When is travel photography inappropriate?

Posted by on Oct 19, 2012 | 23 Comments

“You’re crazy!” the taxi driver yelled at my friend Alex before muttering a long list of, what I assumed to be, Filipino curse words. We had just arrived at our guesthouse in Manila, and the taxi driver was demanding more money than was displayed on the meter. This was my first impression of the Philippines; I wasn’t a human, I was a walking ATM.

I soon realized that I was apparently a funny-looking one, because everywhere we walked, people stopped and stared. Not just old people and children–everyone. Young men on motorbikes stopped driving. Young women crossing the street met my gaze. Children in ripped clothing approached us and asked for money. Well, that’s a lie–they approached me and asked me for money.

Alex is Belgian-Chinese. He’s about 5’7″ and has dark skin and black hair. He’s thin from backpacking for the last 11 months. They were only staring at him because he was with me, a pasty, white American girl with light brown hair and blue eyes.

*

The next day, Alex and I arrived in Cebu City with an hour to kill before our ferry to Bohol would depart. We walked into a dark, dingy waiting room at the ferry terminal, filled with a few rows of benches and an old TV. The sun was shining, and I didn’t want to waste away in a stuffy room when I could be outside exploring new terrain.

I set my bag next to Alex, and promised I would buy him a water. He handed me a crumpled bill.

It would be an understatement to say that my exploration did not last long. Once I walked out of the terminal, I felt highly self-conscious to the point of paranoia. Customers at street food stalls stared me down and vendors eyed my purse. I passed rows of food stands, cars parked on the street, and people going about their daily lives. Nobody smiled. Nobody seemed to want me trespassing through their territory. I was unwelcome. Yet, I was still fascinated by this city and yearning to see it with fresh eyes. I was attracted to the vivid colors painted on buildings, the beauty of crumbling advertisements on walls, and the act of people lingering on the street. I wanted to take photos and document these back streets, streets where travelers go, but tourists do not.

I grabbed my smartphone from my purse and snapped the photo above as fast as I could. I was drawn to that teal van with the flames painted on the sides, and the rows of street food stalls with Pepsi symbols, differentiated by random Spanish names. The composition was crap, as was the angle; I accidentally cut out the front wheel of the tricycle on the right, and the sun was so bright in the top left hand corner. It was difficult to take a quick, stealthy photo when everyone around me was watching. I grew even more nervous when I thought about how my phone probably costs more than some of their monthly earnings.

Then I realized why the other foreigners were waiting in the ferry terminal.

Here’s a close-up of some men staring inside the food stalls. 

I abruptly turned around and heard the voice of an older woman sitting on an upturned bucket, wearing a stained, tattered t-shirt. “Where are you going?” she asked, laughing for a  second. I’m sure I would have snickered at the sight of myself if I was sitting on that bucket, just another dazed and confused foreigner who obviously didn’t belong.

“Just walking,” I replied, securing my purse underneath my right arm, while racing back to the terminal.

“Just walking?” she yelled back, not understanding what the purpose of that would be. There was nothing for a tourist to see, and she was probably as perplexed as I was about why I chose to roam down that specific street.

*

I’ve asked myself this question hundreds of times, not only in places with visible poverty, but also in places like my hometown, my Korean neighborhood, and even New York: When is travel photography inappropriate? When is it appropriate to take photos outside the realm of popular tourist destinations and festivals where everyone is clicking their digital cameras like mad, desperate to get the perfect shot of that seal at Sea World or that perfect sunset on Alona Beach.

Was it inappropriate to take a photo of those food stalls with local people in my field of vision, merely going about their daily business? What if I was a man? What if I was Asian? What if my skin was brown like Alex’s? Would I have been treated differently? Would the excessive staring have ensued, even with a smartphone in my hand or an expensive camera around my neck?

The summer before last, I met an Irish guy on a trip to a rural part of Yunnan province in southern China. He would constantly photograph local people, sometimes asking me to pretend to pose so he could zoom his lens past me and capture a local Chinese person instead. I also was intrigued by the people I saw and interacted with, but most of the time, I was either afraid or unwilling to take their photo. I didn’t want to turn a local person, who appeared to be living in poverty, into a spectacle.  Additionally, my Chinese language skills were nonexistent, and the fake smiles and awkward poses would ultimately ruin the photograph.

The Irish guy said, “Sarah, you need to get over this fear, because later on, you’ll wish you had taken all those photos that you hadn’t.” In a way, he was right. I have started taking more photos of daily street life, including shots of people who I don’t know and haven’t asked their permission for. I began photographing more because I started this blog, intending to document my travels and life as an expat, and I wanted to practice and improve my photography skills.

