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.
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.
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.
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.