Photography is a big part of travel these days. Everyone wants to capture their awe-inspiring travel experiences to share with friends and family back home. Thanks to social media, we can do so almost instantly (depending on the availability of wifi).
While it’s great that the proliferation of stories and photos can spread so quickly and help make the world feel smaller and less intimidating, we must remember that we have a responsibility to the people and places we photograph.
Cultures do not exist merely for the sake of Facebook likes and retweets. They are complex, intimate, and sacred. And we, as travelers, should feel honored when we’re given access to cultural experiences that are not our own.
That being said, there are ways to photograph cultures that are respectful and effective in capturing beautiful moments around the world. Keep these points in mind and you’ll come away with great photos and richer experiences as a result.
Always ask permission first.
Chances are, you wouldn’t shove a camera in someone’s face at home. But there’s something about travel that makes people forget that certain manners are universal. No one likes a camera in their face if they haven’t been asked first.
But people are a crucial element to culture. It’s perfectly understandable that you’d want to include shots of local people in your coverage of a new place and its culture. Photographs of people can be beautiful, enlightening, thought-provoking, entertaining, and so much more. Respectfully taking that photograph will make it even better.
If you wish to enter someone’s personal space to take a photo, it’s only polite to ask first. In the event of a language barrier, there are gestures that can communicate your desire to take a photo, like pointing at your camera.
It’s important to remember that people are people in every country. They do not become tourist attractions just because you are a tourist.
Don’t make assumptions.
If you’re taking photographs to share with the public on a blog, social media, or elsewhere, it’s important to provide some context for your audience. This might seem obvious, but it’s just being responsible to only write what you know.
It’s easy to make assumptions about a culture we aren’t familiar with. When we don’t take the time to do our research, ask questions, have conversations, and acknowledge our own knowledge gaps, we run the risk of using photos to fill in a narrative we’ve already written. You might not even realize you’re doing it.
When you take a picture of another culture other than your own, ask yourself: What do I know for certain about what’s in this photo?
By acknowledging your own distance from the culture you’re capturing, you’ll invite your audience to be curious, rather than taking your assumptions as their own. We want to learn about new cultures and share what we learn with others. When we photograph then, we should continue to ask questions, rather than assume we know the answers.
Educate yourself first.
It’s always important to educate yourself about the culture of a place before you visit. When we plan on photographing that culture, education becomes even more crucial.
Perhaps there are certain events or situations in this area which it’s considered disrespectful to take photos. If you aren’t informed about a destination’s culture, you may inadvertently offend someone or cause some serious drama for yourself.
For example, in Chamula, an indigenous town in Mexico, it’s actually illegal to take photos of the locals. Why, you ask? Because their culture includes a belief that a piece of their soul is robbed when they’re photographed. Robbing someone of their soul is no way to experience their culture!
Be as inconspicuous as possible.
Wherever you’re traveling, it’s helpful to consider yourself a guest in that country, just as you would in someone’s home. You are here to partake in their culture– their food, music, crafts, and more– but it is not your own.
Because you’re a guest, it’s important to make your presence a subtle one. We don’t plop ourselves down in the nicest chair of someone’s home we’ve just entered. So why would it be acceptable to make a scene by snapping loud photos with a obnoxious flash in an otherwise quiet place if we’re not familiar with the local culture?
Being inconspicuous isn’t just the polite thing to do. It’s also a chance to have even richer travel experiences.
The alms giving ceremony in Luang Prabang, Laos is a beautiful experience. It’s natural to want to get up close and capture the bright orange of the monk’s robes in the early morning glow of sunrise. But this is one of the most sacred Lao traditions. Big cameras and loud noises will disrupt the peaceful atmosphere. So do your part to remain a quiet onlooker. Your experience of the tradition will be more genuine if you take the time to watch and listen, rather than focusing on your photos.
Be aware of your surroundings.
Distractions abound when we’re traveling. Focusing on our photography can lead to an increased level of tunnel vision, especially when we’re capturing something that excites us.
But it’s so important to be aware of our surroundings when we’re taking photos. When we’re taking photos of cultural experiences that are new to us, then we really need to be on high alert for what is going on, beyond the frame of our camera. Are we getting in the way of other people? Are we disturbing a important moment? Are we making it difficult for someone else to do their job?
It’s wonderful to become entranced in the cultural nuances of a new place, and to want to share that experience with people back home through photography. But awareness will help us better participate in the whole scene while we capture a piece of it.
Hire a local fixer.
Fixers are people who are native to the place you’re exploring, who can guide you through their culture to help you be more aware of the unfamiliar territory you’re treading.
Not only will they help you get from point A to point B while translating for interactions along the way, they can also introduce you to other interesting locals who may specialize in the cultural topics you’re most interested in. A fixer can open doors that you probably couldn’t open yourself. They can introduce you to cultural experiences that you may not have been aware of.
Perhaps most importantly, a fixer can guide you through their culture in the most respectful way possible, because they know all of the “do’s” and “don’ts” when it comes to participation in these activities. A fixer will be able to tell you when it’s appropriate to take pictures and point you in the direction of shots that you might not think to take on your own.
Put your subject first.
There are many reasons to take a photo. We take them to remember a moment, or to share that moment with friends and family back home. Sometimes we take them for bragging rights on social media. But when we’re taking pictures of a culture that is not our own, it’s important to put the subject first.
The next time you photograph a culture that is not your own, make sure you consider the well-being of the people and their culture. Are we going to use this photo simply to garner likes on Facebook, or do we really hope to inform people back home about a rich culture they might otherwise not be exposed to?
Travel photography has the ability to make the world feel more accessible by sharing little pieces of it with more people. But while you’re capturing moments to share with people back home, think about the people in front of you.
You will no doubt capture beautiful photos when you travel around the world and experience new cultures. With Discover Corps, you’ll benefit from local guides who can help you get up close and personal with traditional cultures, while remaining respectful at all times of the people and places you photograph. –Britany Robinson
BIO: Britany Robinson is a freelance travel and culture writer based in Portland, Oregon. Her works appears in BBC Travel, Mashable, The Daily Dot and more. Her blog, Travel Write Away, shares advice and musings on travel writing. When she’s not planning her next big trip, she’s scoping out Portland craft beers and local hikes.