To capture a sense of life in a new destination, many travellers have used zoom lenses and hidden-camera tricks to surreptitiously snap photos of locals without their permission -- and likely -- without their knowledge. But approaching photography like a covert operation is not the most ethical way to get a great shot.
Paul Berger, professor of art at the University of Washington School of Art,
said a good rule of thumb is to “assume you’re being seen and act appropriately”.
Appropriate behaviour can be as
simple as making eye contact with someone, showing your camera and making sure the
person knows he or she is being photographed. If people don’t want their
picture taken, they’ll probably tell you by looking away.
the side of being overly sensitive to people’s feelings,” Berger said. For
instance, tourists visiting a cemetery or religious site may want to take a
photo of someone in a clearly emotional state. But Berger said a great
evocative shot can cross a personal boundary. “Photographing
the religious site or memorial itself is ok, but not photos that centre in on
an individual,” he said.
But sometimes travellers forget basic etiquette
when in a foreign culture – or it goes out the window when trying to take a perfect
photo. “There are more problems, I think, with people objectifying people [when
travelling abroad],” said Lisa Helfert, a photographer from Bethesda, Maryland.
Locals in poverty-stricken areas can
sometimes feel like they’re on display for traveller’s photos, a criticism levelled
of so-called slum tours.
Muriel Hasbun, chair of photography at the Corcoran College of Art and Design in
Washington, DC, said she tells her students to “treat everyone with respect and
care”, explaining that both a portrait of someone and the experience of taking
it are more meaningful if it’s a collaboration and a rapport is established.
“Common-sense rules of social interaction and consensual types of exchanges are
ideal and usually more rewarding to both parties,” Hasbun said. “One learns about
a culture and a new place by meeting the people that one finds along the way.”
Tourists are also bound to be confronted by
requests for money. There are many sites where “there is a tacit understanding
that ‘picture opportunities’ are for sale,” Berger said. But if it’s not clear
that this is a standard picture-for-a-price situation, then travellers need to
think before snapping their cameras. “Again, the golden
rule: would you be comfortable if someone asked you to pose for a photo?”
Many times, children are the ones
offering a photo of themselves for a small sum of money, having learned from
picture-hungry tourists that they can easily sell a snapshot. But ideally, travellers should ask for a
parent’s permission – just as they should ask permission of an adult who is
about to be the focus of a photo. And it can’t be a quick question and then a dash to the next
willing subject. “When someone is projecting that they’re a guest in your area
… if that’s kind of sincere, I think people generally respond,” Berger said.
“But if you’re burdened with camera gear and breezing by, people pick that up
writes the Ethical Traveller column for BBC Travel. You can send ethical
dilemmas to email@example.com.