Currently, I’ve taken hundreds of photos with people in the composition who either haven’t noticed or haven’t cared. However, there have been times where my photographing has aroused anger. For example, I was walking through Shanghai last summer and stopped to take a photo on the street. A family who ran a small Mom and Pop-style restaurant were sitting on plastic stools, peeling vegetables on the street. They all turned around and stared at me, while one of the women got up, waved her arms furiously in my direction and began shouting. Perhaps, many travelers have taken photos there, or maybe they felt like I was invading their privacy. (See photo below.)

On the other hand, I vividly remember a few instances in Korea where Koreans have taken pictures of me.

In 2009, I took a trip to Jeju Island by ferry with my boyfriend at the time. When he went to the bathroom, a family approached me, smiled, and motioned to their camera. I assumed that they wanted me to take a photo of them, so I nodded. Suddenly, the mom and two daughters surrounded me, throwing peace signs in the air, as the father backed up to focus his shot. I was so confused, so I awkwardly smiled and make a peace sign as well. As the camera clicked, my boyfriend walked out of the bathroom with a WTF-is-happening expression on his face. Afterwards, we laughed about the situation, and I joked about my “celebrity status” on the Jeju ferry.

Another time, my friend who happens to be another white foreigner, made Korean food, and we ate it out of plastic containers at the Cherry Blossom Festival in Seoul. At the sight of two white girls eating Korean food with chopsticks, an older Korean man felt the need to snap photos without asking. We noticed him taking the photos, and felt slightly awkward, but we didn’t ask him to stop. We actually waved to him, and he got the courage to approach us and have his wife take photos of us together. Then he asked for our phone numbers, which was strange.

That was our way of dealing with the situation, although someone else may felt offended or annoyed and reacted differently. In my opinion, when someone asks to take a photo of me, I usually feel more awkward than if they just take the photo in my natural state. Despite the former being more polite, I feel the need to paste a fake smile on my face, and awkwardly pose with my left hand on my hip. (Who actually stands like that in real life?) I don’t mind when I happen to be in someone’s shot (although they might mind if I’m photo bombing) as long as they aren’t snapping a photo directly in my face, especially when I have a huge zit on my chin.

What is your take on travel photography? In what type of situation is it appropriate to photograph local people with or without their consent? When is it inappropriate? Do you feel like race, gender, and cultural background are major factors in feeling comfortable taking photos abroad? As a Westerner, is it unethical to take photographs in places with visible poverty? Voice your opinion in the comments below.

 

-Text and photography by Sarah Shaw @ www.mappingwords.com. All rights reserved.



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23 Comments

  1. Marina
    October 19, 2012

    I am such a chicken shit about taking photographs of strangers, and I’m also not very good at being sneaky. This leads to some very boring landscape-y urban photos with not very much human interest. I think that most of the time taking photos is just fine, it’s just that you have to find a way to do it without being rude or arousing suspicion, which is a skill I have yet to develop. I have a photographer friend who just smiles at people and then points to his camera, and it almost always works. He takes beautiful portraits all over the world (including places like war-torn areas of Somalia). I’ve just never been brave enough to try that method (maybe it’s time to woman up and go for it). I suppose I’m not helping with my answer here, but commiserating over my own moral and social hangups about travel photography!

    Reply
    • Sarah Shaw
      October 19, 2012

      Hey Marina,
      I definitely know where you’re coming from, because I also am shy about asking people if I can take their photo. At times, I have mustered the courage, and I’ve gotten a mix of great shots and artificial, awkward shots. I guess if you see someone that you really want to photograph, and you approach them, the worst they could say is no. (That’s something that I keep telling myself too, though.) Good luck!

      Reply
  2. Alia
    October 19, 2012

    I love this post! Im usually drawn to portraits as opposed to landscape (who isn’t, right?) Although I agree that it makes a spectacle of someones daily life. Almost as if to say;“ hey! Look at how poor these people are”. Then again I suppose it lies with the intention of the photographer…to capture their surroundings while travelling, to show the extreme ends of how others live, to raise awareness of a particular plight etc. All of which I think could come out in the photo.

    I would love to take more pictures of people and while I would love them to be candid think I would rather ask to take a picture. It’s someone elses privacy that you are invading and capturing. When Ive had pictures taken of me with or without permission you obviously wonder where it ends up, a family’s holiday album to cherish forever?? While I don’t mind the pictures I wouldnt like to infringe on someone elses right to choose…

    Reply
    • Sarah Shaw
      October 19, 2012

      Alia–
      Thanks for the thoughtful comment. I do need to muster more courage to approach people who I’d like to photograph. Maybe I should carry around a backpack full of camera equipment to seem more professional. Do you ever ask to photograph people?

