Photographers sometimes behave badly.
This irks me. It should irk you. What makes one of us look foolish, irresponsible or downright mean reflects upon all of us. Photographers sometimes get a bad wrap because a few people don’t know how to play in the sandbox; I hate jumping over cat turds in the sandbox.
I consider myself a responsible traveler first and a responsible photographer second. I go out of my way not to offend local customs, social mores, cultural norms, etc. when I’m working in the field. Sadly, I meet many, many would-be photographers who think a camera attached to their face is a license to act like an asshole.
It isn’t. Under no circumstances. Ever. When photographers behave badly it makes my job more difficult. It makes travel a pain. Worst of all, it hurts the very people we have come to visit.
If you’re a burgeoning travel photographer, someone who likes to shoot in public on a regular basis or just a person that likes to whip out their point and shoot when the mood strikes you, I’d like to offer a few remarks on how to behave in public so that you, the people you’re interacting with and the people that will come after you will be able to carry on living in peace and harmony.
CASE ONE: What you’re really paying for.
People love to visit exotic destinations where they’ll have the opportunity to meet and interact with local people. I know I do. Meeting people is the best part of travel. Meeting indigenous ethnic tribal people? Photographers love that more than anything. Every travel photographer I’ve ever met dreams of a portfolio populated with romantic images of ethnic peoples in their native environments. But that doesn’t mean you need to pay for it.
Megan and I visited Sapa, a fertile hill region in Northern Vietnam known as a colonial hill station for a few centuries and now one of the country’s biggest tourist draws. The main reason, save for the mild climate, trekking opportunities and stunning landscape vistas, is the chance visitors are afforded to get up close and personal with villagers from local tribes.
Visitors know this. Hotel owners and tour operators know this. And, of course, the villagers know this. As you want to benefit from your visit by the experience and the images you create, so too do the villagers wish to benefit – generally, on an economic level. And there’s nothing wrong with that. How Western visitors have responded, however, is a problem.
It’s not uncommon to be approached by a local villager in the streets of Sapa or the surrounding countryside. Generally, pleasantries are exchanged. The villager may want to know where you’re from; they may want to know how old you are; they may want to know what you think of their country. If they want to know more, you may engage in an exciting conversation that is beneficial and enjoyable to both parties. Then again, they may be warming you up in order to sell you a handmade blanket, a sweater, a hat, a silver bracelet or four of their children. Buy something if you want to. Help the free economy flourish. What you shouldn’t do, however, is pay to take that villager’s photo.
Think it’s a good idea to give a villager a dollar in exchange for a photo? Then I’m sure you won’t mind having them follow you on your eight hour hike through the hill county.
I can’t tell you how many times a villager in Vietnam would wave at me to get my attention, motion for me to take their photo, then come running over demanding a dollar. The first time this happened, I thought it was funny. By the tenth time, I realized something was wrong. I realized that tourists were giving the villagers money to make their photos, effectively offering handouts to people begging in the streets. I use tourists in the pejorative sense because experienced photographers should know better than to do this sort of thing. Of course, that’s not really the case. I once ran into a well-known professional photographer on assignment in India: he was shooting sleeping homeless people at a Hindu temple. I didn’t ask him who he was shooting for (I had a pretty good idea), but I did ask him if what he was doing ever made him feel uncomfortable. “Only when they wake up and try and talk to me,” he said.
I’ve lived abroad long enough that whenever I hear the term they I immediately associate the user with the term asshole. I’ve decided I probably don’t want to run a workshop with that guy.
Most people wouldn’t consider giving a dollar to a homeless person in their own country because they know there are better ways to help another human being: offer food, shelter, support by way of a donation to a charitable cause, etc. etc. It’s no different on the road. I’m not saying don’t give – I’m saying don’t give money. It is one of the most irresponsible things you can do, and it contributes more to a culture of begging than it does anything else.
I was in a rice paddy shooting landscape photos when a villager with a loaded basket came into my viewfinder. She saw me and we smiled at one another. I held up my camera, indicating that I wanted to take a photo with her in it. She nodded back. I fired a few frames, unaware that another photographer had come up behind me and was shooting the same photo. When the villager saw that there were two of us, she held out her hand, asking for money. I waved me head and put my camera away. The other photographer nodded and continued shooting. When he was finished, he gave her five dollars. She didn’t thank him. She asked him for more. When he balked, she asked me. I said no. She decided that she would follow the other photographer while he trekked through the rice fields. When I saw that photographer again, 30 minutes later in a nearby village, the same woman was following him, but now he had three other local ladies on his heels and a group of kids about eight deep hanging off of him begging for money. I saw him reach into his wallet a few times, and no doubt he thought he was doing a good thing. Sadly, he wasn’t; he was perpetuating the stereotype of the rich Western visitor and encouraging the village people to beg everyone that they happen to come into contact with. There’s no worthy cultural exchange going on here. We’re not learning anything about one another. It is one person looking at the other as an object, one as the means to an end. Nothing more, nothing less.
Take the photo because you, and the person you’re taking the photo of, want to do it. Think twice about pressing the shutter if there are other motives in play.
My solution? Don’t take that photo.
That’s right. The next time someone demands you pay for an image, say no thank you. Walk away. Put your camera in your bag. Look for another photo opportunity someplace else. Do it because you know you’re doing the right thing, even if you’re missing out on a print-worthy image.
