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The library of fake travel photos in Asia

Finally, it’s arrived! A tool to help the world’s photography competition judges work out if the “travel” images they are judging are real or not! Yep, this is the first library of fake travel photos focusing on people photography in Asia. You’re welcome!

What is a fake travel image?

Well, it’s an image which doesn’t fit the true definition of travel photography. Or, to be more precise, doesn’t fit my definition of travel photography. Which is this:

A candid image capturing a moment in time. A real moment, in which the photographer (or anyone for that matter) can witness while travelling. Something that actually occurs, whether it looks authentic or not.* 

*The concept of authenticity would need a whole post in itself so I won’t go there now.

What doesn’t fit into this/my definition of travel photography are any images that have been staged, organised, pre-planned – or ones that use models and/or props. This is what I call “conceptual travel photography”. But feel free to also call it “fashion photography in a place far from home”.

Just to be clear, I’m not talking about the editing and photoshopping that can be done to create a fake image. Rather, I mean the use of real people to create fake images. We are also not talking about people staging their images for commercial or editorial purpose. We are not talking about fine art. We are talking about travel photography.

As my area of expertise is people photography in Asia, this is the area I want to focus on. 

Why make this tool? 

Well, the idea isn’t to spit on any specific photographers out there. Every photographer is entitled to do whatever they choose – whether they stage photos or not. This tool has simply been created to catalogue all the images that are becoming, or already are, popular and known to be staged. 

These are the images that you can find online over and over again… because a lot of photographers travel to these same specific locations and stage these same specific images. Once again, there’s nothing wrong with that. But to me, it is not travel photography. 

Another purpose of this library is to silence photographers who claim their staged images are not staged. (Believe me, there are plenty of them!) They build a huge following on social media, stage their images, then claim that these images were taken in a candid moment. This is a lie, which makes them liars… and I don’t like liars! These photographers usually hate being exposed – which is why I expect some violent reactions to this article. Oh well.

Lastly, I offer this resource to help any photography competition judges out there, who feel qualified to hand out prizes without knowing much about travel and Asia. Which is a problem when judging a travel photography competition, whereby many of the images were taken in Asia. 

In my opinion, a photo that has been taken repeatedly by hundreds of photographers has nothing original to say and really should not win any competition

But this is only my opinion. Others are free to disagree. And clearly, they do.

I must admit, also, that for us “real travel photographers”, it is quite frustrating to see that so little work and effort can create beautiful images. A lot of photographers have built a career shooting the staged stuff and believe me, they have a lot more followers than I do. Why? Because these images are easy to digest and are very “wow”. I think of these images as the McDonalds of travel photography. Suspiciously tasty but little nutrition. And just like McDonalds’ fans, I’m sure these photographers know inside that what they’re doing is bad for them…but they do it anyway. 

You can see, I’ve clearly thought a lot about this problem. This isn’t a post I’ve written quickly from self-isolation at home. Rather, I have been studying this particular topic for a couple of years now, and have gathered this library of staged travel photos over time.

I’ve even come up with some classifications for these fake travel photos.

The 3 categories of fake travel photos:

  • Classic staged photos
    This category contains images that I’ve talked about several times. Images that are almost 100% guaranteed to be staged – and having travelled to most of these places they’re staged in, I’ve witnessed firsthand the shit show of photographers lining up to take the same images.
  • Unethical fake travel photos
    This is a category that really puts photographers to shame, and talking about it will (hopefully!) help to bring about change-making travel photography, in general, become more ethical.
  • Emerging fake travel photos
    These are images that I slowly see appearing more and more on social media, ones which are quickly being imitated by other so-called “creative” photographers. Images that I imagine will be coming to your local photo competition very soon. Now, some of these images may, in fact, be real. I don’t have enough experience in seeing them or seeing where they were shot to know for sure that they are staged. But I do have my suspicions. 


I am listing images here that I know with almost certainty are staged scenes. Of course, it may so happen that somebody got a similar image without faking it, or took it in a different location. This is a possibility. A very, very, very small possibility. To those photographers, I apologise.

And of course, there is always someone who went there first and took a “real” image, before being copied by other lazier photographers. I congratulate the original photographers – imitation, they say, is the most sincere form of flattery. 

I know the fallacy behind some of these images because I’ve witnessed the charade with my own eyes: groups of photographers being shipped into a location to take the exact same image of the exact same model. 

However, for some of the examples below, I’ve simply used logic. Living and working in Asia for a long time, I’ve learned a bit about the norms and customs of the people here, and some of the images below just don’t make any logical sense in the Asia I know.

I originally published this post with screen captures of images. My goal is not to mention the name of the photographers as it would seem I am attacking them personally. But, due to copyright issues, I had to update this post using Instagram embedded images, meaning we can see the photographer’s name behind the picture.

Useful tip: If in doubt, do some digging

If you’re faced with an image (usually on social media) that looks staged but you’re not completely sure, simply have a quick look at the other pictures from the photographer. Someone who stages images once usually does it more than once.

I have seen many images that I suspected of being staged, and by simply checking the photographer’s profile, realised that most of their pictures were staged, which in turn confirmed my suspicions about the original picture.

The classic fake travel photos

Whether these images have been copied for years or decades, surely you’ll have seen them already. Yet somehow, inexplicably, they still win competitions. Which is the reason I believe most photography competition judges don’t know much about travel, Asia, or even which images won competitions the previous year. Doesn’t say much about serious, prestigious photo competitions now, does it?!

I will list images by country for ease of reference. Starting with my adopted home:


There’s a sizable photographic community emerging in Vietnam. Which is great! Still, while most of them are hard-working photographers trying to learn the craft (with some truly great street photographers), many use the shortcuts of staging popular images to easily grow their social media crowd.

Fishing net making:


This image can originate from Vietnam, Thailand or Indonesia.

