People travel for many reasons. We travel to get away, to relax, to have an adventure, and to experience the un-experienced. Regardless of why we travel, most travelers will agree that the people we encounter along the way form some of our most memorable travel experiences. Crossing paths with people from distant lands elicits an innate sense of wonder that often leaves us spellbound, intrigued, and charmed. It’s only natural, then, that we should want to capture images of these people to preserve the memory forever.
But at what cost do we snap these photos – and how does photography affect the dignity and right to privacy of local people in destinations affected by tourism? As an experienced travel photographer with a penchant for taking “people pictures,” this is something that I think about often.
Technically, the legality of capturing photos of people in public depends on the country; so it’s important to brush up on the laws before visiting a destination. In places like Saudi Arabia, for example, street photography can literally land you in jail. In most places, however, people in public spaces are fair game.
Legality and morality are often two different things, though, and just because you can does not mean you should (a common theme for travel in general). Regardless of how “interesting” someone may look, they are entitled to feel comfortable, and shouldn’t be made to feel as though they are simply a spectacle or sideshow.
Candid travel photography, if done properly, is not only an art, it’s a means of crossing cultural barriers and connecting with people you encounter. Adopting this mindset not only assures that you’re treating people with the necessary level of respect they deserve – but it often results in better photos, too. By conveying a sense of respect and purpose to those you are about to photograph, they will often open up in front of the camera. They open themselves up –and that’s when you’re able to take truly captivating imagery.
“Candid travel photography, if done properly, is not only an art. It’s a means of crossing cultural barriers and connecting with people you encounter. Adopting this mindset not only assures that you’re treating people with the necessary level of respect they deserve – but it often results in better photos, too.”
One of the most common questions I’m asked as a photographer, is whether or not I ask for people’s permission before taking their photograph. My official answer to this question is: “it depends.” When in doubt, I always ask, but it’s not always as clear-cut as “asking” or “not asking.” Here are some things I’ve learned over the years that can help you make that decision, and some tips for improving the odds that people will consent to having their photographs taken.
Tip #1: Observe and Deliberate
It’s important to observe your surroundings carefully before pulling your camera out to snap photos. This is true for a variety of reasons. First of all, there are situations in which it simply isn’t appropriate to take photos. The city of Varanasi in northern India, for example, is famous for its “Burning Ghats”. Local custom dictates that the deceased are cremated on the banks of the Ganges River in what is an undeniably fascinating and shockingly public ritual.
Insensitive tourists often find themselves at odds with locals who, understandably, are perturbed by their irreverence. In Southeast and East Asia, too, there are plenty of occasions (both formal and personal) where it isn’t appropriate to take photographs. Common sense usually governs these situations, but if there is any question as to whether or not it’s appropriate to photograph something, it’s always better to ask.
Tip #2: “The Golden Rule”
We all know it, but sometimes we need to be reminded. Quite simply, you should treat others how you would like to be treated. It really is that simple. Ask yourself if you would like some stranger shoving a camera in your face snapping photos of you while you’re doing your job or, worse yet, breast-feeding (yes, I’ve actually seen people do this while traveling). If the answer is “no,” then it’s probably inappropriate to take photos without at least considering a delicate approach.
Tip #3: The Power of Projection
People are social creatures who instinctively alter their behavior based on social cues that are given to them by people in their surroundings. Sometimes the difference between whether it’s “okay” or “not okay” to take a photograph of someone depends on how you project yourself in front of them -as this is usually how they gauge the value of your intentions. If you’re in a festive environment – or, really, any situation where it’s appropriate to be outgoing – a smile is the most valuable tool you have in your photo-taking arsenal.
“Sometimes the difference between whether it’s “okay” or “not okay” to take a photograph of someone depends on how you project yourself in front of them -as this is usually how they gauge the value of your intentions.”
If you’re friendly, it’s likely that the people around you will be friendly, too –just don’t over-do it, or you’ll come across as awkward and do more harm than good. However, if you’re in a more delicate situation, it’s important to convey a sense of respect and reverence. If people sense that you are taking photos to document something, they’re more likely to view it favorably than they would if they thought you were taking photos of something because of the spectacle of it.
Tip #4: The “Soft Approach”
The “Soft Approach” is sort of the culmination of 1-3. When you’ve identified a suitable subject, determined that it’s appropriate to photograph them, and used body language to project your intentions in a positive way, it’s time for a good approach. I typically signal my intentions by meeting eyes with them and raising my camera up halfway.
This makes it clear to them that you’d like to take their photograph and gives them the chance to opt out, should they not feel comfortable with it. From your side, this should also give you a chance to read their body language. If people give you a nod or simply continue doing what they’re doing without any notable change in their behavior, that usually indicates that they’re okay with it. Proceed carefully.
Tip #5: Don’t Betray the Trust Given to You
If someone consents to have their photo taken, don’t betray the trust that’s given to you. Capture them in as flattering a way as possible, and don’t over-do it. I’ll typically spend a maximum of 3-5 seconds photographing someone unless it’s very clear to me that they aren’t bothered. If it’s any longer than that, be very careful to lift your face from the camera every few shots to give them a smile and let them know that you’re human and not just some photo-taking robot.
Rather than making it the sort of thing where you are “taking” photos of them, try to make it a shared moment. You’ll likely be given more time to get it right, and the connection that you make will be evident in the photos. Whatever you do, don’t waste people’s time, and don’t push your luck.
Tip #6: Be Gracious and Thankful
If someone has entrusted you to take photos of them, it’s important to be grateful for the opportunity. As a photographer, there are few moments that are more gratifying than to see someone’s face light up when you show them the photo you just took of them. Share the experience with them. If it’s possible to send the photo to them or, better yet, print it out, do so. At the very least, you should convey your sense of gratitude with hearty smile and “thank you” in whatever language they speak.
People living in areas frequented by tourists appreciate it when outsiders make the effort to make a connection with them, and by going that “extra mile” you’ll ensure that your presence was as unobtrusive as possible.
Check out even more tips for being a responsible traveller on the road with our Being Your Own Responsible Travel Expert.