Taking photos - or requesting them? The ethics of travel photography

Striding around a market in Ghana, I ducked to avoid the wooden crates of food stacked on children’s heads, sidestepped the bicycles and free-roaming pigs, and watched as traders pounded fresh maize into fufu with giant, wooden pestles and mortars. Everywhere I looked there was a scene worthy of a photo – women in hand dyed cloth, big eyed babies strapped to their backs, bowls piled high with chilies all the shades of an African sunset. But as I tried to take it all in, I was pulled from my stupor by an angry voice.

“You people – you only come here to take photos. You never buy anything – you only take pictures!”

The woman who had admonished me stood defensively behind her vegetable stall, staring. My camera hung by my side – but at that moment I wished I hadn’t brought it at all. I concealed it as best as I could and looked ahead to where a group of tourists were snapping away with phones at traders’ stalls, their produce, their children.

I apologised to the stallholder, and explained that we were here to buy, not just to “take” – but the damage had already been done. In a remote town which receives few visitors, the actions of a few can determine the perception of a whole demographic. Westerners come, and they take pictures. And they don’t pay.

My experience in Ghana until that point had been quite different. One of the advantages of being in an English speaking country is how easy it is to strike up conversations – and Ghanaians are known for their gregariousness. After chatting to people on the street, I would ask if I could take their picture – and this was always greeted enthusiastically, with people posing, smiling, calling friends over. On more than one occasion, after noticing my camera, people would approach me and ask me to take their photo – or “snap” them with their child. Ghana was a portrait photographer’s dream.

Unposed photographs
Portraits taken with permission in Ghana, left, and of a Himba woman in Namibia, right by Vicki Brown

But the marketplace was an uncomfortable reminder of the other side of travel photography. People in Ghana work hard to earn very little – they don’t need wealthy tourists pointing cameras at them as they try to sell fish before it goes off. West Africa in particular has a nasty history of Europeans coming in to “take” – their land, their gold, their people to sell into slavery – and while tourists today are welcomed warmly, they also need to take care not to cross that invisible line.

Unlike many responsible tourism issues, the unwritten rules when it comes to photography are simple. Would you like someone to do this to you? If not, don’t do it to them. Yet it remains a strangely hard concept to follow. Like children in a sweetshop, we travellers are drawn in by the pretty colours, the foreign faces, the children’s smiles, the exotic scenes. You know you shouldn’t, you know it’s unhealthy, but you just can’t resist… Social media has only made this urge worse – what’s the point of going to the crazy market if you don’t have a picture of it to prove you were there? The perfect profile picture lurks around every corner: just pick up this stray toddler, pose beside the pigs’ heads, surround yourself with a rabble of ragged children. These people are on our television screens, they adorn the pages of travel magazines – we’ve bought this holiday and we’ve bought our right to photograph them. Haven’t we? Have we?

As the makers of this video, filmed in Cape Town, have shown – it doesn’t always work like that. Fed up of being treated like a human safari during township tours, they decided to take their cameras out into the wealthy white suburb and treat people there in the same way. And did the locals like it? Not one bit.

It’s easy enough to learn what not to do – but what is the correct way to treat people you encounter on holiday? I signed up for a travel portraits workshop with photographer and Responsible Travel member, Steve Davey, to find out. The workshop took place in London – but the same principles apply anywhere in the world. We learned about lenses and lighting and apertures, but the number one lesson was how to approach strangers and request a photo. Davey showed a series of poignant examples before sending us out with our SLRs; the portraits which had been taken without permission from the subjects were awkward, looking at them made you feel uncomfortable. People frowned, or tried to hide behind their hands. In contrast, the portraits of the subjects who had given their approval really drew you in – you could sense their ease, and their collaboration in creating the image. It didn’t mean they were any more posed – in many cases, people continued dancing, or serving customers, or working in the fields – but they were happy to have been consulted and it really shone through. Sometimes, of course, the would-be subject will say no – but that’s fine, you can just thank them and move on. The more rejections we students received in London’s markets, the more we bounced back from them. And the more approvals, the more time we had to hone our portrait techniques on happy stallholders.

London stallholders
The same rules apply if you're taking photos in a Ghanaian village - or London's Borough Market (Photo by Vicki Brown)

Back in Ghana, there was one final twist. After my experience in the market, I visited a traditional village, filled with labyrinthine mud compounds, sacrificial shrines and shaded by ancient baobabs. As I gawped at my incredible surroundings, which had changed little over centuries, people emerged from between the mud walls – and angled smartphones in my direction.

Now I was both tourist and attraction; somehow the cameras had broken down one of the biggest barriers of cultural travel, and put me on a more equal footing with the villagers. Some snapped away from a distance, others wanted to pose next to me, handing their phones to a friend. I didn’t mind at all – their curiosity justified my presence in their home.

Of course, had they wandered into my street, my workplace or my house, my feelings towards this “intrusion” would have been quite different. Would I be smiling comfortably for their cameras? I very much doubt it. Being on the other side of the lens for once really made me contemplate how this might feel – and it made me appreciate the Ghanaians’ willing smiles even more.

Travel photography – tips for responsible photographers
  • The basic rule is simple – if you wouldn’t want someone to take your picture, don’t take theirs. And definitely don’t photograph their children.

  • Strike up a conversation – even without a common language, gestures can go a long way! Ask their names, discuss what they are selling or the work they are doing. Compliment them on their clothes or jewellery – especially if that is what has inspired you to want to take a photo. Everyone enjoys a bit of flattery.

  • Once you have engaged with people, ask for permission to take their photo. If they say no, thank them for their time. And if they agree – well, you have a nice little background story and a name to go in the album.

  • In general, we don’t recommend paying for photos. There are exceptions – such as in Ethiopia’s Omo Valley where this is a large source of income for the tribes, who really dress to impress, as well as people such as the women in Havana in elaborate makeup with foot-long cigars who pose for tourists. But payment can cause all kinds of issues – from the faking of culture (costumes, ceremonies) to gain cash, to encouraging begging. And never pay children – even with sweets or toys. As well as discouraging them from attending school, it is just ethically wrong.

  • If you do want to give something in return, it’s polite to purchase something from craftspeople or traders. Another nice gesture is to offer to send them prints. Take their address – but only do this if you are sure you can follow up.

  • If you’re really committed you can buy a mini printer – either one which uses Bluetooth to print on the spot, or to connect up once you get back to your hotel and distribute the next day – Polaroid produces these, amongst other companies. Of course, you can always go old school and invest in an actual Polaroid camera and film!

  • Our guide to Photography holidays has more useful tips for travel photographers of any level of experience.

Boys comfortable in front of the camera
Boys in Ghana, left, and Ecuador, right (Photos by Vicki Brown)
Written by Vicki Brown