Mui Ne sand dune:


Ao Dai ladies: 


By the way, any girl in a white áo dài (the traditional Vietnamese dress) doing something other than going to high school is probably staged. If you’ve ever had the joy of travelling to Vietnam, you’ll know that most people don’t like to expose themselves to sunlight. People usually cover themselves with jackets, gloves and face masks. I myself, in my several years here, have never witnessed girls acting like they are in this image.

Common sense notification: monks do not work

If you see very clean images of monks doing things like carrying fruits of flowers, these are most probably staged.


Salt fields:


Nowadays the salt fields workers use wheelbarrows so as to not injure their backs. They also don’t throw salt all over their colleagues’ feet – that wouldn’t be comfortable. Salt stuck in your toes? No thanks.

The stilt fishermen of Hai Ly


While these people really go to work in such ways, they definitely don’t walk on the sand at low tide in a perfect single file line. Once again, common sense, people!

Incense making near Hanoi.


This does indeed happen and it’s beautiful to witness – but it’s also one of the most faked photos out there. So how do you know which images are real and which are fake? 

Well, here’s a little trick for you: when you’re faced with images of incense-making in Vietnam – or umbrella-making in Myanmar for that matter – ask yourself: where is the subject in the frame? Workers tend to do things logically, they go from one side to the other, from beginning to the end. They don’t sit in the middle of their products like in the image here, it would make it very difficult for them to move around. Seeing a person right in the middle of a pattern of handmade products is usually staged.

You can also very easily guess when an image is staged, as some photographers try to combine several “concepts” into one photo:


Common sense notification: Time of day

Also, after years of travelling through Asia, I’ve learned that people don’t enjoy working out in the sun in the middle of the day when it’s about 40 degrees outside. I mean, why would they, would you?!


The terraces of Mù Cang Chải 

There is a famous rice terrace in Mù Cang Chải in Northern Vietnam where every year, groups of photographers gather to take the exact same photo with the same models walking along. And so, every year, different photos emerge – still with the exact same models placed at the exact same spot winning different competitions. It’s as simple as this: a group of photographers all standing in a line shooting the same thing while shouting at their subjects to “go right, go left, stop, keep going” etc. Not exactly a spontaneous travel moment.


Common sense notification: Too clean

I have strong suspicions whenever I see an image that just looks “too clean” or when people carry things they normally don’t, or in ways they normally wouldn’t. If an image seems “too clean to be true”, it probably is.


Common sense notification: Candles

Old people don’t tend to work with candlelight. They are old and their eyes aren’t so good. So if you see an image of an older person working by candlelight, be suspicious. If you see anyone working by candlelight and the candles are arranged perfectly, be very suspicious.  


Lily harvests around Hue


Hue magical lantern river at sunset



For the past 10 years, Myanmar has been an amazing playground for photographers. The country is extremely photogenic and many photographers travel there to come home with stunning images. But unfortunately, it’s also a big-time favourite of the fakers. Those who decide to go for the shortcuts and create their own fake postcards.

Candlelit novice monks

Starting with an image that probably has won the most competitions around the world, that of a young novice monk praying by candlelight in a smokey temple in Bagan.

Ok, ask yourself the question: how convenient is it to read small scriptures in a very dark room full of smoke? Next time you’re not sure whether an image is staged or not, just use that same logic.


There are lots of other locations in Myanmar that are used to seeing photographers stage novice and monk photos.


Common sense notification: Umbrellas

People don’t tend to use umbrellas inside. It doesn’t rain, nor it is sunny indoors. If you see an image with monks using umbrellas indoors, use your common sense to question the authenticity of that image.

The standing fishermen of Inle Lake 

My next favourite staged images from Myanmar is that of Inle fishermen doing acrobatic moves on their boats. There are literally hundreds of copy & paste images of these fishermen. 

If you see these guys, you can be 100% certain that it’s a fake shot, as they simply won’t stand up until they’ve been paid. 



Flying chickens in foggy forests

Don’t ask me why but apparently, Indonesian boys are addicted to throwing chickens in the air – only in front of foggy forests, of course! I’ve no idea where, or how, this particular staged shot started, but it’s one that regularly appears on social media.


Dripping Rice Farmers

I don’t know if these ones are taken at the same locations as the flying chickens, but  the scenes are very similar, at least to me. They include farmers carrying rice in pristine fields and light beams in the background. By the way, if you want to see water droplets falling off each bushel of rice simultaneously, you need to ask your model to dunk them in the water and walk pretty quickly. There is no way this can be a candid shot. Once again, common sense.


The galloping horses of Bromo

I’ve seen nice images of horses galloping around Indonesia’s Mount Bromo in the past. Then I met someone who told me that guides commonly ask visitors if they want to get nice photos; they then gallop around the hills in circles to make as much dust as possible.


The jumpy splash line

This is another image that you may have seen before. Once again, I don’t know what’s going on, nor do I care that much, but I’ve seen it many, many times.

Image courtesy from Thomas Tauber.

Some very smart photographers have also decided to copy and paste this idea into other countries.



The boat kids of Semporna

Kids on a boat in the foreground? Check. Clear turquoise blue water? Check. Stilt house in the background? Check. Welcome to one of the most popular staged images to come out of Malaysia: a much-repeated photo of the Bajau Laut sea nomads of Semporna. 



The cormorant fishermen of Guilin 

Let’s start with the most popular staged travel photo coming from China – that of the famed cormorant fishermen of Guilin.


This particular scene has already been discussed online in previous articles. Photographer Jimmy McIntyre came out as reporting how cruel this scene can be for the cormorant birds, forced to be dived in the water so they can spray their wings, which makes for more beautiful photos. 

Now, there has been an answer to this article (described as a “fantastic response” by Petapixel) which is, in my opinion, plain wrong. It says that holding birds by the neck is the thing to do (my wildlife expert friends have confirmed to me that it’s not) and that the birds need to get wet so they don’t overheat… But. Most images you can see are taken before sunrise when surely, it’s not that hot?! Anyway, I remain very much unsatisfied with the response set out in that article and still believe it’s unethical to ask the fishermen to dunk their birds underwater in the name of a prettier shot. 

