Peace Works Travel Blog

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Tuesday Travel Tip: Ethical Travel Photography

Student traveler in Vietnam

I’d been living abroad in Vietnam for three months and was having one of those days were the cacophony of a foreign culture was starting to grate on me. I had reached that point of romanticized nostalgia for the states that my very gut throbbed for home. I was whining to my friend over Skype about my homesickness, when he asked me a question that gave me pause: “why do you travel?” It was so simple. It seemed like the most obvious question to ask myself before moving to a different continent, but I had to admit I had no idea. Why do I travel? I must think there is some implicit value to the experience, but why was I doing it? What was the value? And how could I get the most out of it?
When I sat down to write this travel tip on ethical travel photography the same question popped up again: why travel? Before you can be a responsible photographer, you first need to be a responsible traveler. And in order to do that you need to ask yourself: what is it that I am trying to get out of this travel experience and how can I document my experience in a way that is accurate and beneficial? These are difficult questions to answer because there is no one right response. People travel for a variety of reasons and individual interests and experiences will influence those. But over the years, I’ve noticed a fundamental, reoccurring theme: travel is about gaining new perspectives, about learning how other people live and about humility (realizing that your way isn’t the only or necessarily the “right” way). Having respect for the people and place you are visiting is essential in order to gain these insights. And when it comes to taking photos, respecting the humanity and cultural norms of the place you are visiting is key.

So how do we translate respect into our photos? In an attempt to answer this question, I’ve broken ethical photography down into a handful of guidelines, none of which are set in stone, but instead can be used to assess situations when abroad and make the final decision of whether or not take the picture.
Bagan, Burma
Ask permission before you snap a photo. Human beings are not objects and they shouldn’t be treated as simply part of the scenery. How would you feel if a stranger walked up to you, shoved a camera in your face, snapped a couple pictures and then took off? Unless you’re at a large public event where people expect to be photographed, talk to the subject and make sure you can take their picture. If there’s a language barrier make an effort with sign language, gesturing to your camera. The camera can also be used to build relationships with people. If you take someone’s picture, then show it to them. Use your photography as a means of interacting and understanding the people and the culture you are visiting; this will make both your pictures and your time abroad more meaningful.
Don’t pay for pictures. Especially in underdeveloped countries, you might be asked for money in exchange for a photo. While this might seem like a tempting exchange, Ethical Travel’s Katia Savchuk warns against it. Savchuk references Explorer Worldwide’s Maz Linvingston, who explains that rather than giving back to the community, paying people to take their picture turns travel photography into “a kind of prostitution.” It also transforms what could have been a cultural exchange into a business transaction, creating a staged picture that does not honestly depict the situation or lives of the people.
Respect no photography signs. If there are signs that say no photos, don’t snap any. Taking pictures at important religious sites, for example, demonstrates a lack of respect for the culture you are visiting. Remember you are in a foreign country. This isn’t your home; you don’t know all of the taboos or understand the subtleties of social relations. In this case, err on the side of caution.
Father and son in Kedougou, Senegal
Build relationships with the people you’re photographing. The best way to photograph people is to develop a trusting relationship with them. If you have the leisure to be spending an extended amount of time with a family or group of people, the emotional bond you create with them will enrich your photographs. The more people become comfortable with you, the more willing they will be to let you and your camera into their lives. Not only does a human bond make the photographs more meaningful to you, but they will also be more honest in their depiction of a person’s life and culture.
Photograph honestly and capture diversity. A photograph is a simplification of a complex landscape. Each photo you take tells a short story. It is your responsibility as a photographer to make sure that the stories you are telling are as accurate as possible. When photographing your travels, try to document the diversity of the culture rather than focusing on one thing; this will help you to understand the complexities of the place your visiting and keep an open mind.
Join the discussion! We’d like to hear from you. What do you think about photography and ethics? Post your insights in our comment section.
Student Travel Tips,Teacher Travel Tips