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In a complex age of digital media, there has been an increase in travel photography that has made its way to our social media feeds, whether intentional or not.

With the growing abundance of Instagram influencer travel photoshoots has come a natural increase in tourism, specifically tourism that allows people to recreate those same Influencer-inspired photos throughout the world.

But sometimes, the focus of the photos isn’t just on the person modeling in front of the camera; sometimes, ‘authentic’ travel photos involve taking pictures of the locals in each area. This has opened up a much-needed discussion about how to tactfully include locals in travel photoshoots without perpetuating stereotypes or inserting our own false narrative in the content we post online.

For new (or seasoned) photographers who want to remain respectful with their camera during international travel, remember these three tips (or, the 3 Cs):

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Consent

Consent can be a tricky thing if you’re traveling to a country that does not speak your native language. The more rural the area, the more difficult it can be to politely ask for the consent of the people you are photographing.

Although most people may not understand your language, they can easily understand a quick motion to your camera and a point of your finger back at that person. If not, they most certainly will react one of two ways if you pick up your camera and point it at them. If they look away, put their hand up, or go from smiling to frowning—that is not consent.

Ethical travel photography

If they do speak your language, be clear with your intentions. Ask if it’s okay for you to take their photo, and respect their wishes if they explicitly say ‘no.’ Sometimes, it helps to get their contact information so you can give them a copy of their photo once you return home.

For the more rural areas that may not have reliable internet, bring a polaroid camera so you can give them a copy of the photo on the spot. Either way, it’s always best to ask.


Context

We’ve heard the story before: photographer takes a photo of a vulnerable local national in the Middle East, or Africa, or Southeast Asia in order to push an agenda on poverty, war, climate change, homelessness, you name it.

Sure, you may have gotten their consent to take their picture, but after taking their picture, you post something online implying something about their home or their family without actually getting their story.

This is commonly seen with volunteers from Europe or America who go to Africa and take pictures with all the African children flocking around them. Also known as the ‘white savior complex’, this image circulates social media and casually implies that the white tourists are ‘saving’ children in a poor country by giving them water, resources, or volunteering to rebuild their schools. Coupled with a caption along the lines of “humbled by the people of XXX, who don’t have XXX and are still happy.”

Ethical travel photography

Instead of focusing on the things people don’t have or the things that imply they are less because of where they live and the things they don’t have, take yourself out of the photo and focus on them and the things they do have—which is often times aspirations and dreams very similar to children in any other part of the world.

Ensure that your caption and photo are focused on what makes that area of the world unique, without filling the gaps of your own knowledge with outdated stereotypes of what you think that part of the world is or should be.

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Cognizance

Within the last decade, there has been a spike in photography tourism in Southeast Asia, and with any given demand, there became a sudden need to provide tourists with an outlet to get photo ops with tigers, elephants, and other native species.

‘Tiger Temples’ became a popular attraction where guides would allow tourists to get photos next to large tigers that were heavily drugged to ensure that the photos could be taken safely. Tourists were able to touch, pet, and play with tigers’ tails—all for the perfect photo that would end up on social media.

Unfortunately, these tourist traps still exist for those who do not have the cognizance to understand that these are unethical practices. By partaking in these activities, you help maintain the demand to keep these organizations open and running to provide entertainment to thousands of tourists a year at the expense of the health and well-being of many local animals.

The world is changing. In becoming more connected, many people finally have the opportunity to travel to places that traditionally have never had international tourism. Although it is perfectly okay to take photos of yourself while on any adventure, it’s important to ask yourself ‘why’ when taking photos of the local people or animals.

Ethical travel photography

These people are trusting you with their photo, their face, their story. They may never know where it ends up, or what your caption says. So be kind, be fair, and understand that you are not entitled to a single thing when you travel, including your ‘authentic’ photos with the local people. That trust must be earned and respected.

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If you can do that throughout your travels and really get to know the people who impact you when you travel, I guarantee, being directly involved in their story will always be better than someone who snapped a photo to benefit their own story.

Article written by Allie Delury


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