When we are preparing to travel and daydreaming of the adventures we will have, we all have visions of the photographs we will get and what we will capture with our cameras. Which, in itself, is a very positive thing. Photographs are a powerful method of storytelling and when done with care and skill, can share the stories of the people you meet all over the world. In our modern world social media has altered how we view images and, in many cases, turned what could be a beautiful interaction and outcome into a negative and ugly self-centered pursuit. It seems that the first thought when taking photographs is what can I take from this interaction, instead of what do I want to give and how can I share the truth of what I am seeing or doing. When it comes down to it respect should really be the first rule of photographing any people in any culture, even your own country. No one likes a strange camera shoved in their face, or their very real life being made into something fictitious and simplified. In this blog post we wanted to try to give some practical tips on how to not only photograph your travels in a responsible way, but that in doing so will take your story telling to a new level of depth and quality.
Our first rule of thumb is to always ask permission. This applies mostly to people, but it is good to ask permission before photographing structures, landscapes (if you can), animals, and especially historic or sensitive sites. It is never a good idea to go up and start invading someone’s personal space and just assume they are are willing to allow you to take their picture. One of the most horrendous things I have ever seen in this vein was in Nepal. There was a large group of tourists and they were visiting a sacred temple. The group proceeded to enter into the temple while the people were engaged in their prayers and rituals and proceeded to stick their phones and cameras in their faces to take pictures. It felt like a zoo. It was totally and utterly appalling and I just couldn’t fathom who anyone would think that was a good idea. We all want to capture those special moments, but it’s so so important to ask first. The worst thing that happens is they say no and you move on. The best thing is it becomes a chance to connect deeply with that person and have a meaningful story behind a beautiful image.
Use Common Sense
I believe the best approach for respectfully photographing people while traveling is to use common sense.It’s important to put yourself in their shoes, to think about what you would say if someone just started taking your photo without asking or for no reason or when you were doing something private. You would not want people coming into your home, your place of worship, your place of work, and taking photos of you. If you are wanting a natural photo read the situation and decide if it’s better to take a photo at a distance, to approach and ask, or to just let the photograph live in your mind.
Get To Know Who You Are Taking Photo Of
This is probably my favorite tip, and to me one of the most important. It is so important to get to know the people or person or place you are taking a photo of. Who are they outside of what I can see from an outsider perspective? What is their life like? What are their hopes and dreams for the future. This partly comes down to how you travel and if you have been intentional about building in time and activities that bring you into intimate space with the people who call that place home. All of our trips at TLA build in this time via home stays or community interactions that are made to be reciprocal and responsible in their ability to create deep connections. This gives us time to get to know the people themselves, who they call friends, family, and just their general daily life. This will not only give you a more enjoyable trip, but your photos will have meaning behind them and will be memories forever.
Think About The Story You Are Telling
As a human being in general, and as a traveler who is interested in taking images in particular, we have a responsibility to consider the story that we are telling to the people who will see those images and might never meet that person or even visit that particular place. We can look around the world and see how what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls “the danger of the single story” and see how limited perceptions of cultures and places can cause real harm. Narrowing down an entire culture or country or group of people into a single narrative strips them of the beautiful layers and variations that make them who they are. We are all varying degrees of many different stories and should not be reduced to a simplified version. When photographing cultures and lands as we travel it is important to think of what story we are telling. If we seek to tell a specific story it is imperative to relate to the reader that this is just one piece of a larger life-form, something bigger than one image. This thought process should also influence what images we take. Do we want to perpetuate a very negative story or image of a place by capturing a photo and passing it of as indicative of this person or place?
This is a hard and complex topic that really requires its own discussion. The exchange of money in any travel situation is complex on so many levels, especially impromptu ones that are not planned or thought out. So for the purposes of this blog we will leave monetary exchange out of the discussion. There are many other ways we can offer something in exchange for being able to capture an image of a person or place we have connected with. In the simplest form this can be just sharing the photo with them. People everywhere LOVE seeing photos of themselves or their families, especially if they don’t have constant access to those types of things. If possible you can even get a copy printed and give it to them, or get some contact information where you can send a copy to them later. You can also suggest sitting down for tea or a meal to get to know them in exchange for taking a photograph of them or their family. This is a nice gesture and also gives you the chance to build on the story you want to tell with your image.
This blog is not to discourage the taking photos or capturing what you see and who you meet when you travel, but to encourage us all to think about how we go about this when we travel. These things might seem like a lot, but anything that is really worth doing or any image that is of high quality will have work behind it that goes into creating it. It is a matter of how we view images. Do we see them as temporary, fleeting, insignificant things that we use to get attention, or do we see them as valuable, tangible, meaningful representations of something deeply valuable and important to us. Traveling is such a gift, and meeting all the amazing people that make up this planet is something we could never fully repay. We all want to be respected and treated fairly no matter where we live in the world, and that should always happen no matter if we travel abroad or in our own country. Photography should bring us together, and be something that creates lasting memories and carries you through until your next trip.