      Also, I wonder the same thing about the people who want to photograph me– esp with their family or themselves. What do they do with those pics? I went to Namsan Tower with my mom and sister when they visited last winter. We tried on Hanbok, and you won’t believe all the Japanese tourists who started snapping photos of us. Then they all wanted to take turns taking pictures with us. It was overwhelming. My mom was not into it at all (still scarred from her years of studying at a college in Hawaii where Japanese tourists would photograph her on the beach) and my sister said, “Do they think we work here?” I’m pretty sure that we are on a slew of Japanese blogs and Facebook albums from that one day.

      Reply
  3. Kat
    October 19, 2012

    Good article! I don’t think you should ever be sneaky about taking photos of people. You either ask permission or you don’t take the photo. I find in Korea older people don’t like getting their photo taken by younger people. There’s such a difference between a portrait taken with permission and a dodgy snapshot.

    But you’d be surprised that lots of people are flattered you want to take their shot. It’s even better if you can chat with the person before taking their picture. I also don’t photograph people while they’re praying or at temples. It’s just invasive.

    Reply
    • Sarah Shaw
      October 19, 2012

      Thanks for the comment, Kat. This gives me something to think about, as I am still quite shy to approach Koreans and start conversations to ask to take their photograph. Sometimes I do, but I get nervous and start jumbling my Korean. haha. awkward. Anyway, I agree that there’s a huge difference in quality between quick snapshots and portraits that consider all the core elements of photography. However, I feel like staged photographs can sometimes feel stiff and unnatural. I guess it depends on each photo individually. I agree that it’s invasive to take photos in religious settings, unless it’s a sort of festival or templestay.

      Reply
  4. Christina
    October 20, 2012

    Another great post, Sarah. This is an ethical question that many travelers face – while some choose not to take “sneaky” photos of strangers to protect their privacy and not glamorize poverty or another difficult situation, others go right and ahead and snap away.

    And who “wins” in the end, the ones who took the pictures, right? So I guess the best approach is to try to find a balance inbetween and be as “ethical” as possible — I like the smiling at people idea to see you get a nod or whatever or asking people directly and striking up a conversation or simply picking your moments & taking only a couple shots — I guess whatever you are comfortable with. Def not an easy question with one answer that applies to all circumstances.

    And can only imagine how you felt walking down those streets in the Philipines – the looks from those guys – yikes!!

    Reply
    • Sarah Shaw
      October 21, 2012

      Thanks for the comment, Tina! Yes, I agree that the choices we make will vary depending on the situation– sometimes it’s difficult to judge what is ethical and what is not, and everyone will inevitably have a different view on the matter. I also like the smiling idea when there’s a language barrier. ^^

      Reply
  5. Andrew
    October 24, 2012

    Great article and have to say I agree with what your saying. Having been to Marrakech, Morocco a few years ago we decided to explore some of the narrow streets around the older part of the city away from the hustle and bustle of tourist sites. Being a westerner many of the sights were new, different and I felt I wanted to remember them with a photo but felt an amazing sense of uncomfortableness when reaching for my camera. Many sights such as butchery on the street, people praying where they stood, open markets and as with you preparation of food in open walkways. I felt myself trying to sneak a shot but with failed consequences such as blurred images and body’s with no heads in shot.
    More recently in Beijing I decided to be a little less shy and started to ask people if it was OK and being more open when taking a picture, this certainly seemed to work as the outcomes are much better.

    Finally on the ferry story you told I have a similar story from far east Russia. My wife is Russian and on a trip to visit my in-laws they took us to an old spa town in the middle of nowhere. I being unable to speak Russian would always speak to my wife first in English and she would translate. After 3 days of this word had got around that there was an English speaker in town. This led to being approached by a local teacher who invited me in her broken English to visit her class and speak to them about my life. I duly agreed and arrived at the school to a crowd of smiling young teens offering me gifts of chocolate and trinkets. After an hour of answering questions (quiet obviously prepared by the teacher) I became a celebrity in my own right as every student wanted a picture with me, the English speaking Westerner. Like you they showed peace signs and stood uncomfortably close to get pictures. It felt very strange and the resulting pictures I have seen show me standing very awkwardly with a fake smile. This certainly made me think about how I take my photographs of the people I see and meet.

    Reply
    • Sarah Shaw
      October 24, 2012

      Thanks for the thoughtful response, Andrew. About walking through Moroccan side streets– I completely understand where you’re coming from. Even though we wish to document these natural, everyday street life scenes, sometimes it’s equally as invigorating just to take it all in without worrying about unwanted stares and extra attention towards our unwelcomed camera lenses, especially when people are praying or taking part in other spiritual activities. I love the anecdote about the English class. I was defintely treated as a celebrity when I first started working in a Korean public school, as well. :)

      Reply
  6. Tom @ Waegook Tom
    January 24, 2013

    I take photos of strangers occasionally, but never ask permission. I’ve never had someone get angry when I’ve snapped a photo, but that’s part of the reason why I don’t do it so much.

