Open letter to photographers

After spending the last couple of years talking about the Ethics of Travel photography and trying to spread the word about said ethics, I feel the task is getting more difficult on a daily basis. When travelling around Asia, l have increasingly witnessed actions by some photographers that left me with a bad taste in my mouth, actions that just get wrong. Last week was sadly no exception.

 

This is a letter for them.

 

 

Dear photographers,

 

Like me, you have the burning passion for photography. Like me, you travel around Asia to capture beautiful images. Like me, you love to travel with fellow photographers and share some good time on the road.

 

It’s not about what you do, it’s about how you do it.

 

Once again, last week you have convinced me that I need to tell you what I think about the way you do things. I could just stay back and keep things for myself, but this wouldn’t help any other photographers to understand the concept of the Ethics for Travel photography. I am not here to give any lessons to anyone. I just feel that we ought to be ethical when we travel and respect the people we photograph.

It is not a cultural thing, the respect of the people around us is a Human value. It is about establishing proper relationships between you and the people you photograph, and the way you do it.

 

Respect your subject:

To me, travel photography is about capturing the essence of a place and its people, the authenticity of where we travel to. Capturing the real thing, and not a preconceived image that we have in our heads.

Being ethical also means treating your subjects with respect. It means seeing them for who they are, Human beings like you and I. Not like they are animals you go visit at the zoo.

 

In this short clip that I captured in Bac Ha market last week, we can see a tour guide talking to a Hmong woman and grabbing her away for a tourist to take a picture. For the previous 5 minutes, though, he was just grabbing people by the arm and telling his guest to take the photo, without asking anything.

What kind of way of taking photos is that? What kind of way of travelling is that? If you only read a guidebook about Vietnam (or if you had watched Gran Torino), you’d know that you’re not supposed to touch a Hmong’s head. And by the way, who goes and tap on someone’s head like that? Seriously, when is last time you tapped on someone’s head like a little doggy?

So please, if you feel the need to travel with a tour guide, spend more time selecting someone who knows the places and their people and does not see them as tourist attractions. Try to spend more time interacting directly with your subject, either with words or gestures. But do not pull them out for a quick photo like they are here to please you.

 

 

Go get your own photo

Following good ethics while doing our passion for travel photography will help you tell better stories. By meeting the people you want to photograph, interacting with them, seeing them as Human beings, your compositions will get more interesting.  And this will help boost your creativity.

Let me be honest with you, I think nothing good is going to come up from that last photo shoot you did in Mu Cang Chai last week. I wonder what were you thinking when you signed up for this? Is your goal to get the exact same image as your colleague standing next to you? I really don’t understand how that could be something that helps you grow as a photographer.

Vietnamese photographers taking photos of models in the rice fields of Mu Cang Chai

Photo courtesy of Mike Pollock

 

I don’t know who among you were shouting to the models to move left or right, but I doubt you got any interesting picture out of this? And by interesting I mean not a photo that we have seen a hundred times before. I mean something more original, more creative, that reflects your vision of the scene and your tastes.

 

This is the McDonaldization of travel photography.

 

A huge group of photographers in Mu Cang Chai lining up with their tripods

Photo courtesy of Mike Pollock

 

Go and take the same photo you have seen online, over and over again? Travel photography becomes purely about the photography. Going somewhere just to have THE photo. No room for improvisation, creativity and originality. And this is a point I think many photographers have forgotten today. Travel photography is about the photography but first, it’s about travelling. What’s the point of going somewhere just so you can get your shot? Are you actually going to enjoy going there, being there, experiencing the place and its culture, food and people?

 

By the way, I posted a video of this event on September 23rd on our Facebook page, check it out it is quite outrageous.

 

Please my friends, in the future, why don’t you just hit the road and get lost? I know it is a little more difficult, requires more time and you are not guaranteed to end up with an interesting image. But the hard work that you will put into doing this is how you can evolve as a photographer, how you can find your own style and vision and come home with more unique images. Plus, please do not make me assist to this shitshow again.

Posted in

Etienne

Founder of Pics of Asia, Etienne is a teacher with a photography habit.

