Last week while I was traveling with my group into Bangladesh I received a link to an article from my friend Thierry. The article was written by Amanda Machado and talks about the ethics of taking photos when traveling to developing countries.
I read the article before heading outside and didn’t think much about it for some time. But then things started to boil in my head, and I felt like I needed to write an answer to that article. This is not about personally replying to the writer of the original article, but more to counter balance the ideas.
I am here answering as a professional photographer, but I am sure any hobbyist/enthusiast photographer experienced in traveling in developing countries would agree.
The article was written in 6 points. I will try and reply to these 6 points individually, quoting the original question asked by the author.
1. “Are my intentions for this photograph only about myself?” and “Would you still travel to that country if you could not take a camera with you?”
Would I still travel if I didn’t have a camera? Well of course this is a big “No!”. What would I do then, visit museums? I am a travel photographer after all, and traveling with a camera is the definition of what I do. I travel because I take photos, and I take photos to encourage others to travel. Even if you are just a hobbyist photographer, you will travel somewhere because you know it is photogenic.
Are my intentions only about myself? Well what else could it be? Do people travel to make the locals happy? People only travel for themselves: Broadening their horizons, meeting and experiencing local cultures and food, increasing their knowledge and opening their minds to diversity. Even if you travel with some NGO’s to help people facing social issues, don’t you also do it for the positive self fulfillment?
2. “Does this photo represent a stereotype of people from this country?”
A tourist coming to tourist spots will show images which are expected, the things we have seen before. A photographer or hobbyist photographer will seek something different, unique.
If you feel like me, you are not looking for postcards we have seen a hundred times before, but you are chasing the light, the beauty of things. If this happens to be a woman wearing a conical hat in a green rice field of Vietnam, so be it!
But of course it all depends on what the photographer is looking for. Some people are satisfied with classic postcards with a complete lack of originality, and some are not, and will keep looking for the unique view. The real question for me is more about the concept of authenticity: Stereotypes were created at a certain point in time, which means that things have changed from that time until now. Countries, people, cultures are constantly evolving (even faster in the case of developing countries).
So how do you define a stereotype, and how do you “avoid” photographing it?
3. “If a tourist in my home country took a photo of me in this same situation, would it make me feel uncomfortable?”
Do you mean taking a photo of an American man hand-picking tea leaves in a mountain plantation?
This part of the article is, to me, the most questionable of all. This point of view is so ethnocentric that I wonder if the writer has ever traveled at all. This seems to come from a Westerner point of view without even thinking about the cultural differences between all countries.
For example, people of Asia don’t have the same notion of privacy as we do in the Western world. You just can’t expect people in other parts of the world to feel or think the same way you do.
So let’s reverse the argument here: If the people of Bangladesh are stopping you in the street all the time and asking if you can take their picture (and I mean all the time!), would it make you feel uncomfortable if the people of France were not doing the same? Absolutely not, because the culture is different, and the notion of privacy, personal space, is completely different and you as a traveler should understand this.
4. “Does the photo represent people with dignity?”
If you are a traveler or a travel photographer you are not looking for social issues where people may not be looking at their best, that is the job of a photojournalist. You look for images of a unique quality, you look for the light, the great composition. You are a story teller and the stories you are exposed to whilst traveling in developing nations may not always be beautiful and show people at their best.
As John Free says in one of his videos, (which is, in my opinion, an amazing video to watch if you struggle with dealing with personal space when shooting in Western countries!): “you don’t photograph the fat lady”.
I hope anyone that travels has a modicum of an education and a common sense of respect for the places and people where they travel. You don’t photograph naked children and post the images online, you don’t look only for people living in misery, etc. This is common sense and if you travel or photograph without this you could find yourself in trouble very quickly.
5. “Have I tried building a relationship with the person I am photographing?”
This is a very good point. As I mention when talking about how to approach people for photography, it is best to have created this relationship: this will give you, the photographer, a better understanding of your subject, and time to acquire a better knowledge of their surroundings. This also shows a lot of respect for your subject and will make everything easier. I would also hope this would make for a better image. As I often say, when traveling, treat people as if you were coming back to visit them the next day so they are happy to see you again.
But, it is not always possible…
6. “Have you asked permission?”
All right, this is the end of street photography. This is the end of candid travel photography. Oh, and let’s not forget candid wedding photography while I think about it.
“Excuse me lady currently carrying 20 kg of bricks on your head, do you have a minute? I would like to ask you if, by any chance, you wouldn’t mind if I take a photo of you so I can increase my portfolio, and at the same time get a few extra “likes” on Facebook?”
Here is what will happen when asking for permission to take photos: all your subjects will be posing in the most boring way, or giving you a V finger sign. Now isn’t it a stereotype? Makes for great original images!
Of course, as I mentioned previously, it is best to create an interaction, for the respect of the person we are photographing but also to improve our understanding of the situation and our composition. But to me, this will happen most of the time after the photo has been taken: showing my subject their photo, telling them how beautiful they are, having a good laugh, etc. And this is often the best part of being a travel photographer, this contact and interaction you can create with the locals by understanding the way they live and their cultural expectations.
So no, you are not being disrespectful by getting close to people and taking their photo without asking. You are a travel photographer, you have common sense and you are doing your best to not show disrespect to the people around you. You are culturally aware and you know what you can or can’t do.