The Tyranny of the Travel Photographer

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.
 

The Problems

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.

Luang Prabang

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. 
 

The Solutions

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.

Research

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.

In Conclusion

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.
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27 Comments

Jonathan Reid's picture

This article should be required reading for anyone taking up travel photography. Nicely done.

Mr Blah's picture

They were Chinese tourists weren't they. You can tell us... we know...

dred lew's picture

It sure does sound like it. If the Chinese government needs to issue (several) advisories to its people on how to behave in a foreign country, you know it's bad.

Simon Patterson's picture

I bet people from most countries picture American tourists as they read this article.

dred lew's picture

American tourists are certainly not the most pleasant ones, yes, but they're harmless compared to the Chinese ones.

Simon Patterson's picture

I'm not, but unfortunately much of the world is.

The reputation of American tourists doesn't help. In some places, locals suddenly become much friendlier and more relaxed when they find out English speaking travellers like me are not from the US.

Simon Patterson's picture

People who make your kind of remarks are like broken records.

Mr Blah's picture

I admit, I was seeing a stupid middle aged man with his new found passion for photo journalism.

In this article, we are probably talking about middle class bourgeoisie. But the mainland Chinese tourists are still the worst by far.

Simon Patterson's picture

I suspect it depends on quite a few factors including where we are, which tourists we see more of and how the arrangements for tourists from each culture/country works in our area.

I'm Australian, I know we unfortunately deservedly have a terrible reputation in some parts. But we have a reasonable reputation in other places. South Africans have a particularly poor reputation in Western Australia, but a much better reputation on the eastern side of Australia. It's probably the same for tourists of every culture - a mixed bag of perceptions and behaviours.

Mr Blah's picture

Probably. Except for mainland Chinese tourists.

Everywhere you go where someone is loud in a temple, cutting a long line, leaving their kids unattended to do all sorts of vandalism... chinese tourists.

Paris, London, Vancouver... It's at least my personal experience (and those of my fellow traveler friends).

Simon Patterson's picture

I wonder if there's a measure out there of who the most antisocial tourists are? Surely someone on the interwebs has done a study to try to determine not just who people *perceive* is the most antisocial, but who is *actually* the most antisocial. I wonder how it could be done?

Mr Blah's picture

I know nothing of any studies in this field.

I do know China is among the only ones to have to warn and keep on files bad behavior abroad..

http://www.reuters.com/article/china-tourism-idINKBN0MY0M120150407

I think that says it all...

Simon Patterson's picture

We've had this in Australia, too. Particularly with sex offenders looking for underage prostitutes in Asia, which thankfully people can be jailed for in Australia now, even if the crime was overseas. But every now and again we are (and need to be) reminded of our simply antisocial behaviour abroad, of the kind mentioned in the article you linked to.

I'm glad China is following up on it's citizens, too, particularly as the Chinese are the world's biggest spenders on travel (according to the article). It would be good if every country who provided a lot of world travellers did what the article says the Chinese do.

Deleted Account's picture

You're right that charges of "exploitation" are dangerous to throw around.

In my opinion, this is an issue about the difference between tourist snapshots, propaganda, and art photography. Art and beauty have always gone together in Western Art. The question of taking a photograph of a person in extreme poverty is really a question about the absence of beauty. If a poor person is portrayed in humiliating circumstances, then the photograph is always ugly and never art. On the other hand, if a subject is poor then that does not necessarily mean that he lacks dignity. Dignity is beautiful, but can a photographer actually photograph "dignity." Is dignity photograph-able?

In other words, can poverty ever really be represented as beautiful in photography? This is only a question that an artist could ask. Most photographers don't even think about this question. The tourists just snap away at the poor as if they were collecting vacation souvenirs. The propagandists take ugly pictures of the poor and claim that they are raising awareness to social issues. Some are dumb enough to believe that liberal moralizing is art. But, real artists would never make poverty and humiliation their subject matter in the first place. Instead, they would be searching for ways to portray dignity.

In the end, it's a question of whether the photographer is actually a tourist, a propagandist, or an artist.

Deleted Account's picture

I agree with you that charges of "exploitation" shouldn't be thrown around so easily. They are only appropriate in certain contexts. The point of my original post is that every guy with a camera is not the same and that he should be judged accordingly..