19 Comments

  1. Amélie on September 25, 2018 at 12:46 pm

    Super article Etienne comme d’habitude ! Juste, éthique, humain …

    • Etienne on September 25, 2018 at 1:52 pm

      Merci Amelie!

  2. Tim Russell on September 25, 2018 at 2:02 pm

    Excellent, heartfelt piece Etienne. Sadly for some photographers it’s more about getting the standard travel shots than getting something original and interacting with people.

    • Etienne on September 25, 2018 at 2:04 pm

      we all have different tastes and expectations, but if what you are doing seems like disrespectful towards your subjects, you’re probably doing it wrong.

  3. Florian on September 25, 2018 at 2:07 pm

    I agree with you 100%! Really Your letter is clear, concise and to the point. Exactly my thoughts! I hope I won`t see such scenarios in Myanmar.

    • Etienne on September 25, 2018 at 2:13 pm

      you may encounter such things in Bagan. If you do, make sure to shoot a short clip of it 🙂

  4. Dennis Lim on September 25, 2018 at 2:41 pm

    100% agreed !

  5. Linda on September 25, 2018 at 2:51 pm

    I live in Myanmar and have travelled across most of SE Asia in my time here. Yes, you will see similar happening in Myanmar unfortunately and probably anywhere that has so many ethnic groups who still live traditional lifestyles. It is disrespectful and all visitors should look for information about cultural respect before visiting any country, but especially ethnic communities. Talking to the people, smiling at them, and spending time with them with a camera just hanging by your side will eventually get you a much better photo, and often they will ask if you want to take a photo once they have spent a little bit of time with you or if you’ve bought something from them. If you have an opportunity, get the photo printed out and take it back to them. Many have never had a photo of themselves to keep before. That gives you another chance for an even better photo opportunity!

    • Etienne on September 25, 2018 at 4:53 pm

      Good points Linda. I sincerely hope that the tattoo-faced ladies of the Chin state do not become attractions like animals in a zoo… If you look at my friend Dylan Goldby’s fantastic work he did with them, a long-term approach and real benefits for the local people.

      • Linda on September 26, 2018 at 10:36 am

        Yes, I’ve seen Dylan’s work. I met and talked with him about his travels when he launched his book here in Yangon, and of course bought it! It has some beautiful photos of the Chin ladies. I have to admit I do want to visit that area before I have to leave Myanmar. An interesting story appeared the other day in Frontier Myanmar at https://frontiermyanmar.net/en/chin-women-and-the-ethics-of-tourism. I think there are ways of getting to know these amazing people and taking away some photos, but doing it respectfully and giving something back. It’s a bit of a balancing act between not treating them like a sideshow, and also learning about them and their culture by exploring for yourself by spending time with them. I think it just all comes back to respecting everyone and treating them like a fellow human, and leaving something behind that will benefit them too.

  6. Kavita on September 25, 2018 at 7:50 pm

    What an apt article. Seriously, travelling and photography both have become like trophies for facebook.

    • Etienne on September 26, 2018 at 8:49 am

      as the new Instagram myself photo trend shows us!

  7. Lindsay Keats on September 26, 2018 at 2:49 am

    Great Article Etienne & thanks for posting the link to the “Photo & Travel” facebook page. I’ve seen some appallling behaviour in Cambodia & Vietnam. I’m pleased that there are lots of places where this sort of photo tourism does not happen. I recently spent a week in Kolkata, got really interesting photographs and hardly saw anyone else with a camera. In my home country of New Zealand a similar thing is happening with landscapes on the tourist trail- probably a bit like whats happening in Iceland also.

    Best Regards

    Lindsay

    • Etienne on September 26, 2018 at 8:49 am

      Thanks Lindsay!

  8. Kristyn Taylor on September 26, 2018 at 8:26 am

    Spot on!

  9. karu on September 26, 2018 at 2:15 pm

    Sorry but I disagree with most of this article.

    I agree that everyone should show basic respect to everyone surrounding them. That’s what is required for a descent society.

    But, the way you judge the work of those people seem so abnoxious !
    You are the most disrespectful person here.

