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All photos by the author.

Paul Sullivan looks at some of the ethical conflicts facing travel photographers.

“Nooooo!” screamed the sheep. A terrible ovine shriek that combined raw fear with retaliatory death threats to friends and immediate family. Now what kind of behaviour, I wondered as my heart attempted to pound its way out of my mouth, is de rigeur when confronted with a shrieking ovine?

My first instinct was to drop my camera — the item that had prompted the bizarre incident in the first place — and hotfoot it somewhere less supernatural. But wait. This was ridiculous. Do sheep really scream like women? Had it really opened its mouth, moved its lips? Do sheep even have lips? I re-examined the scene.

The sheep stood nervously (and not a little awkwardly) in the doorway. It was surrounded by a halo of steam, its wool shaved off in seemingly random patches. It looked absurd, even by sheep standards. Something in the darkness moved, a hunched, veiled figure at the back of the room – a woman. She yelled again, loud and venomous, the Arabic equivalent of “get the fuck outta here now”. The sheep and I jumped in tandem. I apologised vaguely to the animal and the darkness and continued my route through Sidi Ifni’s powdery medina.

I’ve done it again, I thought. Been shouted at for trying to shoot a Moroccan woman. With a camera, sure, but save for bullets what’s the difference, really, between a camera and a gun? We point, we focus, we shoot, we reload (batteries). Anyone with a camera, professional or amateur, that marauds the earth in search of exotic subjects to “capture” cannot fail to notice a certain hunter/prey dynamic.

Cameras instil fear into people. They can hurt. I know this because I’m a travel photographer and over the years I’ve been heckled and shooed away many times, especially in countries like Morocco. I’ve had exotic curses rained upon my sick soul. Hirsute, sweating men have raised meat cleavers and furious women have brandished sticks. I’ve made young children dive into bushes by zooming past in cars and taking ‘pot-shots’ (more gun terminology, there) while leaning out the window like a macho stunt maniac.

All contemptible behaviour of course and definitely not something I’m proud of. Oftentimes these situations come about unintentionally. Most photographers know the feeling of raising their camera to shoot something ‘innocent’ (a colourful wall, an empty, attractive street – a sheep enjoying a sauna) and suddenly being yelled at by someone they didn’t see. But this wouldn’t be a confession if I didn’t admit that I have taken plenty of photos in situations where I knew there was a chance of offending someone or pissing them off.

I took this shot spontaneously while walking by. Seconds later a man from a nearby kiosk was shouting at me angrily, even though the people I was photographing didn't seem to care at all.

Not because I’m an asshole. If I thought I’d end up wielding my camera like a gun, I would never have become a photographer in the first place (I’m honestly not that type of guy)…but because I’m human. I realize that sounds like a pathetic fig leaf to cover an embarrassing lack of ethics. But it’s not. I do have an ethical code, one that has naturally accreted and solidified over more than a decade of travelling and taking photos of people. In fact as a professional, I’m probably more aware than most of the moral challenges involved. I know about asking permission. I know about talking to people, explaining why I want to take a photo, about model releases and trading gifts for images instead of money.

When I asked this man for a portrait, he was okay but rubbed his fingers together in the universal sign for money. I paid him what I had in change, the equivalent of two dollars. I did not believe this would have a negative effect on tourism in the remote mountain area I was in. Conversely, now that I am using the shot, I wish I had paid him more.

But it’s not that easy. In fact it’s way more complex. In the same way we all break society’s rules in small ways, we sometimes break the laws of photography too. There are deliberate transgressions – shoving a camera in the face of someone that obviously doesn’t like it is the equivalent of getting all up in someone’s grill in a bar or on the street. You deserve whatever consequences come your way.

But there are less straightforward situations, the equivalent of not buying a ticket for the last train home because you’re running late. How do you know in an instant whether a stranger is saying they don’t want to be photographed because they’re shy, sceptical or it’s against their religion or beliefs? How can you ask someone to sign a model release form if they’re illiterate or don’t speak your language? How can you know in advance whether your photograph will be sold to a magazine, used free of charge to help a charitable cause or be used purely as a personal memory?

