Photography is a great way of capturing and later returning to those fascinating sceneries, memorable little moments and colourful local settings that we come across during our travels. However, there are some ethical questions to consider especially when the camera lense is pointed towards local people.
We asked Emily Höckert, who together with her colleagues has researched the subject of ethics in tourist photography, to help us understand what to consider before snapping away on your next journey.
Why are you taking all those pictures?
Before filling your camera’s memory card with all those photos from your destination stop for a minute and ask yourself what is the reason behind your photographing. Höckert advises to think of the following questions: why are you taking all those pictures, who is your audience and how would you wish that tourists would use their cameras in your own home area? While it can be assumed that the majority of people travel and take photographs with good intentions it never hurts to reflect one’s own habits of photographing.
If you are looking to capture a similar photo that you’ve seen in tourism advertisement and social media it’s good to take a moment to question whether all of us need to recreate that exact same picture. It’s also a good idea to consider what kind of an image of the locals you want to portray in your pictures. By taking and sharing those white savior selfies you might just replicate and reinforce stereotypical images of people and places. Is that really what you want to convey with your photos?
There are no clear rules...
Höckert points out that the ways in which we experience the photographing situations depends greatly of the context and the relation between the photographer and photographee. This is why it is quite difficult to state a set of clear rules on when or how to take pictures.
Something to remember however is that especially when staying at a homestay you are a guest in other people’s homes where people are living their daily lives.
It’s also good to notice that there can be a big difference between people who are working with tourism and feel like hosts and those who have not actively welcomed visitors into their home areas. Try imagining the situation reversed. If you believe you would feel uncomfortable there is a good chance that other people experience it the same way.
Höckert points out that the decisions on appropriate camera use are not based on explicit, predefined codes of conduct, but on the social situations, relations and face-to-face engagements between hosts and guests. This is why it’s important to take a moment every now and then and reflect on your own photographing habits. Face-to-face situations are likely to shape your thoughts about what kind of photographing is appropriate and respectful.
It’s important to take a moment every now and then and reflect on your own photographing habits.
...but it’s all about respect
Unsure of whether the situation is appropriate for photographing? A good piece of advice is to think how you would feel if it was reversed. That is to say, imagine if you were going about with your own daily activities and a group of tourists would turn their camera lenses towards you. How would that make you feel?
Höckert suggests that questioning yourself while taking photographs can help you slow down and become more sensitive towards your encounters with the locals. Perhaps this way you will also have more time to notice the variety of roles the locals have. Remember to show some respect and behave in such way that you would be welcomed to visit again.
How about photographing kids?
Would you feel comfortable if a tourist took photographs of your children and then shared them in their social media channels? Think about this before photographing kids during your travels. How might the locals feel, not knowing where those pictures of their offspring will end up to?
Höckert says that the key in respectable photographing behaviour here too is reading the situation and the relation between the hosts and guests. Taking pictures of kids you haven’t made any contact with might be completely different to photographing children that you get to know while you travel. Sometimes people might even ask to be in the photos.
Emily Höckert is a Postdoctoral researcher at the University of Lapland, where she works with a project called ARCTISEN – Culturally Sensitive Tourism in the Arctic. Emily’s thoughts on photography are based on her research with Monika Lüthje, Heli Ilola and Erika Stewart, with title Gazes and faces in Tourist Photography (2018, Annals of Tourism Research, Vol 73).