5 Tips for Ethical Travel Photography

Marianne Stenger
31st May 2017

As a travel photographer, it’s important to document the communities and environments you’re visiting respectfully and accurately, and this means thinking about how your images will impact and portray the people and places you’re photographing. Here are a few tips for ethical travel photography.

1. Research your destination in advance

It’s always a good idea to do some research before you leave so you can better understand the history, customs, beliefs and cultural norms of the place you’ll be visiting. This will help you avoid doing anything that might be viewed as rude or disrespectful.

Start by finding out how people dress and behave in public places and what their attitudes are towards visitors and photography in general.

For example, in order to enter many religious buildings, you’ll need to cover your shoulders, legs and head, and in some countries, Muslim women should not be photographed at all. In other countries you could be fined or even imprisoned if you photograph certain buildings, and in most places, photographing children without a parent’s permission could get you into trouble.

2. Try to interact with your subjects

Although asking for permission before taking a photo of someone can ruin the spontaneous moment you’re trying to capture, you should always try to interact with your subjects a bit, either before or after taking the photo. How would feel if someone came to your place of work or home and started snapping photos without saying a word?

Interacting with the people you want to photograph can even help you get better images, because your subjects will be more relaxed in front of the camera.

If someone notices that you’re photographing them, stop for a moment and try to greet them in their own language, explain what you’re doing and show them the photo you took. If you’re in a shop or café, it’s polite to buy something or stop for a drink.

Of course, if for whatever reason someone doesn’t want you to take a photo of them, their family or their property, put your camera away and move on.  

3. Reflect on how your photos will portray and impact the subject

Another important consideration is how your photos will portray and impact your subject. Think about the political, economic and social circumstances of your subject. Would sharing that photo harm people in any way? Would it objectify them or portray them in an unfair or unnecessarily negative way?

For example, if you’re visiting an impoverished village, why focus on unpleasant things like rubbish or unsanitary living conditions when you could document how the people there make their living or photograph meaningful interactions between family members or friends?

Of course, it goes without saying that if you’re photographing issues that are culturally or politically sensitive, you should take care to protect the identity and privacy of your subjects.

4. Provide some context with each photo

If you want your photos to accurately portray a situation, it’s important to provide some context when sharing and displaying your photos.

Think about the story you’re trying to tell and what text can be added to accurately explain what the picture is about and avoid contributing to stereotypes about a particular group of people or part of the world. If your photo was in any way posed or staged, you should also share this information when captioning the photo or providing the backstory.

5. Respect the people and places you’re photographing

Having respect for the people and places you’re photographing is a big part of being an ethical travel photographer. Don’t climb on monuments and ancient ruins or trample through protected nature areas just to get the perfect shot. If you’re photographing wildlife, keep a safe and respectful distance and never try to feed or interact with wild animals.

It’s also important to have some sensitivity about what may or may not be appropriate to photograph. For example, if you’re not a photojournalist and have no particular reason to photograph a beggar, slum dweller or grieving mother, you should think twice about taking that photo.  

Copyright: The images in this article have been provided by lifestyle and travel photographer Isabella Gomes. You can see more of her work by visiting her website or following her on Facebook and Instagram