    What bothers me is when people photograph those who are in clear poverty, and when travellers take photos of children who are obviously not clamouring to have their picture taken – i.e. maybe a young girl in rags with a glazed over expression on her face in the streets of Cambodia, for example. Poverty tourism and the photography that accompanies it is not something I’m a fan of.

    Reply
    • Sarah Shaw
      January 24, 2013

      That also bothers me, Tom. I also am not a fan of people who pose with children on the street. I cringe when I see photos of pasty white girls hugging brown-skinned children in rags. Yes–many of the kids are cute, but they’re not a circus act. And don’t even get me started on the ones I’ve heard say, “Ohhh I want to adopt one!”

      Reply
  7. Joshua
    January 24, 2013

    I remember in Guangzhou, a friend and I were walking through the park, and some Chinese guy around our age was walking in front of us, held his camera under his armpit and took a sneaky photo. It was weird for sure. We didn’t mind, it was just so bemusing, like “Oh look a white person!”. I don’t see the purpose in such a photo.

    On the other hand, recently in Morocco I saw some girls sitting talking in a doorway. I didn’t expect then to agree, but I went and asked for a photo in perfect French, but they more or less ignored me, and only one made the effort to shake her head after a long pause. It frustrated me, partly because of a cultural gender divide, but also the attitude I felt from them which was pretty much “dirty infidel”. It was something I hated about the culture there; it was always take take take by the Moroccans, they never had enough, they never wanted to give anything unless they could get something out of it. That said, I had gone there to do landscape photography and tell the story without people in shot – just as well that I did and I’m happy with what I came back with.

    Reply
    • Sarah Shaw
      January 25, 2013

      I think the Chinese guy’s purpose in taking the photo was the same purpose you had with the Moroccan girls– we are all curious about capturing people who are clearly different than we are. I’m just as interested in photographing Koreans as the ones who take photos of me. :)

      Reply
  8. Wftristan
    January 24, 2013

    I do quite a lot of “street photography” its all about moving quickly – It takes a lot to get over the fear of taking photos and as a street photographer the one that may be deemed inappropriate may often end up being the best photo.

    Reply
    • Sarah Shaw
      January 25, 2013

      I agree that these photos can be the most realistic portrayal of city life, but I guess I haven’t developed that second skin yet. And also, I think every situation is different. As Tom said, it’s hard to feel comfortable shooting photos of people living in dire poverty without feeling like you’re being unethical.

      Reply
  9. Michael Hodson
    January 25, 2013

    I wrote about this general topic a while back — its certainly one that we all run into while traveling. Do you ask everyone you snap? Do you just take the photos and roll with it? Are their subjects you should never take photos of? For me, I fall down on that “take the photo and record life” side in the end. Anything that helps people understand the world a slight bit more is generally good in my eyes. Great post. Well thought through.

    Reply
    • Sarah Shaw
      January 29, 2013

      Hey Michael,

      Thanks for the comment. I don’t ask everyone–but I still try to be respectful. I know we all have different definitions of what is “respectful” and what is “ethical.” I’ve answered some of your other questions in the previous comments. :)

      Reply
  10. Paul
    March 9, 2013

    Good stuff, Sarah. My wife and I are headed to Angkor Wat next week and we’re both concerned about the when/where of taking photos in Cambodia. I like what Mr. Hodson wrote about taking photos to “record life”. If the photos we take and the blog posts that follow raise awareness about the places we travel does that offset some the “shutterbug tourist” negativity? It feels like such a fine line between appreciation and exploitation at times…

    Reply
    • Sarah Shaw
      March 10, 2013

      Definitely, Paul. Good luck with your trip, and I’ll be checking out your photos later. :)

      Reply
  11. Bradley
    August 2, 2013

    Being new to starting a blog as of last week and the increased need to capture moments via photos, this question has already popped into my head several times. I think a good way to think about it is if I was in their shoes, would I be ok with, or want, a picture taken of me. If not, then I think it is a pretty universal courtesy to ask permission. In my experience I have never been turned down. Unless your on Venice Beach in Los Angeles and earn a living by having people take pictures of you lol. Really good post as this is a common internal dilema I think most travelers experience.
    Bradley recently posted…What Kind Of Duck Do You Really Serve?My Profile

    Reply
    • Sarah Shaw
      August 2, 2013

      Thanks for joining the discussion, Bradley. Good luck with your blog!

      Reply
  12. Sarah
    April 2, 2014

    When I first arrived Bangkok I looked down to the man sat on a table in front of me with his smart phone sneakily filming me with the screen camera… I didn’t mind, but it was a bit weird.

    Reply

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