Taking Photos – or Requesting them: The Ethics of Travel Photography
The unwritten rules when it comes to photography are simple.
Would you like someone to do this to you? If not, don’t do it to them.
Yet it remains a strangely hard concept to follow. Like children in a sweetshop, we travellers are drawn in by the pretty colours, the foreign faces, the children’s smiles, the exotic scenes. You know you shouldn’t, you know it’s unhealthy, but you just can’t resist …
Social media has only made this urge worse – what’s the point of going to the crazy market if you don’t have a picture of it to prove you were there?
The perfect profile picture lurks around every corner: just pick up this stray toddler, pose beside the pigs’ heads, surround yourself with a rabble of ragged children.
These people are on our television screens, they adorn the pages of travel magazines – we’ve bought this holiday and we’ve bought our right to photograph them. Haven’t we? Have we?
As the makers of the video below, filmed in Cape Town, have shown – it doesn’t always work like that. Fed up of being treated like a human safari during township tours, they decided to take their cameras out into the wealthy white suburbs and treat people there in the same way.
And did the locals like it? Not one bit.
It’s easy enough to learn what not to do – but what is the correct way to treat people you encounter on holiday? These principles apply anywhere in the world …
Travel photography – Tips for responsible photographers
- The basic rule is simple – if you wouldn’t want someone to take your picture, don’t take theirs. And definitely don’t photograph their children.
- Strike up a conversation – even without a common language, gestures can go a long way! Ask their names, discuss what they are selling or the work they are doing. Compliment them on their clothes or jewellery – especially if that is what has inspired you to want to take a photo. Everyone enjoys a bit of flattery.
- Once you have engaged with people, ask for permission to take their photo. If they say no, thank them for their time. And if they agree – well, you have a nice little background story and a name to go in the album.
- In general, we don’t recommend paying for photos. There are exceptions – such as in Ethiopia’s Omo Valley where this is a large source of income for the tribes, who really dress to impress, as well as people such as the women in Havana in elaborate makeup with foot-long cigars who pose for tourists. But payment can cause all kinds of issues – from the faking of culture (costumes, ceremonies) to gain cash, to encouraging begging. And never pay children – even with sweets or toys. As well as discouraging them from attending school, it is just ethically wrong.
- If you do want to give something in return, it’s polite to purchase something from craftspeople or traders. Another nice gesture is to offer to send them prints. Take their address – but only do this if you are sure you can follow up.
- If you’re really committed you can buy a mini printer – either one which uses Bluetooth to print on the spot, or to connect up once you get back to your hotel and distribute the next day – Polaroid produces these, amongst other companies. Of course, you can always go old school and invest in an actual Polaroid camera and film!
Read the full article by Responsible Travel here. This issue needs a conversation.
Cape Insights has been a member of Responsible Travel since its inception. Our company subscribes to the philosophy of ”behaving respectfully among other cultures”.