A Traveller’s Guide to Respectful Photography
I’d like to expand upon the previous blog post entitled An encounter with a Monk because it warmed up my juices re my rules of travel photography sooooo, I decided to go with it. Please see below the results of my going with it.
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 normal 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 am sad to say, I wish there were a little paparazzi in me because I love people shots.
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 (come on 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.” 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. Sometimes, after I have inquired a hand will go out expecting money; but most often than not—I will be rewarded by a smile and a pose. When I was in China, prior to the 2008 Olympics and the torch was passing 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 pictures! I was happy to oblige just as so many people have been for me.
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 may make a photo request i.e. someone is prostrating along the trail on route to Mount Kalish—I smile and take a picture from a polite distance. I will never, EVER put myself right up in someone’s business even…if this means and 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 and now that I have I can’t wait to explore another pocket of the world. 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.
Prostrating @ Mt. Kailash. I didn't get it right. I got it right.
Activist, World traveller. Fan of Reese's Peanut Butter Cups.