Farmers in Xiapu


Here is another example of how these photographers are misleading the public. I even found one of these images titled: “Farmer returns from field early morning”. And more recently, almost the same image was added (again!) on their Instagram titled “Months of research went into making this shot happen”. Let me show you the months of research:

(Photo/Travel Channel’s program WeChat account) 

The photo is obviously staged (different photographers, different days, same tree, same models, same composition), yet the title makes us believe that it isn’t. This is how devious these photographers are. I honestly wouldn’t care about all this if they were honest about their work, but they often say how they were lucky to get the shot, or how the moment was candid, while it clearly wasn’t.

The eagle hunters of Mongolia


A very popular image these days, as Mongolia is becoming more frequently visited. It is, of course, easier to stage an eagle hunter and photograph him for 30 minutes rather than follow him for days at a time while he’s hunting, which would create a real body of work about his life. That requires time, which not everyone has.


All right India, as much as your street photography scene is truly amazing, there are still people travelling around your beautiful country staging images in your most popular cities, often unethically.

The Sadhus of Varanasi

Varanasi is a prime example of this. Online you can find countless images of “Sadhus” turning their back on the holy Ganges river. Ask any real Sadhu out there if this is something they would ever do. Give it a go.

Following on from Joey L.’s images, one can now witness photographers flashing fake Sadhus all along the Ganges with no thought whatsoever behind their images. They want that pretty shot – whether it is real, appropriate, or not.


Thanks to all of their efforts to try and get a pretty image of a holy man, these photographers have created a whole new market of “Sadhus for hire” along the Ghats of Varanasi. These people dress like Sadhus and sit around all day asking for tourists to take their photos in exchange for money. It is quite disturbing for any candid photographer and it feels like the whole city is fake. Thanks, staging photographers, for spoiling an otherwise amazing location.

The stepwells of Rajasthan

Surely you’ve seen similar images to this one of the stepwells in Rajasthan? I know I have, let’s say, a million times! 


Sri Lanka

McCurry’s Stilt Fishermen

We have Steve McCurry to thank for popularising this image of the Sri Lankan fishermen on stilts. 

Now, this is still a tradition in Sri Lanka, and some people do fish like this. But most images that you see online were captured on the south coast, between Mirissa and Galle. And this is where the locals have – and I am not kidding here – literally built parking spaces in front of their stilts so busloads of tourists can park up and photograph them. They even come up to the people with a menu, showing different photos they can take with different prices! Including a price for you to stand on their stilts and get your Instagram influencer shot.


What’s more, if you dare walk on the coastline with a camera in hand, some people might harass you and aggressively ask you for money to photograph the fishermen, even though you’ve no intention to do so. 

This is THE worst thing I have ever experienced in Sri Lanka.


I know this was supposed to be a library of fake travel photos in Asia – but I’ve got all wound up now so I’m going to include a little bonus detour over to East Africa as well! 

Any photo from the Omo Valley or Ethiopia

Ethiopia’s Omo Valley looks to me like one of the biggest photographic circuses on the planet. If you trust the photos, it’s like the locals are competing every year to try and outdo each other for who can have the most flowers or unexpected things on their heads as possible. 

You can’t blame the locals. It’s completely understandable. If photographers return every year to get more “original shots”, the locals with the most elaborate head adornment will end up making more money. I blame the photographers for going to photograph them.


It’s got to the ridiculous point whereby every year I see new photos of children with more and more trees, fruits and flowers and paintings on their heads to attract photographers. I believe this is basically destroying their culture, or what people see as being their own culture. 

These local people are viewed by most visiting photographers not as humans but as objects they can use to get nice, competition-winning photos. They probably don’t ever stop to think about whether this is right or wrong, whether they should depict the real world or their own fantasy post-colonial African dream. 

Common sense notification: fishing nets

Be very wary of any image of a fisherman throwing their nets literally on or over the photographer, whatever the country. People around the world would not throw their fishing nets at you unless you ask them to, or unless you happen to be a fish!


I will also include images of perfectly aligned boats with fishermen all throwing their nets together in perfect harmony. Yes, it could potentially – candidly – happen. But knowing my fellow photographers’ patience, there is a 99% chance that it didn’t. 

General common sense notification

Keep something in mind: with a little bit of travel experience you can easily find out whether an image is staged or not. Usually, when it looks all beautiful, perfect, and extremely exotic, there are chances that the image is staged. This isn’t a universal truth, but it helps. A little bit of research online, simply Googling the name of the place, or looking into Google reverse image search, can help you to find out for sure. 

Unethical travel images: 

Any staged image involving human abuse

There are many images that fit into this category. This goes much beyond the simple act of travelling and capturing a staged image. This implies human exploitation, using a population for our own images, and only a few business-minded people benefit from this exploitation.

I actually believe that all the examples I am using in this article are unethical. In my opinion, a photographer travelling to a location and asking people to pose in a way that is not their normal way of life hurts the culture, customs and beliefs of its people. It leads to the destruction of their own culture and creates a fake cultural facade that will please only travellers.  

One of the finest examples for this is the long neck Padaung women in Myanmar and Thailand. 


Not all photos of long neck women are part of this category but many, if not most, are. There are locations in Thailand and Myanmar where these women are exploited to pose for tourists, bringing a good revenue for their hosts – a kind of master and slave relationship.

That’s another reason why I have something against visiting these locations to take easy photos. The people are not treated with respect. There will always be someone keen to make money by offering other people available to be photographed. 

This situation has been discussed and criticized for years:

“Residents receive an allowance of food and toiletries and profit from handicraft sales, and women wearing brass rings earn an extra salary. Village owners decrease wages if women discuss their plight with visitors or use anything modern, like cell phones or computers.” Source.

