The Duality of Travel Photography:
Something I have been grappling with here in Tanzania is my attempts to wade through the murky waters of ethical travel photography. As a creative mind, I am constantly spotting things I believe would make for a great shot: landscapes, architecture, plants, animals, unique patterns and garments, or even human interaction. This is how my brain works and I can’t shut it off; I genuinely enjoy capturing these moments and attempting to hone in on my photography skills as a form of art.
I do believe that photography while traveling can be used for positive purposes. It can portray a place as it actually is, in efforts to break down stereotypical views of a certain country or lifestyle.
For example, during my travels in India last year my photography focused on images that showcased the beauty and diversity of the country. In a way, by showing these images to family and friends, they pushed back against some of the more negative connotations coming from the West surrounding environmental and gender issues in India.
However, travel photography can also be used inappropriately – in ways that can cast a country or community in a negative light, perpetuating socially embedded stereotypes. From an African context, there are images and videos from the West that portray the continent of Africa as dangerous, poverty-stricken, or as an ‘Eden-like paradise on earth’.
If we start to destabilize these everyday images, commercials and videos, we can see through them to the agendas those mediums are interjecting (whether that be the poverty stereotype pushed by aid organizations seeking donations, media outlets perpetuating the fear of transmittable disease, terrorist propaganda or the tourist industry promoting ‘the big 5’ in African safaris to foreigners).
Perhaps these portrayals are accurate in some instances, however what I am getting at here is that they do not represent the ENTIRE continent. Each country embodies an entirely unique and diverse culture with intriguing and beautiful aspects that are largely missing from the way they are portrayed. This unfortunately reinforces and solidifies the negative representations that are continually reproduced across time.
While I am not saying that we should never take photos or videos while traveling or volunteering abroad, I suggest we do need more honesty, transparency and consideration surrounding how we go about it.
This should not only include culturally appropriate conduct while creating images or videos, but also include the ethical considerations of what our intentions are in the first place.
Consider the Situation:
Consider whether cameras are common or novel in the local community you are visiting, whether the use of photography is culturally appropriate (is it disrespectful or invasive?), and how someone might react or feel if you take their photo. If a person or their property is your primary subject, ask them for permission first.
Consider your Intentions:
Why are you drawn to taking this person’s photo? If it is to feature a unique aspect of the culture, to highlight a diverse way of living or to showcase the beauty or reality of an area or person, then I think this is likely appropriate. However, if you are merely snapping photos for show, perhaps take a step back and ask yourself why? After all, you wouldn’t go around snapping photos randomly back home, would you?
Consider your End-goal:
Lastly, consider what you plan to do with the images or footage you have captured? Most photographers will sell or publish their photos, add them to an online portfolio or website to gain exposure, or showcase them as part of a larger art project. Most travel bloggers post photos and videos to their blogging and social media platforms, which can translate to increased visitors and monetary compensation through sponsorship.
Consider to what benefit does the individual or community in the image receive? If you are earning money or credit at the expense of someone else, the benefit is purely yours – which creates an unethical situation.
I have heard of photographers offering to send a print back to their subjects, or sending the video for the community to use. If this is not possible, discussing your intentions with your subject is a way to ensure transparency and honesty is infused with each camera click.
Most people I have come across are happy to have photos taken when I have expressed my interest in learning about their culture and lifestyle. Conversely, I have also approached the situation from a blogger perspective as this: “I write a travel blog on the internet; may I take your photograph so others can learn about your culture too?” – usually they respond by asking me to tell others about their café or hotel or business, which actually equalizes the ethical scales: they are receiving benefit back exposure and potential new referrals to their business through you taking and posting their photograph.
Even after writing this, I still find myself coming full circle on the topic. After less than a week in Tanzania, I do not feel comfortable using my camera yet. Although I already stand out as a foreigner, exposing my camera seems like a grand demonstration of my privilege and status as an ‘outsider’. Further, I do not yet know the cultural ramifications of using such technology in everyday life in Mwanza. Maybe I am over-thinking it – but I know that once I have had a chance to familiarize myself with Tanzanian culture and gain further skills in Swahili, I will have better footing to stand on in terms of using my camera appropriately and ethically.
Ethically charged situations such as these are never easy to navigate – this is why they are called moral dilemmas. I do not propose that my opinions are correct or that I have found a solution in any way; I am merely creating space for dialogue that I feel is needed. We must at least consider the ethics of travel photography so we can make authentic attempts to proceed with genuine intent and candor.
Have you experienced this dilemma?
What are your thoughts on photography or videography abroad?
Join the conversation by commenting below!