Travel photography has to be one of the most rewarding kinds of photography. You get to experience other cultures, places, foods, and parts of human history that you wouldn't otherwise. On top of that, you get to photograph it all. In one day, the variety of amazing new things you get to make pictures of is truly incredible. However, during my travels over the years, I've noticed some extremely disturbing behaviors from "photographers" while traveling.
The excitement of a new place takes hold, and people seem to leave their brains at the door when it comes to traveling. You'll see all sorts of actions that you won't necessarily see from the same person back home. Some of these are quite damaging. I'd like to start with a couple of examples of the situations that prompted me to write this guide. Then we'll move on to just how you can avoid these.
Let's start with a couple of well-known tourist destinations in South East Asia. One is a very popular destination in the region for it's peaceful atmosphere and welcoming people. The other is, well, one of mankind's most spectacular constructions. Both experience a great deal of disrespect from tourists.
It's a cool morning in Luang Prabang, Laos. We're bathed in the soft morning glow of the sun rising behind the mountains, but yet to feel the heat of its rays. The town is already abuzz. Tourists are arriving in droves and chatting excitedly amongst themselves, comparing the screens on their phones and cameras, jostling each other out of the way to get what they came for, cameras at the ready and beady eyes focused on the prize. This is not a sunrise over a historical temple, not the hottest new breakfast spot, and it's certainly not a performance. It's the morning alms giving that has supported the monks and novices of the city since the first temple was built there.
What would normally be a silent procession of monks being given food in order for the laypeople to gain merit and thus perpetuate their good life has become a spectacle for the greed of the camera-toting tourist. What should be a spiritual moment of peace and mutual energy exchange has become a human zoo, and the pain is visible on the faces of the monks, novices, and laypeople alike. One tourist runs over and steps into the procession, shoving her camera into a monk's face and proceeding to take photograph after photograph. Another grabs and holds the arm of a layperson in just the right position so he can get a photograph of the food being passed to the novice. There is no peace and no culture here.
Planning to visit Luang Prabang? Do not be that photographer. Have some respect. Do not perpetuate the tainted image of the tourist. Here's what you can do. First, you can remain inconspicuous. You know that 12 fps burst rate you think you need? You don't. It's obnoxious. Turn it off. You know how it feels when someone steps in front of you and blocks your path as you're trying to go to lunch? Yep? Don't do that either. Keep a respectful distance, and keep quiet. If you have a quieter camera than that machine of war you feel the need to tote around, use it. Second, you can seek permission. Most of the monks don't mind being photographed, but have some respect for them as human beings. Make eye contact and query them about the photograph if you can. Treat them on the same level as you would have yourself treated. If you're going to step closer, make that connection first.
We'll dig into these a little more in a moment. But first, let's look at one more example of just how low cameras can take people.
The City of Angkor
A morning stroll down to the Terrace of the Elephants in Angkor Thom leaves one breathless at the skill of the construction and the scale of the ancient city. As with any tourist location, there are beggars and touts throughout the complex. It is a sad, but necessary part of life for many in the country.
In the shade to one side of the terrace, I hear laughter and see a group of tourists in a circle around something. From my vantage point above them, I can finally see what that is. it's a child in torn clothing, covered with dirt. The group is throwing sweets at the child to get him to smile for their pictures.
"What for?" I ask myself. Why would you want that photograph, and why would you do that to another human being? Ask yourself this question before you press the shutter on your next trip. If you have a reason that will benefit the subject of your photograph or help their plight, then by all means, make that photograph; make it with respect to the subject. If you don't, then don't press that shutter. Just don't.
You might think the poor child picking garbage from the gutter and nibbling at the remains of food attached or the survivor of the Khmer Rouge atrocities will make a great high-contrast, clarity-slider-to-one-hundred post for your Instagram stream. You're wrong. That won't make you a great photographer, or get you extra likes for your Facebook ego. That will make you exploitative. Don't do it.
Now that we've seen the worst of it, let's move on to a few things we can do to ensure we don't fall into those categories. The first couple of things we talk about can happen before you leave home: doing some research and hiring a fixer.
Empathy is one of the greatest guides for your moral compass. If you understand the people you're planning to photograph, you'll have more respect for them. Of course, you should already have respect for other human beings, but you'll be more culturally aware and better understand what you should and shouldn't do or how you should approach people. You will recognize boundaries that you may have unknowingly stepped over otherwise. This step is key. Do not skip it.
Hire a Fixer
This is probably the best thing you can do as a travel photographer. Fixers are locals who know the customs, where to find things and people, how to approach people, and can translate for you. In a place where you are unfamiliar or do not speak the language, this can be the key factor in building the relationships and respect required to make photographs. When looking for a fixer, you can start with local guides, newspapers, tourism organizations, or even your hotel's concierge on his day off. Some of the best days I had in Cambodia were exploring the countryside with the clerk from my hotel on his day off.
View Everyone as an Equal
Remember that nobody owes you a thing. I can't count how many times I've watched people step right into a stranger's face and start snapping away. People aren't monuments, statues, buildings, or mountains. They are people. To you, they might seem exotic or worthy of a photograph. However, they are just another human being, and need to be respected as such. Rather than forcing your camera on someone and expecting them to simply give you their time for a photograph, speak with them, approach them as members of the human race, take the time to get to know them before making their photograph. The experience for both of you will be much better and the photograph deeper.
Learn a Few Words
You know that guy in the bar you mock for not knowing a word of English? That's you. Learn a few words. A basic respect for a people starts there. Learn to say hello and thank you. You will mispronounce it, you will be laughed at, but you will open a dialog. Producing my recent book in Myanmar, I learned a few words of the national tongue and a couple in the language of the people I was working with. The similarity between "we're finished" and the English word "sunburn" was uncanny and became a constant source of entertainment for the locals. I looked like a fool, but I got the photographs and made friendships with the people I met because of it. We all felt good about it at the end.
This applies to all photography of people, not just other peoples and cultures. Know who you are photographing. Understand them. Speak with them. Work to build a relationship. These things will benefit your photographs far more than your shiny new lens.
I will go this far. If you cannot have enough respect for another person to treat them as you would be treated, find something else to photograph. Shoot flowers, shoot mountains. Whatever you need to do, but do not disrespect another human being for your own gain.
Please do contribute to the comments below. Let us know situations where you have seen cameras being used the wrong way while traveling. Share with us your tips for making worthwhile photographs of people on the road.