“Some trekking companies and human rights groups consider the Padaung villages, which stretch across northern Thailand, to be “human zoos” that exploit the women. There have even been reports that some of the Padaung are prisoners held captive in the villages by businessmen.” Source.

Earlier, I spoke about the use of novice monks in Myanmar for photographers to get their pretty smokey spiritual images. 

While these images have been staged for almost a decade now, how about taking novice monks out of their daily routine and have them be your “toy” for a day? The responsibility falls on the photographers and the people who are in charge of the novice monks (usually senior monks) who are keen to make some extra money (for them, or for the temple, but we can never verify this) against the “rental” of their novices. 

People are literally being used here as objects. On top of that, these are minors who surely are not able to decide for themselves. Sure, they’d be happy to do it for a few dollars so they can go and buy candies. After all, they are children. But does that mean as a photographer you should do it?

No. This is clearly unethical. 

Any staged image involving minors

Being a travel photographer, I do realise how easy it is to organise staged photos, and I also understand how, at first, it could seem fine to hire a minor to pose for your travel images. 

People are very friendly in most places you travel in Asia – and they will let you organise your photoshoot if you ask them to. You could feel that you’re financially helping a family by paying the parents. The children, posing for your images, seem happy, they smile, they laugh, it’s all just a fun game for them. 

But honestly, a lot of families are poor and they would do a lot of things for a little bit of money. Or if not money, simply to please foreign visitors, who are often given far more respect than they deserve. But just because as a photographer you can do it, it doesn’t mean you should do it. 

After all, what will be the impact on that child’s life? 

By staging minors in your images, you’re propagating the idea that people can easily make money by posing for tourists with a camera (yes, I am a travel photographer, which is basically a tourist with a camera). They will associate foreigners with easy money, as long as they pose for their photos. And this can create a “village competition” between children, over who can attract the photographer and make more money. 

Look at the children from the Omo Valley I mentioned earlier. The circus of “objects on display” – children – created by unthinking photographers, who are focused on taking the “best” possible image without thinking about the ethics involved.

Whether young monks or the children of the Omo Valley, you are using the children as props for your beautiful photos and it’s not ok. Even though they make money, and even though they agree to it, they are still children! And kids don’t have the knowledge or maturity to decide for themselves. 

Any staged image including a particular person


There is one woman in the area of Mindat in Myanmar who has been photographed again and again. Now, when people arrive in the village, she instantly dresses up and comes out of her home expecting people to photograph her and then buy some of her souvenirs. I see this as a good way for this woman to support herself. She is definitely a grown-up person who can decide for herself. But this isn’t always the case.

The case of the blue-eyed girl in Vietnam

This young girl was “discovered” by a photographer and popularised with the use of heavy marketing. Now, photography tour groups show up at her house to photograph her.

There is definitely something ethically wrong going on here, and I feel like for these people it’s like a visit to the zoo. Get out of your bus, stage your “model” wherever you want to get your pretty picture. Which includes: arranging different scarves on her head to make her look prettier, placing her in front of the background you want, etc… I can see, in the not-too-distant future, images of this girl with flowers, trees and fruits on her head, Omo Valley style.

Any staged image including wildlife. 

For example, snake charmers in India. A lot of wrongdoing is happening with the treatment of these animals. People will capture animals in the wild and tame them until they are placid enough to be displayed in front of tourists and photographers. This is the same for the cormorant fisherman in China. The more photographers come, the more cormorants they are going to need. Please, just avoid them.


The emerging fake travel photos

With the advancement of new technologies like drones, we are seeing more and more similar images online. Because this is happening at this very moment, we can thus see the upcoming trends and the photos that are being copied over and over. 




I have already discussed this on my blog: that staging your images destroys your creativity. Photographers who only stage their images are simply copying others’ work. This is bad for the whole travel photography community and the advancement of photography in general.  

To Wrap Up

I hope you understand my motivations behind writing this article and sharing this library. I genuinely believe that staging travel images kills your creativity – and it makes the whole travel photography scene become boring, something no photographer wants to see. 

If copied images that win competitions become the new standard, then the message that’s sent to emerging photographers is “if you want to have a lot of followers on social media, or if you want to win photo competitions, staging will make your life easier”.

We have to stop this and make travel photography interesting again.

P.S. I would like to keep this library as up-to-date as possible. So please contact me if you notice any mistakes, or if you’ve uncovered another fake image worth sharing.

Posted in


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


  1. MM on March 22, 2020 at 9:23 am

    Please do not call yourself creative or a professional when you can’t even respect other people’s style. You sound like a mad and petty person who never travelled to Asia.
    Are you jealous that those pictures are beautifully made? because to me they look amazing without doubt. Photography to me is also a form of art and people have different ways of creating them and it would be nice if you show abit more of respect for others. Your blogs just makes you sound very ignorant and that’s just not a great look on you especially as a teacher. There are far more other positive things to talk about in this world such as appreciating other people’s difference in style instead of more negativity. This world has enough of bad stuff going on so what’s up with all this criticisms? Look at it and just appreciate it and move on with your life.

    • Etienne on March 23, 2020 at 9:17 am

      I will very quickly reply to your message, as this is a typical message I receive after posting things like this.
      No, I will not close my eyes and turn the other way because “the world has too much negativity”. The world isn’t all pretty flowers and rainbows. There are issues we need to discuss. I respect every photographer’s style and images. But I do not respect cheaters and liars.

      • Jay Griesedieck on September 20, 2022 at 8:50 pm

        Love this article man! Thank you and Mott for taking the time to put it together. Has helped clarify a lot for me as an aspiring pro travel photographer! I wish the industry was more critical of fakes!

        • Etienne on September 21, 2022 at 7:14 am

          Thanks a lot Jay, your support means a lot!

    • Aron Schuftan on March 24, 2020 at 1:50 pm

      “not a great look on you especially as a teacher”…. It is exactly BECAUSE he is a teacher that he has to say this… imagine if all teachers in other disciplines said “Don’t think for yourself,,, copy other people’s work…”. Where would that lead us?

