Scenery shots are great, but the best photographers know that to truly capture the essence of a destination, you need to showcase its people. From the cigar-smoking mulattas on the streets of Havana to the pho sellers of Hanoi to the children playing in the streets of Delhi, these are the people whose images can represent an entire culture—which is why they not only make for great photographs, but also some of the most dangerous to take.
Think of the mood that can be captured in a face, how the presence of a person can make an image come alive. There’s a power there. But people are not scenery, there for us to snap on DSLRs and show off to friends back home on our Facebook feeds.
For that reason, many travellers end up sneakily shooting photos of strangers, or putting their cameras away altogether. Both of which are a shame, either discarding people’s privacy or losing out on a chance for interaction. It’s not that it’s wrong to be photographing locals, it’s just that we need to be ethical in how we approach it.
DO make a connection
Before you snap, ask yourself, why do you want a photo of this person? Is it to show a relationship you’ve formed? To show how much you dove into the local scene? If so, wouldn’t your photo be so much more meaningful if you actually had a connection? If your aim is to show the personality of a destination, find out what that personality is. After all, that’s what travel is all about: making connections, learning about a place and its people, engaging with the community. So before you shoot, take the time to learn.
DON’T be a spy shooter
Please don’t ever wander through a city trying to sneakily snap close-up shots with a zoom lens. It’s intrusive and makes people nothing more than a piece of the scenery. Imagine a stranger stealthily taking your photograph and sharing it with friends back home, simply because you look different or lead a different lifestyle than they do. Creepy, right?
DO show them their image
The great thing with digital cameras is we can instantly see the photo. Show the person what the image looks like, and, if it’s practical, offer to send them a copy if they want one. In a way, you’re taking home a piece of them, a moment that they shared with you. Don’t just steal it and run.
DON’T share others’ personal info
This is especially important when taking photos of children. Are you going to post a person’s photo on Facebook with a caption giving their name and home city? That might not seem like such a big deal when you’re thousands of kilometres away, but it is remarkably easy to find someone with just a few personal online details. Consider people’s privacy and be careful with how much of their information you share with the public. Obviously, if you’re photographing your favourite pho seller and encouraging people to visit her stall in Ho Chi Minh, a shared photo can be a form of publicity—but if that’s the case, it can’t hurt to let her know upfront about your social media plans.
DO understand local customs and beliefs about photography
Do a bit of research before you travel and ensure you understand the local culture’s beliefs and attitudes about photography. There are some places in the world where the people genuinely believe that a camera captures the soul (such as in some Mayan communities of Mexico and Aboriginal tribes of Australia). Be aware of when you could offend or frighten someone whose religion or culture opposes the practice of photography.
DON’T take unflattering or embarrassing shots
Respect. That’s all we’re talking about here, really. Don’t take photos that someone would find embarrassing or unflattering (this is especially so when dealing with cultural sensitivities about appearances), and if you accidentally shoot such an image, delete it. (This, of course, doesn’t apply to showing your best friend how drunk she got in the hostel bar the night before, but even still, don’t plaster it all over the Internet for Buzzfeed to get its hands on.)
DO pay when appropriate
In some cases, such as with the dressed-up women in Old Havana, paying in exchange for a photograph is standard practice. These are performers at work. Where the question of money becomes less straightforward is when everyday residents request compensation—something that is especially common among children, who have learned that tourists will often give them money or gifts in exchange for smiling shots. In these cases, should you pay them? Well, here’s where things are anything but straightforward. Generally, it’s a good idea to refrain from paying, otherwise, you’re reinforcing the stereotype that these people are there for Western entertainment—they are a commodity to be bought from you, rather than a person to meet. However, there may be times when a deeper connection has been established, and you may wish to pay them out of compassion rather than demand. Use your instinct and let that very heart of travel—personal connection—be your guide.