai campfire at night.

"What's up doc?"
(Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania)
africa, maasai, tanzania, vertical, photograph
In fact, one great source of humor for us Americans, but not for the Maasai people is a real event: About nine months after the World Trade Center attacks on Sept 11., 2001, a group of Maasai tribes in Tanzania had just heard of the event, and sent us 49 Cows. They genuinely thought that we needed help and support, and they sent us what they thought was the most valuable and precious thing in the world. Food. As you can imagine, Americans find this to be exceedingly funny, and nothing had to be said. Late night comics didn't need to add a thing to it. Just the news in itself was funny. Why? The context clearly showed thae differences in our cultures.

When you sit and talk with people, when you get to know them and who they are, when you hear how they actually think and feel about us. And then when you both know each other, and the humorous exchanges begin, you see how they lightly tease and make fun of you, and you like it! You feel welcome and part of the group. Similarly, they feel the same when you do it to them. What's more, the next step of all this is when they do it to each other, making fun of themselves using references to our culture. Accordingly, the Maasai that I met love it when we compare them with icons from our own culture because they view the way we see ourselves as totally insane. We laugh at a cartoon rabbit with buck teeth named "bugs"? They don't get it. But that we laugh at it makes us funny to them. So, when they see a member of their own tribe with buck teeth and caption their own photo with the phrase, "what's up doc?", they roar in laughter.

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Just Do It
(Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania)
africa, horizontal, maasai, tanzania, photograph
Of course, I find great humor in the fact that some Americans think this is totally offensive, and pontificate to me about how disrespectful I am. Yet, these assumptions are ignorant of how those people actually feel. Of course, it's understandable—after all, if people were to do it to them, they might feel offended. So, it's natural to think that others would feel similarly. Well, again, it's all about discarding all one's assumptions about other cultures and peoples. You can't possibly know till you go. When I've shown my pictures (and captions) to the actual people that I met there, they loved how they were portrayed. In fact, many would email back with new captions for themselves that are equally "jovial" and sometimesm more so. Sometimes, I can't even use their own captions because of how totally diferent their perspectives are on subjects. For example, sex. They have such different connotations of sex in society than we do, that when they make a sexual joke, they'll giggle and laugh, while our jaws are on the floor as we're thinking, "they can't possibly think this is funny." Americans would find such humor not only offensive, but bordering on criminal. When there, and you see people think and feel as they do, you understand why they may find humor, but you also recognize that it would never translate to an American audience.
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Braving the Frigid Cold of 85-degrees
(Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania)
africa, maasai, tanzania, vertical, photograph

So, that brings us full circle: what kind of humor translates to an American audience? Does mine? It turns out that most people do not find offense with my humor. In fact, most don't. They get my humor and understand it because most people are intelligent. Another quote:

    "If you can't laugh at yourself, laugh at other people."
      --George Carlin

This is funny is because most people know that those who can't laugh at themselves are stupid, and we like laughing at stupid people. The world is a paradoxically funny place, and humor is how we deal with the dark side of life.
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Electricity as a Hair-Care Product
(San Francisco, California, USA)
california, drag, folsom fair, homosexual, queen, san francisco, vertical, west coast, western usa, photograph

Perhaps the greatest humor is the people who take offense at my humor. I'm not saying they should find my photos or captions funny; that may or may not happen. I'm saying that by finding offense in my humor really reveals a small mind indeed. If you are one of those, I refer you to my series, portraits of the people of West Africa, exploring how outside influences has affected their lives., which makes my serious side very clear, and how I recognize how bad some conditions can be in parts of the world.

I never make apologies for my humor, although on rare occasions, I may rescind a photo caption if, upon further consideration, I find it could be offense and my humor wasn't really all that funny anyway. Alas, even the worst criticisms are never discarded out of hand. I fully admit that my humor doesn't always hit on target, But, like any art form, it's an ever evolving talent, open to interpretation and revision. One thing I can guarantee: I never use humor with the intent to offend or hurt; I always do my best to employ a good sense of judgement, fairness, and taste.

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