    • Marie on March 25, 2020 at 5:17 am

      I’m a photographer from southeast Asia and I agree with Etienne’s sentiment. It’s exhausting and honestly boring to see this otherism and exoticism that doesn’t even exist. I’d rather people call things for what they are than pretend everything is good.

    • Simon Koh on March 27, 2020 at 3:09 am

      Replying to MM:-

      Why are you hiding behind initials? Please put front your real name if you are sincere in commenting!
      As you expect Etienne to respect other photographers’ style, you should also respect others with the freedom of speech and opinion. He is trying to create awareness among the photography community and it is a very big effort from Etienne that requires much appreciation.
      He has experienced the problems and seen the situation first handedly just because he has spent a lot of time in Asia, especially Vietnam.
      MM please do open your eyes and your mind.

      Great shout out to Etienne for this amazing article! I share the same sentiment as you. People clamouring spots to get the same angles every time, and dare to call themselves a photographer.

      • Etienne on March 27, 2020 at 8:39 am

        Thanks, Simon, for your support. Some people react because I have been sending critics to the community, not just love and praises. People are not used to this.

    • Jay Grieset on September 20, 2022 at 8:59 pm

      He’s not criticizing people work or creative vision. He’s criticizing that people claim the images to be authentically made in real life situations, when there are in fact staged and not true life. I myself have traveled to some of these places and it’s sad to see the way local people change they’re traditions to appeal to tourists who want to make beautiful photos and have experienced first hand the “zoo” he’s talking about. The fact that often time the subject matter is children is indeed sad as well. I myself thank Etienne for exposing the truth.

  2. sawlihim on March 22, 2020 at 11:34 am

    request permission to use this story and translate it to Malay, to put into my blog, credit is still your name


    • Etienne on March 23, 2020 at 9:14 am

      Yes please 🙂

  3. Fook Sheng on March 22, 2020 at 3:07 pm

    tks for exposing these pathetic lame photographers. I was wondering why are they so lucky so often, and I never have such much luck

    • Etienne on March 23, 2020 at 9:14 am

      Hahaha, I was wondering the same too at the beginning. But then you see the trend, their instagram feed is suspiciously too pretty 😉

  4. Patrick J-P on March 22, 2020 at 7:04 pm

    Has Steve Mc Curry not admitted in staging his pictures ? I believe he did after being questioned about it for years…

    • Etienne on March 23, 2020 at 8:52 am

      He is one of the reasons why people do this so much. He admitted it but didn’t seem to feel bad about it, not an apology, nothing.

  5. Gil Aegerter on March 22, 2020 at 10:33 pm

    Excellent article about a real problem. A recent issue of a British photography magazine included a photo of a Guilin cormorant fisherman as an example of an excellent travel image, while in an interview elsewhere in the same issue, a travel photographer dissed those very images as inauthentic. I know if you’re a typical tourist it can be very difficult to avoid these traps, but for a “real” photographer to do this, and for a “real” editor to fall for it, that’s something else.

    • Etienne on March 23, 2020 at 8:53 am

      Very well said, Gil. I see so many photo competitions now that are just money-making schemes and use beginner photographers as judges, paying them in exposure. All a lie, all fake.

  6. Albert Low on March 23, 2020 at 2:17 am

    Dear Etienne,
    I am just a very passionate hobbyist in photography. Many years ago, I was just like you, very against staged photography. Not only that but when I tell my photography society members that heavily photoshoped photos kills their creativity, all guns came blazing at me. I am the lone voice when I tell people to try to get it right on camera.
    Just like when you ranted about the HIPA winning shot. I asked a group of photographers, beginners, amateurs and professionals alike and they said one thing to me. “Say what you like, that guy is laughing to the bank” So live and let live.
    Travel photography is not my bread and butter but I like to travel to shoot people’s culture, lifestyle and festivals. Not all clean and beautifully taken photos are staged. Sometimes I travel alone and like the photos you posted of Semprona. I can actually get those photos without staging it. I have been there and I can attest to it.
    The staged photos that you posted of Vietnam, Myanmar, China, India and so on, have won many big competitions as far as I know. In Malaysia these winners have a big following and become influencers. Like it or not, it’s life, it’s true.
    We also have to look at photography as an art form. So the judges couldn’t care if it’s staged (not fake) or heavily photoshoped. Our minority voices cannot stop them, it’s a waste of time. I have come to live and lets live and just enjoy my photography.

    • Etienne on March 23, 2020 at 8:52 am

      Albert, I feel the disenchantment in your message. I have a lot of passion for this matter and I believe by writing these types of posts, we will slowly educate people and show them that this isn’t real photography. If I can change one photographer’s mind (and given the feedback I already received this week end, I have) then it’s a win. Keep the battle alive Albert! 🙂

  7. Maheder on March 23, 2020 at 2:35 am

    Thank you so much for saying this out loud! I’m a photographer born and based in Ethiopia and really tired of the omo valley photos. I can relate with everything here.

    • Etienne on March 23, 2020 at 9:13 am

      Thanks for your support!

  8. Sanjoy sengupta on March 23, 2020 at 2:42 am

    Superb article….recently read similar from PSA PT director Nadia Fillaiggi ….being a PT judge,we all knew its there and we did practise them too..its time now to change ourselves for the benefit of our clan.

    • Etienne on March 23, 2020 at 9:13 am

      Not sure we are a clan but yes, you are right, we need to make travel photography benefit from creative photographers.

  9. Charles Brooks on March 23, 2020 at 4:03 am

    Some of these practices, such as the cormorant fishermen of Guilin China, would completely disappear if it weren’t for the tourists photographing them. Tourists (or locals) taking staged photographs are actually helping preserve customs and history that might otherwise be lost.