A tourist or a propagandist could easily be accused of exploitation if he gives the appearance of getting personal gain from taking pictures of the poor. On the other hand, the same tourist or propagandist could also be applauded if he were to take a photo that improved the condition of a person living in poverty (like the example you mentioned) without necessarily obtaining any personal gain. Meanwhile, only an artist could be judged by standards of beauty that have nothing to do with the perceived material wealth or poverty of the subject represented.

Deleted Account's picture

Not a problem at all. Sorry for any miscommunication.

Jeff McCollough's picture

That's all relative was journalist could be accused of benefiting from war, crime and suffering in general as they make a living off of shooting it. Don't tell anyone what to do with their photos please.

Deleted Account's picture

A journalist could be accused of benefiting from war. I remember a person at CNN that had the nickname "war slut."

Jim Hofman's picture

I've heard from a few people that photographing the cormorant fishermen at Guilin in China has turned into a real shitshow because all the tourists are elbowing each other to get the best angle at sunset. Everything is staged. No one actually fishes anymore. Guilin use to be on my to-do list on a China trip, but now I've crossed it off. There are enough photos floating around the internet of fishermen at sunset. Who needs mine?

https://www.flickr.com/search/?text=guilin%20cormorant

Jeff McCollough's picture

That's where regulations and bans on photography start to come in to place. That way only real photographers like you can shoot photos.

Cesar A Mendez Garcia's picture

Is not about your photo, but the experience to get to know this fisherman, on my trip to Xingping I hired a fixer that helped me to get in contact with and old fisherman by the name Huang, great looking man; I live in China at the moment, so I speak I little bit of Chinese, I had the great opportunity to meet this gentleman and get to know him a little bit; and of course he doesn't make a living by fishing with the cormorants anymore, what keeps him afloat and his family right now are this kind of private portrait sessions, and we as photographers document what and how they lived for many many years and help them at the same time.

Mitchell Krog's picture

Must agree with Jon Reid on this one, an absolute must read for any aspiring travel photographer. Great article.

Jessica Michael's picture

I specialized in documentary photography in college. (I had to put it aside to find a job that paid my bills and such...I miss it dearly, but could never get back into it like I used to.)

One of the things I learned, was to "become" a part of the scene.

Don't just photograph the scene, go to it and meet the people, talk to them, etc. They are not there for us to photograph, they have a history/feelings/emotions. They are not landscapes waiting to be photographed.

I immersed myself in the cultures-(one being suspension/body modification community-which was a 3 year endeavor into the body art community). Most people have only seen the freak show-but they held private events that were small/spiritual/quiet. THOSE were the moments that I felt were important to show. By treating them with respect-I was able to get "in" with the crowd and invited to private events that the public never saw.

To me-that was photojournalism. Not hitting up the local tourist spots and interrupting their lives, but photographing the moments behind those.

Jeff McCollough's picture

And that is your opinion. Not everyone can or has the time to get involved in other peoples lives.

I am going to say that that is sad so no one tears me up afterwards.

A journalist really can't be expected to get involved with peoples lives. Maybe a charity worker who happens to take photos can.

Deleted Account's picture

You're right that it's not practical for a journalist to get involved in people's lives.

What she is describing is the "ideal" situation for a photojournalist or a documentary type of photographer. Some of the best work has been done by people that are willing and able to eat-sleep-breathe with their subjects. Obviously, this is not practical and most photographers will never do it. But the difference between being practical and pursuing the ideal is one of the elements that separates photography as an art from photography as a job.

I wish there were more people like Jessica in the world.

Tom Norris's picture

Thanks for the great read! I am working on a portrait project that I am taking to Pakistan August 31st. I'll be showing pictures of everyday Americans in order to disassemble stereotypes they may have from our Hollywood image. While I'm there I'll be taking portraits of Pakistanis to show in the U.S. in order to break down the stereotype we may have of them as all being terrorist. Please check out my website if you have time: www.tomnorriscreate.com

Suzette Barnett's picture

Great article, and agreed, it should be required reading. So essential for any location. This touches on one reason why I like to take my time in a new place; it allows me to experience, understand and connect with people and places before I ever pull out my camera.