When is travel photography inappropriate?
“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.
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.