Taking portraits of the people I meet on my travels is one of the most challenging, inspiring and rewarding aspect of photography for me. Walking around with a camera in my hand sometime can be a portal to another layer of the culture that I normally wouldn’t get to know. Sometime there’s such a deep, almost intimate, human connection between me and my subject—even if we don’t speak the same language—it’s a beautiful feeling. This sort of connection is what keeps my love for photography alive, so you can imagine how pissed of I get when I see carless rude tourist throw their cameras in people faces without even saying a word to them.
There are unwritten rules on what’s ok and what’s not ok when it comes to take portraits of people while traveling so once and for all let’s write these damn rules down so we can all behave like civil and caring human beings!
Do a bit of research before you leave. Learn about the culture and the people, find out what’s acceptable and what’s not in that country so that you can approach the situation sensitively. You should always ask yourself: “if that was me, would I want my picture taken in this specific moment?” and if the answer is no, put the camera down and walk away.
RESPECT THE CULTURE
Tell the real story of a country. Don’t manipulate reality just to have a cool shot and don’t depict a fairytale if things are not that positive; Don’t behave like a paparazzi stalking a celebrity, respect people and situations (if there’s a religious ceremony going on, or monks are meditating for example maybe you shouldn’t disturb them with your click noises). And lastly, always value your subject and dignify people and don’t portray destructive stereotypes.
It’s so fucking rude to get in people’s faces and snap a picture without any kind of contact before. Remember that what you have in front of you is a human being not a tourist attraction! I know approaching random strangers in the streets can be awkward but once you’ve tried it a few times it will start to feel normal and natural.
Smile a lot, don’t take the camera out right away, first talk to the person in front of you. If you speak the same language explain to them why you want to take their pictures and if you don’t speak the same language use hands gestures to be understood or, even better, learn a few words in the local language ( “Hi” -“what’s your name?” – “can I take a photo of you?” – “thank you” simple frases that can go a long way!).
Once you take the picture show it to them, it will put a smile on their face 9 times out of 10!
IF THEY SAY NO
No means no!
PAYING FOR PHOTOS
This is an endlessly debated topic: Is it ok to pay people to take their picture? A lot of people have mixed feelings about this. My personal opinion is No, it’s not ok (most the time, with a few exceptions.) if it doesn’t feel right.
WHY PAYING FOR PHOTOS IS BAD
Money can be a very bad thing in this case. First of all, paying people for pictures can very easily lead to fakery of culture (do you remember the fake stilt fishermen of Sri Lanka?!), it can also encourage bagging and it can make things more unsafe for who will come after (demanding money for pictures could lead to fights).
Fakers and tourist traps– You’ve seen the many spidermans on Hollywood blvd and Time Square, or the people dressed in traditional costums in front of some main tourist attractions. In that case paying for pictures is not damaging, that’s what these guys are there for, to make a buck! They aren’t trying to trick you into thinking they really are spiderman, they are putting on a show.
Models – if you are taking a long time bringing a person from background to background than you should definitely think about giving them something, they are basically working for you at that point.
It’s just the way it is – in some countries there are areas where there’s a serious business around making tourists pay for pictures; the Omo Valley in Ethiopia is the perfect example: some of the tribes, like the Mursi, make most of their income thanks to tourists’ pictures, they put a lot of effort in dressing up and decorate their body to be photographed.
Instead of paying someone to snap a picture, consider offer them something, a drink, some sweets, anything to show your appreciation. Buy something from the people you photographed if they happened to be vendors at a market.
NEVER GIVE MONEY TO KIDS
Never ever ever give money to kids, not for pictures, nor for any other reason. Giving money to children encourages them not to go to school and stay on the streets bagging or selling stuff to tourists. For the same exact reason I just explained to you it’s also not a good idea to give them toys or candy (plus the sugar ruins their teeth, and most kids in poor areas don’t brush their teeth.)
That’s just my 2 cents on how to take travel portraits ethically. When we travel we often forget that we are only guests into someone else’s country, let’s all play our part to respect our fellow humans wherever we are! If you have other useful ways todo things ethically please share them here in the comments!