Is it so bad to give someone in extreme poverty a couple of bucks for taking their photo, especially if you know you would have given them money regardless of the photo? Will it really set such a terrible precedent for future travellers? Is giving useless gifts any better? How do you convincingly explain in a language you don’t speak that it’s not their face you were drawn to but someone’s colourful kaftan or pointy-hooded djellabah?

I don't like photographing women too much out of respect, but what to do when colours like this pass you by? I don't feel I have been culturally insensitive since their faces are not shown.

Mostly, you can’t. As with everyday life, you have to go on intuition, live in the moment, weigh up situations and scenes as they occur. That’s what makes the job of a travel photographer simultaneously exciting and ethically suspect. A photographer in a country as anti-Camera yet intensely photogenic as Morocco is a reformed gambler in a casino with a pocket full of tokens surrounded by flashing machines. Sooner or later, he or she is bound to give into temptation.

I did not intend to invade this man's privacy, though if he had noticed me he may have thought I did. I was just momentarily drawn to his concentrated expression, the vertical lines of the scene and the harmonious colours. How to explain that in Arabic?

The truth is, having a completely rigid moral code sometimes just doesn’t work for a professional travel photographer. The reality is that you’ve spent time, effort and likely a large portion of your budget (if you’re lucky enough to have one) coming to a foreign land specifically to take photos. You cannot – and don’t want – to leave without shots of the inhabitants of that country. (How on earth are you going to get into the pages of National Geographic otherwise?). Anyone that says they haven’t bent the rules to get a killer shot is lying.

This dude was happy to have a shot taken of the fish he was about to cook us. Knowing we were tourists, he afterwards charged us over 70 euros, more than any other meal we'd eaten in any of the hotels we stayed at, taking advantage of the fact we had forgotten to ask the price in advance (thinking it would be cheap). We shouldn't forget that other cultures sometimes lack ethical codes also.

But precisely because we do bend the rules at times, it’s even more important to know when we shouldn’t. We need to know when to resist, when to put the camera away and quit with the persuading and payments and protracted dialogue. We definitely need to be aware of when a situation is slipping into individual or cultural abuse. We need to be especially sensitive towards women and children. If someone seems genuinely upset we should delete their photograph in front of them. When we get to the point, as I have now and again, where the people around begin to exist only as elements in a composition, we need to pause and re-engage.

I asked him for a shot of him in his shop. He said no problem.

If being human is a legitimate excuse for taking occasional liberties, it’s also an equally good reason to not step out of line. These are fellow human beings we’re raising our visual weapons at, after all. As Gandhi said, an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind. Cameras should be a way of making everyone see, not making everyone see red.

I took this shot with a zoom while shooting other elements of a beach scene. I knew it was a bit sneaky but thought these guys might disperse if I asked them for a group shot. I ended up showing them the shot when I walked past. They loved it and posed for more.



About The Author

Paul Sullivan

Paul Sullivan has been a freelance writer and photographer since 2000. Operating primarily in the realm of music, travel, lifestyle, and culture, his work has taken him around the world. His work has appeared in/on the BBC, Dazed and Confused, DrownedInSound, Electronic Beats, The Face, The Guardian, DJ, Intelligent Life, iDJ, fRoots, The Independent, Observer Music Monthly, National Geographic Music, Time Out, Wax Poetics, The Wire, and others. He currently lives in Berlin.

  • Carolina Zapata

    He carged you 70 euros, but remeber how much money you are making with your pictures. I say this because I live in Colombia, and I constantly see tourists and travelers complaining about prices and stuff. I wish our money had enough value to pay for a one-year vacation as so many foreigners (mostly Europeans and Americas) do in 3rd world countries. I know (because I have also paid overpriced stuff in my own country) it’s really bothering pay more just because you are a tourist but don’t bring their lack of ethic to apologize yours.

    • Paul Sullivan

      I have not made any money from that photograph. He charged us something like
      seven times more than the usual price, and we were deliberately herded
      into this area without having a chance to look at the menu/prices. We ordered
      on trust and that trust was abused. I don’t care how many holidays he
      has or does not have a year, that is not ethical – or friendly –

    • Carole.R.

      Carolina, I’m European, and I’m just going to Colombia in a couple of days. I’ve worked really hard and had to save for this holidays for quite a time. Not all Europe is rich. And not all the people here are rich.