    • Etienne on March 23, 2020 at 9:31 am

      Indeed some practices have and will continue to disappear, this is how things work. Shall we ask all the people in a village to keep living in wooden houses and wear their traditional costumes because “it’s traditional” or because that’s the image we want to bring back home?
      The customs and culture of people are two different things. If culture is something to preserve as it contains the ideas, the roots, the soul of a group, customs can, on the other hand, be questioned without attacking the culture.
      It’s quite convenient to mix both and use the preservation of “traditions” as a shield against all questions. Corrida is a tradition, part of a much wider culture. Deny the cruelty in such traditions would be deeply dishonest. The use of wildlife for human uses is rarely a situation which fully has shared benefits. One species exploits the other, with sometimes dramatic consequences on wild population or, at least, for the individuals being used (No, a cormorant shouldn’t be handled by the neck. No, a cormorant is not happily drowned into the water whenever it’s needed for a “good photo” …)
      Shall we use “traditions” to justify any action? Obviously, traditions find their origin and can be understood through history and part of the culture but they can’t be (at least not anymore) used to justify it.
      Humans’ sacrifices were a strong tradition for people from ancient Greece to South and Central America’s most amazing societies. Are we still expecting to get a good harvest season by killing anyone? Lost or, no more used, doesn’t mean forgotten. It’s a different work to keep this history alive, by transmitting knowledge.
      Cultures need indeed to be known, documented and preserved but, at first, by the ones who live it. If those cultures evolve, leaving behind some traditions (and maybe creating new ones as it’s a never-ending process), is photography a real tool to preserve anything anymore? Isn’t it here more about egos at work, looking to capture the “unique”, the “rare”, something to add to a bucket list?
      The tradition of cormorant fishermen had been photographed, documented, studied and belongs to history. If the loss of culture is a danger, the change of traditions can’t be seen so (it might just be actually a sign of the cultural evolution).
      One more point, by taking fake images of a place and using it widely on social media, do we really think “photographers” help here to know more about what people are and live in those parts of the world, about their actual culture?

  10. Anne Forbes on March 23, 2020 at 8:18 am

    Etienne, this is a comprehensive collection of fakes Very depressing! Mass tourism and mass photo tourism – and probably National Geographic- have a lot to answer for.

  11. Nancy Brandt on March 23, 2020 at 8:37 am

    I LOVE this article. Thank you so much.

  12. Kristyn Taylor on March 23, 2020 at 10:32 am

    Well said.
    The photos are so repetitive, they get boring. Unfortunately kills off my desire to travel to some locations. I feel like Ive already been there.

  13. Bonnie M on March 23, 2020 at 11:51 am

    I love this! I follow several photography hashtags on Instagram and it’s frustrating to see the same kind of images in similar genres popping up again and again.
    I think there is an argument that can be made for beginner photographers trying to take the same shots or mimic styles of other photographers to learn. Obviously they do not need to post these all over social media or claim them to be creative work as they are more about learning techniques by imitation. There’s a huge issue around transparency and originality with creative work but hopefully, we’ll see a change in that soon 🙂

    • Etienne on March 23, 2020 at 8:25 pm

      We are hoping to see the whole industry change, and not just believe that having many followers means success. Thanks Bonnie.

  14. San Lim on March 23, 2020 at 4:40 pm

    Bravo, well said/written. Through the years I came to appreciate the beauty and rawness from travel photography rather then staged shoots. I think everyone has their own style of photography and they just have to be honest and state if a photo is staged or not and not mislead the audience.

  15. LV on March 23, 2020 at 5:56 pm

    You are criticizing something that truly deserves to be criticized. However your reasoning could be better here and there. For example, there’s nothing wrong with taking beautiful photos with so little effort – efficiency should always be appreciated, and (imho) “the McDonald’s of photography” often helps spread the love for photography among mainstream viewer. I believe many of us photographers first got into this after being inspired by photos of which originality may have been questionable (but they wowed us anyway) Besides, staging for a shot is not always easy. Quite the opposite actually – it can be very time-consuming and expensive so it’s understandable that some do that together as a group to share the cost. Also, several examples you put up here are can’t really be identified as fake that easily. As a Vietnamese who has spend a lot of time in Mu Cang Chai even before it became a tourist magnet, I’m confident to tell you that those scenes and the like (ethnic people walking on the rice field or hanging out in front of a scenic background) can totally be observed on a normal day, anytime. Local children wear and play with whatever they have and it’s not weird at all to see them holding a teddy bear (most likely gift from a charity) or wearing a NY Yankees baseball cap (also, charity) I’m not saying that the photos you posted weren’t fake (I have no clue), just that they are not unusual activities at all, and staging them is just like staging a model holding an umbrella in a real rain – it’s not that evident. The same goes for pics of the farmer watering plants, emerald fishing net, or the fisherman market by the sea. Copied many time? Maybe. Staged? Hard to tell (and not likely) And I have seen very similar pics from local photographers (and from one whom I personally know) since 2016 so I’m not sure if your friend came up with the idea first. After all any statement about originality is often debatable, and I have no intention of discrediting your friend – just making a point here. Lastly, I hope you are condemning the act of using staged/copied photos for competitions or branding them as candid travel photography only, since I will have to defend those who do the same for the purpose of selling prints or just to make their Instagram page look good without any commercial purpose. They may never be great photographers, but as long as they are happy and not violating any law, they should be left alone 🙂

    • Etienne on March 23, 2020 at 8:32 pm

      hey Luv, thanks a lot for your comment, you have got many valid points here. Efficiently should be appreciated, definitely. And yes, I myself have staged photos when I was a beginner, and I have probably decided to be a photograph watching Steve McCurry images. So without staging, I wouldn’t be here. But there is a line between staging photos for your images, and having a negative impact on the people you are using (the issue of authenticity and culture loss) and on the people who watch your images thinking that this is all true.
      I know amazing scenes that may look staged happen all the time, and I am the one striving to capture them. As I said in the article, when I see a suspicious image, I look at the photographer’s portfolio. Most of the time, the whole feed is made of staged images. So I doubt that they are the kind of photographers waiting patiently for that magic photo to happen.
      Staging photos can be done for so many purposes, I myself do it for commercial photography and weddings. But today, looking on social media, travel photography has become a big joke of who can have the most followers, whatever the means. No more creativity, purely re-using old concepts. And people follow and think this is great photography. I want to tell them that it is not and they should try to find their own creativity.
      Thanks for your feedback, very appreciated.

