Social media makes it too easy to share photos of our travels. That means that often, we millennials take and share photos without necessarily reflecting on how these photos can portray a country negatively, or have other damaging effects.
When visiting “developing countries,” this reflection becomes even more important. As a visitor to a country with less economic power, it’s crucial that our photos do not negatively contribute to already existing power dynamics. We want our photos to empower these countries, not degrade or disrespect them.
Organizations like Global Service Learning and Child Rights International Network have written guidelines to help travelers understand the ethics of taking photos abroad. To make sure your photos follow the most ethical standards, ask yourself these questions first:
1. Are my intentions for this photograph only about myself?
Nayyirah Waheed‘s poem “a question of appropriation” asked an important question:
“Would you still want to travel to that country if you could not take a camera with you?”
Do you truly want to see the country that you’re visiting? Or do you just want other people to see you seeing the country? Are you interested in truly engaging with a country’s culture, or just showing others that you’ve been somewhere new? When you take a photo, are you trying to capture something meaningful about the country? Or are you trying to prove to others that you’ve seen something beautiful?
Even when you’re not a tourist visiting constant attractions, the same questions remain. As Sian Ferguson wrote in a piece about volunteering in Africa, volunteers must reflect on similar ideas: “Are you going overseas to help, or are you going overseas to look good to others? Do you want to help people, or do you just want to post a picture of yourself helping others for Facebook?” Humanitarians of Tinder on Tumblr exposes this kind of photography at its worst. The Onion and this clever Instagram account also satirized it.
Make sure your photos don’t contribute to this white savior complex. The intention behind your photos should never only be about yourself.
2. Does this photo represent a stereotype of people from this country?
The hashtag #TheAfricaTheMediaNeverShowsYou cleverly illustrated how mainstream photography negatively affects the African continent. Locals used the hashtag to show off Africa’s stunning landscape and thriving cities to offer an alternative to the more common media photos of Africa’s poverty, famine, and war.
When visiting a country, think about the common images you’ve seen in the past of the demographic you’re photographing. Is your photo contributing to that generality? Or is it offering a fresh perspective?
3. If a tourist in my home country took a photo of me in this same situation, would it make me uncomfortable?
Imagine going to Target with your baby nephew. You’re shopping for toilet paper, since you just ran out, and a European tourist suddenly places themselves between you and your cart and takes a selfie with you and your sister.
What would you think of that tourist? Rude? Invasive? Awkward, at best?
Odds are, taking photos of people abroad will make them feel the same. When in doubt, put yourself in the shoes of the person you’re photographing. Would you feel comfortable? Or would you feel like a personal boundary has been crossed?
4. Do the photos represent people with dignity?
Again, picture yourself in that moment in Target buying toiletries. Would you want someone documenting your toilet paper purchases on camera? People abroad might not want you taking those kinds of photos either.
Choose photos that show people at their best, not when they’re engaged in any activity that they may wish to keep private.
5. Have I tried building a relationship with the person I’m photographing?
Let’s say you spent a lazy afternoon during your travels sharing a coffee with the owner of the cafe. Afterwards, you took a selfie with the two of you. There’s a big difference between that photo and one you quickly take of a local you’ve never met, as you quickly rush past them.
Christie Long talked about this issue in her blog post about the ethics of travel photography:
“If no rapport had been built and there had been no attempt by the tourist to gain an insight into my life, I would find it insulting and intrusive. I would probably refuse, and be upset if they tried to take my photo without my permission.”
Much of travel ethics has to do with reciprocity: the idea that a traveler should not enter a space simply to “take”, but instead should think about how their travels affect both parties involved. With photography, the same theory can apply.
6. (Most importantly) Have you asked permission?
This one is ESPECIALLY important if children are involved. We have no right to take photos of people without first asking their consent. The best way to know that your actions are welcomed by others is to ask explicitly.