Photo: R.M. Nunes/Shutterstock

On the Ethics of Photographing Locals

by Christie Long Jun 23, 2014

I was drinking a cup of tea in a village in eastern Indonesia when they arrived. The young Spanish couple looked like typical tourists — big floppy hats, beige cargo pants, and backpacks. Slung around their necks were fancy cameras, which they immediately started snapping, recording the faces and movements of villagers husking rice, women weaving cloth, and children playing outside their homes.

The couple slowly got closer to where I was sitting, and I tried to ignore them. I was chatting in Bahasa Indonesia to a woman from the village — a friend of a friend — who’d offered to take me on her motorbike to explore more of the island the following day. Yuli had fetched me tea, and the women sitting with us offered betel nut.

A frown etched across Yuli’s forehead momentarily as she noticed the couple, and one of the women beside us shifted her position on the bench, turning her back on the man now attempting to take her photo. With her face now hidden, he lost interest in her and turned his lens to a child sitting on the ground a few metres away.

The couple’s approach to exploring the village made me feel uneasy. It wasn’t the first time I’d seen tourists behave in such a way. The particular island I was visiting in Indonesia doesn’t receive many tourists, but the village, with its traditional thatch-roof houses and megalith tombs, is accustomed to them. Even so, visitors must sign a guestbook and make a small donation to enter. But just because a place is accommodating of tourists doesn’t make it a zoo.

Too often I see tourists rush into villages, and even homes, reaching for their cameras without attempting to make any connection with the people they’re so anxious to photograph. Often this is without the permission of those they’re photographing, or when those people are clearly uncomfortable.

What value is a photo of someone whose name you don’t know, a stranger with whom you haven’t had a conversation?

When I see tourists objectify local people and take photos of them in their homes and going about their everyday lives, I wonder why they want such photos. Is it to flood their friends’ Facebook feeds with the faces of smiling children they claim to have befriended on their travels? Is it to prove how ‘local’ they went, or how much they now really understand the culture and traditions of the country they visited? What value is a photo of someone whose name you don’t know, a stranger with whom you haven’t had a conversation? Their culture, clothing, and home may look different to yours. But what does that mean if you haven’t built any rapport? When you look at their photo years from now, what will you remember about them and the interaction you had?

One of the best things about travel is the people we meet — and we don’t always need to speak the same language to make a connection. But making a connection of some form is key, particularly before snapping a camera in the face of a stranger when you’re a guest in their home. Ask questions about the food they’re preparing, the materials their homes are made from, and the beliefs and practices of their community. Show an interest in something more than just taking their photo.

When tourists photograph locals, I worry about the locals’ privacy and safety. Even if the photographer seeks permission, it’s doubtful she’ll explain how she’ll later use that photo. The subject may not be aware of the full extent to which their photo and information could potentially spread, especially in the case of children. It’s unrealistic to expect most children to understand the dangers associated with their personal information being publicly accessible, particularly with the reach of social media. A photo harmlessly posted on Facebook, with seemingly minor details like the person’s name, town, or village, can lead to that person being contactable or locatable.

Most international and grassroots organisations that work with local communities, particularly those that work with children, have policies in place to protect their beneficiaries from abuse and exploitation. These include strict rules around the collection and use of information like photos and personal data. When these organisations collect such information from their beneficiaries, they’re required to explain how it’ll be used, whether for a brochure, a TV advertisement, a website article, or for internal records. The person being photographed, filmed, or interviewed must understand and be comfortable with this before the information is collected, and parental consent for children under 18 must be sought.

Reverse the situation. Would you let a tourist visiting your home country — one that you’d had little or no interaction with — take a photo of you or your child because they thought the way you looked or lived was interesting? I would hesitate and question why they wanted my photo and what they’d do with it. If we had no rapport, and the tourist made no attempt to gain an insight into my life, I’d find it insulting and intrusive. I’d probably refuse and be upset if they tried to take my photo without my permission.

This is what I want tourists to consider when they travel: Why do you want a particular photo? How are you using the information you collect, and are the people you photograph aware of and comfortable with this? Are you considering and protecting their privacy and safety?

Photos are a fantastic way to capture and preserve a moment. Long after our travels are over, and our memories have perhaps faded, photos are what remind us of the adventures we had and the people we met. I’m not saying we should never take photos of the people we meet on our travels — but make establishing a connection a priority, so your photograph has meaning. Consider your intent and whether that’s fair to your subject. And hold their privacy and safety in the highest regard. This post originally appeared at WhyDev and is republished here with permission.

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