It is always tempting to take photos of people when we travel. Children are especially tempting, and they are relatively easy subjects because they often want to please, and sometimes expect some money in exchange. Elderly, poor, unusual and exotic people are tempting subjects. Most of us know we should ask, but is that enough?
With phones and cameras being ubiquitous at a time of mass tourism, a discussion about the ethics of photography is in order. A very good starting point is to consider how you feel about being photographed. How would you feel about being photographed by strangers, for them to share with their friends, and possibly as a source of amusement? In the world of social media, how would you feel if your photograph were used to sell someone’s product, or website? Well, why should we expect anyone else to feel differently?
The ethics of photography is mostly just common sense and respect. I find that many people like to be photographed and are flattered to be considered. But sometimes this is an intrusion, at best, and very threatening and insulting.
It can be hard to determine at what point asking permission is necessary. Certainly if the person clearly knows they are your subject, they have a right to be asked. Photos in a crowd and from a distance are a bit more debatable. Will they know or would they care? It depends. Here is where respect comes in.
There are people who, for religious reasons, do not want to be photographed. We know this about Muslim women in conservative countries. Why would one not respect this? You can get the spirit of the occasion from a good distance, or when women are fully covered, or from behind.
Some believe that taking their photo harms them, stealing their soul, for example. The Zuni tribe in New Mexico doesn’t want any photos taken of their cultural practices. Taking photos under these circumstances is utterly unethical, full stop.
The women in the photos above are in Oman. My students had no problem being photographed, but more traditional women were very offended if I tried.
These women were quite comfortable being photographed as I celebrated Eid with them. This is in the Sahara, in Morocco, and they had no prohibitions about photographs. The articles I’ve read, as well as common sense, suggest that the more time you have with people, they more they will trust you as a photographer.
When traveling in less developed nations, sometimes what seems most exotic is the poverty. Poor people often are the ones most likely to be wearing traditional clothes and doing traditional things, or to be doing things which highlight the basic conditions of the country. To photograph a middle class person driving their car to the office is of course not as interesting as photographing a rickshaw driver. As middle class people everywhere are quick to adopt “western” trappings, it is actually rather mundane to photograph them. Highlighting the circumstances of average (read: poor) people and taking an interest in what people do and wear in their every day lives may be fine. Using such photos for commercial purposes, or using them to exact contributions for your worthy(?) cause is another story. Read some of the articles I’ve attached to consider these issues further.
Taking advantage of tourists’ desire for photographs can mean an actual living for some. The woman in the above photo, in Bhaktapur, Nepal, sits and spins on a conspicuous corner of the old town, and is fully expecting to be photographed and to be paid. In these circumstances, you pay for the shot. She is a professional model, and isn’t there for your amusement. Children often know that they should be compensated, and will be pretty insistent. Your few coins are their means for the next meal. On the other hand, sometimes, maybe often, they are being pimped out to the tourists, and some food may be a better payment.
Travel is full of tricky ethical choices. Reading up, thinking and being conscious about what you are doing and what your intentions are, and trying hard to be respectful of the people you encounter can help us have a smaller impact on those we are imposing ourselves upon when we enter their space.
Travel Photography: A Discussion With a Pro About Ethics and Techniques
How to Photograph Responsibly While Traveling
The Ethics of People Pictures in Travel Photography
by Karen Schulman
Ethics and Photography in Developing Countries