    What about photographers that have commands? let’s say he works for a magazine that asked him a tourist photo of the ricefields? What if he likes the very common and stereotypical style of those pictures?

    Because you are a being of light that like to travel alone and takes pictures in your own style (ethical) does not mean other people wish to do the same.
    I think you are patronizing and frankly egocentered.

    Even though I totaly share your view of traveling, I still understand that not everyone is the same.

    Those models are paid, if they don’t like to be talked this way, they just leave. It’s not your place to judge and condemn. Well you can give your opinion. I hate this word because most of the time it’s use in the wrong way, but it fits this situation : You are a bigot.

    Best of you for your work, but respect the vision of others.

    • Etienne on October 1, 2018 at 12:55 pm

      Hi Karu, first thanks for your honest comment, it is good to see that opinions differ, meaning it is good to talk about it and discuss points of views.

      About your first point that people may like the stereotypical style of those pictures, of course, they may. Some people also like eating junk food or smoke cigarettes, that doesn’t mean we should tell them “there is no problem at all keep doing it”. As part of a “decent society” as you mentioned, we need to share our opinion when we feel something isn’t right.

      Everyone is entitled to do and shoot what they want, I will not contradict you on this point. And it is fine. I am not intolerant of people having different opinions, that wouldn’t make any sense. We are photographers and we need other people’s feedback to become better. But if I feel something is ethically wrong I want to share my opinion with people reading my stuff.

      Now about the patronizing thing, I understand it can sound like it. I don’t want to sound like I am giving lessons to people but I am a teacher, and I want to help people developing a more interesting vision for their photography than the things we have been seeing online for the past 10 years. Then, people can decide to take it or leave it.

      Would anyone who is sharing their own opinion be ego centred? If this is my opinion then by definition this is based on my feelings. Does that mean we can’t give our opinions anymore?

      The models used for that particular situation are of course paid but probably lack the knowledge and education to say stop when this is too much. Abuses can happen very easily when it is about Human rights and exploitation. But this is for another discussion.

  10. Gilbert MARTIN-GUILLOU on September 26, 2018 at 3:17 pm

    Bonjour Étienne, je viens de relire ton article. que je partage entièrement. MAIS tu as la réaction d’un occidental donneur d’ordres et de leçons. Si tu as voyagé au Vietnam pendant deux ans, tu n’as pas capté leur aspiration et leur caractère profond. (Je suis allé 7 fois au Vietnam et Asie à chaque fois 3 à 4 mois, et cela en l’espace de 4 ans). Voyageant seul et la plus part du temps avec des amis Vietnamiens. J’ai participé (71 ans) plusieurs fois à des petits groupes (10 à 12 prs.) de photo-trip de 3 à 4 jours. Ceci dit pour que tu me situes. Les Vietnamiens ont un caractère bien trempé de compétiteurs et ne tolèrent pas les critiques et reproches. À l’occasion de week-end ou de vacances ils organisent des groupes de voyage photo avec participation rémunérée de personnes d’ethnies locales. Ta photo doit être un regroupement de plusieurs photo-trip à Mù Cang Chai. Leur plaisir est de prouver aux autres qu’ils ont le plus grand angle ou le dernier modèle de Canon ou Nikon. Après qu’ils jouent du lightroom et Photoshop en veux tu en voilà. Ils ne voyagent PAS ils se font un photo plaisir. Par contre je suis entièrement d’accord avec toi sur les Mauvais Guides touristiques qui eux méprisent complètement l’ethnie lors des marchés et là sont vraiment horribles uniquement pour satisfaire une clientèle qui l’est tout autant. Excuse d’avoir été long.

    • Etienne on October 1, 2018 at 12:57 pm

      Gilbert, je suis desole d’entendre que donner son opinion est quelque chose “d’ocidental donneur de lecons”. J’enseigne la photographie depuis presque 10 ans au Vietnam et je partage mon opinion lorsque je pense que quelque chose ne va pas. Dans le cas present nous parlons de photographes vietnamiens mais ceci s’applique pour tous.

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