Yes, villagers are poor. But don’t lie to yourself and think that you’re doing a good deed when you give them a dollar: a dollar overseas goes about as far as a dollar back home. If you really want to make a difference, donate your time to a school or a hospital or another volunteer organization. Make a monetary donation to a local sustainability program. For the love of God, don’t visit a country on a package tour! Independent travelers commit up to 75-percent of their spending to locals when visiting South East Asia. Package tourists commit less than 25-percent. Keep your dollar bills in your pocket.
The only time you should pay for an image is if you plan on using that image commercially. If you’re going to use it for stock, for editorial purposes or otherwise exploit it for monetary gain, then you should think twice about paying; you don’t have to, but you should think about it. If you’re going to ask someone to sign a model release for the image then you should think doubly hard. Often, offering to send someone a print or a digital copy of the photo you’ve made of them (you’d be surprised how many village folk have email!) is more than enough. But it’s one more thing to keep in mind. However, if you’re going to use your images to impress your friend and tell them about the time you gave a poor farmer $1.50 in pocket change and saved his whole village, think about how you’re going to use your camera.
CASE TWO: Reckless Visitation
Monks meditating in the mist in Luang Prabang. Burmese pilgrims trekking the road to the golden rock. Nepali holy men collecting alms in the shadows of the Himalayas. All of these scenes are stunning and worth capturing. And there’s nothing wrong with capturing them – the secret is to do it with respect and with tact. All too often, sadly, this doesn’t happen.
Mandalay, Burma. Megan and I hired a driver to help us explore the area in what was a limited window of time. Hiring a driver or a fixer is often a great way to gain access to sites you’d otherwise miss, or see things you didn’t know were there – unless your driver is contributing to a social problem without letting you in on it.
Our driver had been telling us all morning of this fantastic monetary where monks did… something. He just wouldn’t tell us what. We figured it would be worth checking out; neither of us had any idea what to expect and we’re both fans of surprises. When we arrived at the monastery, we realized that we had heard about this place – a site where more than 1,000 monks gather to eat lunch on a daily basis. I wasn’t very happy, you see. We had tried to avoid this place on purpose; why would I want to see, let alone take photos, of monks eating lunch? I can think of nothing more foolish, yet there were dozens of tourists shoving their cameras into monk’s faces as they waited in line to receive their lunch. This is a big deal in a country where you rarely run into tourists. For people to be gathered here, en masse, really upset me. Some people even went as far to enter the cafeteria to shoot images while the monks ate. Megan tried to calm me down, but after one particularly stupid photographer bumped a monk and spilled his food while trying to take a picture of another, I spoke up. Or I snapped. One way or the other, I spit a little venom.
I asked the photographer how she would like it if I took a picture of her while she shoved a hamburger into her face. She frowned, cocked her head and replied, defiantly, “that they’re monks!” I told her that she was a fucking idiot, but that didn’t make me want to take her picture. Things deteriorated from there, but you get my point.
I regret not taking more photos of tourists behaving badly. Whenever I see people doing stupid things under the guise of photography, the last thing I want to do is take a photo. The first thing? You’ve probably already guessed.
You see, I felt terrible for the young crimson-clad guys; they have no control over who comes to spy on them while they eat, and they certainly aren’t going to speak out against anyone taking their photo. They, unlike the vast majority of people we met that day, have tact, grace and class. Tour operators deliver people to the monastery thinking this is the sort of thing tourists want to see. Some tourists, bless them, offer donations to the monastery after acting like buffoons, but that doesn’t offset the irresponsibility of their actions. I felt a little strange scolding a 40-something American woman at a monastery in Myanmar in front of her friends, but someone had to say something. I asked the group if they would walk into the Vatican and shoot images of cardinals sat down to dinner. No one answered, so I told them that I didn’t think they would. And if they did, the Pope would probably punch them in the nose.
To me, taking a picture of a monk eating his lunch carries no inherent cultural value. If you want to see it for yourself, go crazy. I’m not going to tell you where this happened, because I think there are better ways to spend your time. There’s nothing wrong with watching, I guess, though you could just as easily go to a McDonald’s in Illinois and watch people devour Big Macs if you were interested in associating food with culture. That’d be a hell of a lot more apt, too. Seriously.
This looks like fun? Seriously? Really? You’re full of shit. It’s not fun.
We’ve done a pretty good job of screwing up our planet to this point. I’d prefer not to see people compound problems by acting like jerks on a micro level. The way we interact with local people when we travel goes a long way towards influencing attitudes about where we are from: we should always and forever travel to a place with the goal of leaving a good impression in mind. Besides, I’ve kept a running tally over the last few years, and Americans are NOT the worst offenders. You’d be surprised…
I’m not a good travel photographer because I barge into towns on the other side of the world and treat people like shit. I’m a good photographer because I know how to interact with people. I know how to cultivate a good rapport with the folks I meet. Most of all, I’m genuine. I’m after experiences first, photographs second. It’ll be a cold day in hell the day you see an image from me where I’ve willingly exploited someone.
I toyed with the idea of providing more examples of photographers behaving badly, but I’m going to save them and post periodically on the subject as a reminder to all of us – myself included – exactly how we should and shouldn’t behave as travel photographers.