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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.

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. It can also inadvertently exploit the subjects of the images.

That is why we need to not only consider culturally appropriate conduct while creating images or videos while traveling, but also 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, always ask them for permission.

Consider your intentions:

Why are you drawn to taking this person’s photo? If it is to feature a unique aspect of a 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 or want to capture yourself in images while doing ‘good deeds’, perhaps take a step back and ask yourself why? After all, you wouldn’t take photos of those same things at home.

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 as a blogger by explaining I own a travel website, and asking if I make take a photograph so others can learn about xyz – usually they respond by asking me to people about their café or hotel or business or country, which equalizes the ethical scales through reciprocity.

Concluding thoughts:

This is a complicated topic so the travel community must consider the ethics of travel photography so we can ensure we aren’t creating harm to the communities we visit.

Have you experienced this dilemma?

What are your thoughts on photography or videography abroad?

Join the conversation by commenting below!

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thepinkbackpack.com said:
I 100% agree with you Marie :) It can be uncomfortable when we straddle the line as photographers/bloggers and as humans trying to be authentic travellers. I still struggle with this but I have come to grips that at least here in Tanzania I would rather not objectify people who may get in my shots, especially children. I have realized that I don't need to capture every moment because I will have them in my mind forever!
September 15, 2016 at 6:20 am
Marie said:
Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this, Stephanie! I do agree that there are some ethical dilemmas in travel photography, especially when other people and places are displayed like objects, shown through rose-colored glasses, or conversely, shown in a way that focuses exclusively on the negatives or just to provoke a reaction (e.g., blight porn). I think that having cultural and social awareness is really important in this case. I personally really enjoy photography, but I often feel uncomfortable with street photography and photographing people. Part of this is because I am unsure where to draw the line between capturing a beautiful moment or person, and objectifying another human being. I agree that taking the time to learn about the history and culture of a place before or while traveling can give you more awareness, and engaging with those you photograph - instead of just treating them as another "sight" to see - goes a long way in treating the person as a subject rather than an object. I look forward to hearing more of your thoughts on the subject!
September 14, 2016 at 5:40 am