      I’ve visited some African countries and I would advise most of my friends against visiting them (although the places were nice) – I simply know that being treated like a walking cash machine can spoit the fun and it’s not really worth it.

    • Megan Wood

      Carolina, I totally disagree with you. Making money on photography and writing is not as simple as it looks. Sure, the photographer takes a photo quickly, but spends hours and hours sorting, shooting, and editing in hopes of finding a publication to sell to. Writers, same thing. Let me assure you that the majority of travel writers and photographers are not in the business to become rich or take advantage of others.

  • Darlene Carucci

    Enjoy your humor!

  • Aerie9

    Paul, I enjoyed reading your nuanced examination of the ethical issues facing a travel photographer. But, since I have resolved to correct this every time I see it online, I must point out that the author of the quote in your article is Gandhi. NOT Ghandi. It is your responsibility to get it right.

    • Paul Sullivan

      Damn straight Aerie9, let’s get that fixed. Thanks for the heads up.

      • Aerie9

        Thank you! :)

  • Timothy

    Great article.  Having only been to what I’d call camera friendly Asia, I’ve always wondered what it’s like to be a travel photographer in a country like Morocco.  Sounds like it’s about what I figured, and the fact that you haven’t given up says a lot. 

  • waywardlife

    That picture of the tall dude at his door is unbelievably cool.

  • Louisbink

    Interesting. I’ve felt almost every hesitation you describe, but agree that your intuition serves best.  Alot of these situations arise because a photographer “stands-out” with the equipment, random hanging-out and the very nature of including your presence into each “scene”  My justification usually comes when sharing my images at home to natives of my visted countries with congratulations of captuing the true nature and spirit of their home countries.

  • Hal Amen

    Really enjoyed this, Paul.
    It’s always fun to hear the backstory to a photo, but these were especially engaging b/c of the issue at hand.

  • Sam Lovell

    Great read and very true. There have been many occasions where an amazing shot presents itself only for your ethics to get involved… (how though did u manage to buy that much seafood and not ask the price! lol) cheers, sam (

  • Delia Harrington

    very well written, especially the bit about the fig leaf.  even if you don’t have all the answers, you’re certainly posing the right questions. 

  • Sattvicfamily

    You bring up great points. I know when I was in Kenya, prior to my taking photography seriously, I saw someone get in trouble for photographing a Masaai. They are so beautiful, he merely wanted a picture, but their culture does not want to be photographed, unless permission is given.

  • Adeline

    I think a lot of travelers can relate to this powerful metaphor. I look at photos of people and wonder what was going through their minds as we “lean in for the kill.” It’s nice to actually think about our subjects as opposed to archive them. 

  • Wandering Study

    This is such a sticky line. We just returned home from filming in Ethiopia and Tanzania, and we found that video complicates the issue of photography ethics and consent even further. While interviewing a group of midwives in Addis Ababa, we were invited to witness and to film several patients’ treatment, including a woman giving birth. While a translator assured us that these particular women had given consent and didn’t mind being filmed, the process felt invasive. We ultimately decided to miss a lot of “moments” in order not to cross any privacy boundaries.  While it’s easy to get lost behind the lens, I think it’s important to remember that “the shot” can’t be the ultimate priority; whoever lies in front of the camera must be thought of foremost.  

  • Jared Krauss

    I experienced this during my trip to Haiti after the Earthquake.  We were in the only normal looking vehicle that was not painted wildlyy with thirty Haitians hanging off the back our out the windows or sitting on top of the car as a hundred and more vehicles moved around each other in the antithesis of an ant line, attempting to maneuver all around.  I opened my window to take a picture as a young boy was walking by. He was not even in the shot.  Yet, he began yelling, at me and reaching up towards my camera; I, not wanting to do something…anything, I had no clue what to do, pulled myself back into the van.  I asked the translator what the boy had said after he began walking on again.  And he looked at me, with a slow smile and said told me the boy had said we all come to Haiti to take pictures and take back showing the help we did, but we do not help, we just take pictures.

    Needless to say, I took over 1000 pictures across 8 days.

    I dunno.  *shrug*

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