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Last Updated on 08/05/2021
Travel ignites a natural curiosity and fascination with the world. As soon as we find ourselves somewhere new, we have a strong desire to capture everything that makes it different from home. Travel provides us with an endless stream of different cultures, foreign faces and exotic scenes, but with it comes great responsibility. As travellers and guests in a foreign land, we must be careful to only take ethical travel photos.
Whether they intend it or not, the photographer holds a level of power over their subject. In a single picture, they control how the subject is judged and perceived by others. Not knowing the rules of travel photography can have damaging consequences. Here’s how to make sure that every holiday snap is an ethical one to help you be a more sustainable traveller.
The consequences of unethical photography in developing countries
We’ve all seen them – those photos of lacklustre people in shabby attire, starving children sitting around in some small, backwater village somewhere in the general vicinity of Africa. It’s an image we all know well in the media. It’s evocative; it decries a call to action and a demand to give generously. It’s effective but it’s also damaging.
Photographs are powerful visual representations. A single image – as the saying goes – is worth a thousand words, and it’s the photographer who wields the power to tell it. One picture can alter public perception and manifest untrue stereotypes about a community or culture. It’s why we now associate African countries with poverty and war when in reality, these depictions are generalised and misleading.
Poverty porn in developing countries is dehumanising. It turns people into harmful stereotypes which are unfair to the communities they’re from. If you indulge in poverty porn, you fail to capture the strength, intelligence and respect these communities deserve.
How to take ethical photos of indigenous communities
Indigenous tourism or ‘ethnic’ and ‘tribal’ tourism is a popular trend. It can offer enriching educational insights and meaningful reactions. However, concerns have been raised about the impact these visits have on indigenous communities and whether taking photos of them is truly ethical.
Unethical tour operators or tourist attractions use indigenous communities as tokens for profit. They’re exotic spectacles, not human beings, and the control over how they’re portrayed is out of their hands.
There are ethical ways to see and photograph indigenous tribes but it requires a little research. Make sure that the visit is done through a responsible and respectful tour operator, you have written or verbal consent from the community and no photos taken depict a false perception of their lifestyle.
The ethics of photographing different cultures
One of the most pleasurable things about travelling is experiencing new cultures. There’s so much to do and see that it’s hard to resist the desire to snap as much as possible, but there’s a fine line between taking ethical travel photos and creating animosity. Ethical travel photography takes into consideration the subject’s feelings and whether it’s an appropriate situation to photograph.
It’s an easy habit of tourists to take endless photos of people going about their daily lives ‘in situ’ but imagine if the roles were reversed. Imagine if you were at the supermarket or trying to do your job only to have tourists thrusting a camera or smartphone in your face? Of course, you’d be annoyed at this intrusion, and you wouldn’t feel very warmly about having your picture taken.
The rules of ethical travel photos extend beyond people. Many cultures have sacred and historic sites that ask tourists not to take photos and it’s important to comply. That perfect Instagram-worthy shot is never an excuse to damage, disrespect or climb on cultural sites.
Tips and best practices for ethical travel photos
If done ethically, taking photos abroad is a rewarding, educational and collaborative experience. Photos can celebrate cultural diversity and the uniqueness of every individual we encounter. The responsibility falls on photographers to make sure that these depictions are genuine, mindful and sensitive. These tips will help you take ethical travel photos and navigate any grey areas you may encounter:
- The most important lesson you can learn about travel photography is not how to capture the perfect shot, but how to ask someone respectfully for permission to photograph them. Always make sure you have consent from your subject, particularly if it’s a close-up. A photo of someone who is willing looks far more natural and authentic than someone trying to hide their face.
- Respect a person’s dignity when taking a photo. Ask yourself whether you would like to be photographed in that situation. If the answer is no then it’s best not to point the camera.
- Never take pictures of children without the consent of their parents.
- Analyse why you want to take the photo. What are you trying to convey in the image?
- Don’t try to slant an image to give a false perception.
- Don’t try to portray someone as useless, pitiful or inadequate, no matter how emotive the photo might be. Remember, if you wouldn’t like it then they’re not going to either.
- Ethical travel photos are collaborative, not intrusive. They show a shared genuine interest in culture and people. Start a conversation with people you want to photograph, ask them what they do, compliment them and tell them why you want to photograph them. Build a rapport with them and take an interest in them as human beings, not because it makes a good travel photo.
- Generally, a good way to avoid ethical potholes abroad is don’t pay to take photos unless you know for sure that the activity is above board. Adding a monetary value to the equation gives another level of power to the photographer and the subject hasn’t given consent because they enjoy it. Paying for photos can also elicit a false understanding of the culture and encourages begging.
- Be humble, considerate and respectful when you take travel photos. Show gratitude when people consent and respect wishes when they decline. If you’re taking photos of traders at a market, buy a little something from them give thanks and show your support.
- Don’t generalise or deliberately mislead when you caption and publish your photos as it can encourage false and harmful beliefs.
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