A Traveller's Guide to Respectful Photography
I’d like to think…I’m a little more subtle than the paparazzi. I haven’t resorted to hiding in bushes nor, have I engaged in a high-speed motorcycle chase in the pursuit of a good photo. That said, when I’m travelling, I’m obsessed with getting pictures of local people while they are engaging in their everyday activities.
Now, I will be the first to admit...if the situation was reversed and it were me—here in my lovely Canada, pursuing the cereal aisle in No Frills and someone jumped in front of me and clicked away—I would not be thrilled. So, what is it that makes me turn paparazzi as soon as I leave my homeland?
When I’m abroad, if you are a minority man, woman, or child, nun or a monk—I am particularly fascinated with you. Fortunately, for the privacy of the latter, I haven’t overcome my shyness and feel quite uncomfortable invading someone’s personal space by sticking my camera in their face. Although, I must confess sometimes I wish there was a little paparazzi in me because I love people shots.
Not Some of My Finer Moments
During my travels, I have taken many pictures of the local people in ways that I’m not particularly proud of. I’ve skulked in a corner at a market in North Vietnam pretending to be taking a picture of a particularly interesting mound of bananas (I’m sure you will agree...bananas are fascinating), when my camera is really aimed at the hilltribe shoppers dressed in their brightly coloured traditional clothing.
From a street corner, I’ve zoomed until I can zoom no more and snapped away at a Burmese gentleman sitting cross-legged in a barber’s chair under a tree. I’ve also been horrified albeit envious by a fellow tourist’s photo prowess while out for a walk in Yangon, Myanmar. He stopped dead in the middle of a sidewalk, swung around and backtracked until he had positioned himself right in front of his subject. An elderly pink robed nun, with a red umbrella poised high over her shaved head AND she was wearing large Jackie-O sunglasses. She was magnificent! But, I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t capture this incredible woman on digital.
I know, I know…taking pictures is a BIG part of the whole travelling experience. Who doesn’t want to capture the essence of the country you’re standing in? It’s not too often you hear someone say, “I don’t take pictures, I’ve got this committed to memory.”
Two Rules for Respectful Travel Photography
Sometimes, I’m pleased with my pictures but often—I’ve wished that I had the nerve to walk right over, perfectly aim and zoom right in on people going about their business just as my tourist friend did. Soooo, what do we shy polite photographers do? It’s quite simple. I have two rules for people photos.
Rule #1: whenever possible, ask for permission.
Be it from the individual directly or if I am on a tour, I will ask the tour guide before we arrive at the destination if photos are permissible. While I was in Asia, there were times when a photo inquiry lead to an open palm expecting money. But more often than not—I was blessed with a beaming smile.
I was in China, prior to the 2008 Olympics. When the torch passed through Shenzhen, I was among the throngs of people who went to witness this event. My colleague and I missed the torch because so many people were asking for our picture. We were happy to oblige, were grateful to be asked and didn't mind foregoing the torch because we met so many fantastic people that day.
Rule #2: be forthcoming and respectful.
I’m proud to say I’ve put my skulking behavior behind me. If an opportunity presents itself and I’m not in situation where I can request a photo i.e. someone was prostrating around Mount Kailash—I take a picture from a polite distance. I will never, EVER put myself right up in someone’s business even…if this means (I can now accept this)—forgoing a picture of an elderly Burmese nun wearing Jackie-O shades because I was not brave enough to ask for a photo. Besides, I figure…if my inner compass is telling me this is awkward (just as it was that faithful day) than it probably is--so don’t do it.
True to character, I will admit…it took me awhile to work my way out of this photo taking derve. As I continue to travel and abide my people photo rules it’s safe to say I’ll never be hired to do a little freelance work for the paparazzi. And, should I encounter any tourists in No Frills I can only hope their inner compass guides them to the very fascinating bananas.
Photographer in Action
Prostrating @ Mt. Kailash. I didn't get it right. I got it right.
In an effort to be respectful I have A LOT of back pictures :)