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.
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.
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:
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!
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”.