  16. Jeff H on March 23, 2020 at 10:44 pm


    I could not agree more. I have been on many travel photo trips ( Alaska, India, Africa, Japan etc.) and enjoyed them immensely. The only one I did not like was the one I took to Vietnam. It turned out to be exactly what you described above. In fact, the photos you posted are the same one I have. I did not realize going into this trip that everything was staged to replicate the leaders photos. There were 8 of us on the trip and 4 loved the staging. I did write the tour company to say how disappointed I was, but they did not care.
    Thank you for bringing this to our attention.

    • Etienne on March 24, 2020 at 8:11 am

      Thanks for sharing your experience Jeff. some photo tour companies are only staging all their images, but I least I thought they were communicating this information to their clients… Sad 🙁

  17. Xenia Novosilska on March 24, 2020 at 6:35 am

    I have never thought about travel photography in this way, maybe because I’m not a professional.
    For me always that moment when I personally was at that place is much more important than any other moment or prettiest picture.
    Will look at shiny/glossy travel pics in a different way now. Thanks, Etienne!

    • Etienne on March 24, 2020 at 8:12 am

      Thank you Xenia!

  18. Roy Killen on March 24, 2020 at 1:48 pm

    Thank you for taking the time to put together this collection of fakes. I will share this with all the photography judges that I know in the hope that we will see fewer of these images being rewarded.

    • Etienne on March 24, 2020 at 6:55 pm

      Thanks a lot Roy, spread the word.

  19. GARY CRALLE on March 24, 2020 at 11:38 pm

    Thank you, Etienne. This all had to be said despite creating a lot of anger and resentment.

    The only disagreement I have with your definition of “real” travel photography is that it must always be candid. Interacting with while respecting people and places is to me a primary value of travel. “Using” people is immoral. Interaction between traveller and local residents builds a shared sense of community and should be a part of travel.

    A portrait, for example, does not always have to be candid; it can show a relationship between photographer and subject; it can reveal a part of someone’s character or their environment. These are not a cheap self-serving shots; portraits can and should be genuine. The key, as you point out, is respect for individuals and not incidentally, for the planet.

    I see nothing inherently wrong with staged shots — no matter how shallow — if they are acknowledged as such in competitions and when appropriate in social media posts. I regard still life setups as an exception with a capacity for succinct story-telling. For me they can be a personal statement.

    The ease of taking pictures and manipulating them with software to create photo illustrations has opened up new possibilities for artistic expression while muddying what is real. Imagination is wonderful but deceptive intent is a lie.

    • Etienne on March 25, 2020 at 4:33 pm

      Thanks, Gary, very wise words! Especially your last paragraph, very powerful! Portraits are, as you said, something a little bit different. But still, there is a way to interact with the subject (the way you should obviously do when taking a travel portrait) which is not “please stand here and look this way and smile”. Believe me, I see that a lot happening here in Vietnam. Hello, stage the subject, take the shot and walk away without a thank you. Shameful we all know that.
      Interacting with the subject to take portraits is, in my opinion, THE best way to capture unexpected moments, emotions, etc… rather than someone just looking at the camera. I talked about it previously here: https://www.picsofasia.com/tutorial/how-to-direct-your-subject/

  20. Hans Kemp on March 25, 2020 at 3:12 pm

    Etienne, Many valid points. Shallow indeed are the photographers who lack imagination and copy other’s work. Where’s the sense of accomplishment in that? I’ve had entire books copied in photography concept, style and even design. It’s important to keep the creative flame burning and work on your own long term projects. Don’t tell others about it until you’ve finished, unfortunately not everyone adheres to a high ethical standard.
    In earlier days I looked up to Steve McCurry, wondered how he managed to get the composition, the light. Etc all working together to create the perfect image as a travel photographer. Now I know, quite often he didn’t. And had he been upfront about it it would have been ok. Not my style but no deception. Suddenly, feeling under pressure no doubt, from being a documentary photographer he changed and called himself an art photographer, in need of a justification after getting caught in the act of deception.
    Anyway life’s too short and rich in potential adventures, don’t let this become an obsession, go out and create something new, feed your mind and your photographer’s eye. And your soul.

    • Etienne on March 25, 2020 at 4:26 pm

      Thanks a lot, Hans. The man who made the Bikes or Burden book that I used to watch almost every evening in a bar in Hoi An 13 years ago! A pleasure to meet you. Thanks a lot, for your comment. I don’t have an obsession with this, believe me I sleep very well at night. But this had to be said, and I know a lot of people who think the same way think it’s not their place to say it. So I took the job 🙂

  21. Pisanu Thoyod on March 25, 2020 at 3:25 pm

    HI Man,
    I’m Pisanu Thoyod who shoot the stilt fisherman from Sri Lanka.
    Please note that it is not a fake photo or with out any set up for that shot.
    Late afternoon I and my wife walk along the Koggela beach and found those fisherman fishing on their pole, then I walk into the sea with my 150-600mm. Lens to shoot this picture.
    For you may be bad luck experienced to pay for every thing you wanna capture, but not every one will lucky as me.


    • Etienne on March 25, 2020 at 4:22 pm

      Hello Pisanu, I am terribly sorry for the mistake, and I have now corrected the images. What are the chances? 😉 Anyway, great shot you took of them.

  22. Pisanu Thoyod on March 25, 2020 at 4:37 pm

    More than 15 days of traveling with full stuff in 3 camera bags from North to South in Sri Lanka, there are no problem with Celon People.
    For me I’m Thai. I think that they are very kind to us, smile and helpful as all Buddism mind.

