On the Ethics of Photographing Locals

On the Ethics of Photographing Locals

Face it – taking photos is part of who we are these days. It’s not surprising when every 8-year old kid with an iPhone has more options for artistic photography that a Pulitzer Prize winning photographer had only 6 or 8 years ago. Indeed, we love taking photos so much that every day, over 350 million are uploaded to Facebook. That’s 128 billion per year, for those keeping track – and that was in 2013!

With Internet ubiquity, photos have become the currency of memories. But with this power comes an expectation of responsibility. On our trips, we see a lot of people take a lot of photos – and rightly so! We’ve put some serious time into finding the best vistas, the most dramatic backdrops, and the friendliest locals for a great photo op. We pride ourselves on our relationship with local shop owners, restaurateurs, guides, and equipment suppliers who help us craft ultra-authentic adventures that need – nay, demand – to be photographed. However, sometimes it’s not just about getting the photo – it’s how you get the photo.

For instance, in 1993 photojournalist Kevin Carter took a picture of a young, emaciated Sudanese girl, crumpled on the ground. A few meters away stood a giant buzzard, waiting for his next meal. Before it won the Pulitzer Prize, the picture caused a global uproar for the lack of compassion the photo suggested. Did he save the girl? Did he shoo the bird away? Why did he stop to take a picture first?

That’s an extreme example, and SA guests would be unlikely to encounter anything this controversial – you don’t have to ask a sunset or street musicians or your guide if you can take their picture. But the reality is, when photographing people, you must ask yourself if there are any ethical considerations involved.

One rule to keep in mind when you’re taking pictures of people is that it’s not a picture of someone, it’s a picture with someone; a relationship between you and the subject, and the camera is the tool that brought you together. In addition, take into account what the person is doing. Are they buying vegetables or sitting in a coffee shop? That’s pretty low risk. Are they praying or having an intense conversation with someone? Better leave them alone, just in case.

While alerting your subject that you want to take a photo is not ideal and can sometimes ‘ruin the moment,’ it never hurts to use some sign language – hold the camera up and smile, miming pressing the button. Most people will say yes – or at least, not say no – and it removes any perception of impropriety, even if that wasn’t your intention.

Hearing the click of a motor and looking over to see a tourist with a camera can irritate anyone, especially if the timing isn’t right. Keep this in mind when taking pictures of people, and remember – a smile doesn’t need a translator to get the message across!