    If I respect to you, please do some respect them too.

  23. Martin on March 25, 2020 at 5:28 pm

    Bravo, Etienne. Don’t lose your passion for this matter.
    And to those critics claiming “respect other people’s style”, I answer: it is not a question of style, it is a question of dignity and honesty. Don’t file your staged photos under “Travel photography” when it is an orchestrated outdoor-portrait or people photo.

    • Etienne on March 26, 2020 at 8:37 am

      Thanks a lot, Martin. Some people get very upset because I give my point of view and I might “hurt someones else’s feeling”. If we listen to them, there is no more discussion.

  24. Jean-Christophe on March 25, 2020 at 9:55 pm

    Hi Etienne,
    Many thanks for this very interesting reflexion and for you website in general. I love Vietnam, a country where I come every year for six years now (for work as a marine biologist). As an amateur of photography, I always wondered if some of the beautiful pictures of women in Hoi An, rice workers in Sa Pa, or the one of an old man on a bike carrying a mountain of baskets have been staged, now I have the answer. I totally agree with you that there is no room for lie, if a photo has been staged, it should be stated plainly. Nonetheless, photography is an art (and art is very subjective) and I agree with the comment of LV, many of us came to photography because of staged photos. For example, I love the pictures from Rhéhan, many are staged but still, there are really beautiful. And his work clearly contributes to the discovery of the ethnic diversity of this country. Also, it seems to me that there is some confusion in the comments between staged and fake photography. For me a staged photo is not fake (as long it is stated). A montage, in the contrary, is a fake (but also acceptable if stated).
    As a photo tour teacher and organizer, I suppose you brings group of people in the same places over the years, don’t you think (and it is an innocent question) that this will change the behavior of local people? Even if you do not want it, they will see in you and your group a potential source of income (even if it is indirect) and they will tend to act as models. I was wondering how you manage to avoid this? Again it is very innocent, I participated only once in a photo tour (just one day) and it has been a rather disappointing experience (despite the good reviews). I would like to try another go 😉
    Thanks again for your fantastic website

    • Etienne on March 26, 2020 at 8:46 am

      Hi Jean Christophe, thanks for your message. Indeed, there are a lot of ethical questions involved when bringing a group of students on a photo tour. Whether we go to a location for the first time or whether we come back, we do have an influence on the people just by being here and taking photos.
      First, we travel to places where the people are not used to having “usual” tourists (by usual tourists I mean people who travel to visit, buy souvenirs, do the tourist stuff). By going to more remote areas the people are not expecting us to be money throwers. Then it’s all about interacting with them and explaining what we do here. We love their country, we find it beautiful, so we walk around and take photos. The key is also not to stay too long in one location. If kids are playing in a field and we start taking photos, after 30 minutes there might be a crowd of kids around us, and some will start jumping in front of the lens because… it’s fun. Then things change and we lose the candidness of the scene. And it’s time to say thank you and leave. Every place, every person, is different. As long as we are respectful of where we go to, we have to adapt to the situation, and travel experience tells us what to do.
      But this might be an upcoming blog post for sure because I always ask myself about the negative impact we can have on the people just by visiting them. Discussion to be continued…

      • Jean-Christophe on March 27, 2020 at 4:36 pm

        Many thanks for taking the time to answer Etienne, to be continued then…

    • Etienne on April 19, 2020 at 8:55 am

      Yes, I saw this one. Some people didn’t listen….

  25. vincent Lecolley on April 23, 2020 at 2:31 am

    I totally agree with all of this article.
    We already had a chance to talk about that in private and I totally share your vision of travel photography.
    I shared it on my facebook page 🙂

    Good Job!

    • Etienne on April 23, 2020 at 7:44 am

      Thanks Vincent!

  26. NIRMALYA BHATTACHARYA on May 3, 2020 at 12:20 am

    I am absolutely in agreement with the author. The same phenomenon is equally prevailing in Nature photography though. There is absolutely no harm if a beginner attend a workshop in a known famous place and understand the basics of light, composition, story line formation with pre-arranged set up as a part of understanding particular photography genre. But when the same is presented in an International competition and win awards repeatedly and for years, it not only raise a question about the ethics of the participant but also on the common sense of the jury members. People will react to this post not because it has addressed an issue related to ethics, but because it is interfering with financial interests of many. Secondly, even if I consider these photographs are genuine it does not explain why the hell the same genuine photograph by another person has to be awarded again! Have we ever heard that a painter got best award by painting same frame from famous painter like Vincent Van Gogh or Pablo Picasso that to year after year? I have asked this question to many and never got a satisfactory answer. Mr Etienne you article is very apt and contemporary, thanks for raising a very pertinent question to photography fraternity.

    • Etienne on May 4, 2020 at 7:18 am

      Thanks a lot for your feedback, really appreciated!

  27. ross on June 22, 2020 at 5:20 pm

    Hi Etienne, not only am i impressed with your article, I am also impressed that you take the time to acknowledge and reply to almost all of the comments here.

    • Etienne on June 23, 2020 at 9:24 am

      Thanks, Ross. It is a discussion we photographers need to have, not a plain statement frozen in time. So hopefully we can exchange ideas 🙂

  28. Emir Kaya on September 3, 2020 at 11:44 pm

    Dear Etienne ;

    First of all thanks a lot for your time to bringing all these up.. I agree with you %100.
    You have already covered it all and no need to comment on this more.


    @foto_raf ( ig )

    • Etienne on September 6, 2020 at 10:07 am

      Thanks a lot for your support!

  29. Eugene H. Johnson on December 26, 2023 at 3:58 pm

    Etienne thank you sincerely for such a thought provoking article that should be read by anyone interested or engaged in travel photography.

    • Etienne on December 27, 2023 at 9:46 am

      Thanks a lot Eugene!

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