The ethics of photographing locals

Photo credit: Jim Cline Photos

This guest post by Christie Long was originally published in WhyDev, a blog for individuals passionate about development, aid, and other global issues. 

I was drinking a cup of tea in a village in eastern Indonesia when they arrived. The young Spanish couple looked like typical tourists – big floppy hats, beige cargo pants and backpacks. Slung around their necks were fancy cameras which they immediately started snapping, recording the faces and movements of villagers husking rice, women weaving cloth and children playing outside their homes.

The couple slowly got closer to where I was sitting and I tried to ignore them. I was chatting in Bahasa Indonesia to a woman from the village – a friend of a friend – who had offered to take me on her motorbike to explore more of the island the following day. Yuli had fetched me tea and the women sitting with us offered betel nut.

A frown etched across Yuli’s forehead momentarily as she noticed the couple, and one of the women beside us shifted her position on the bench, turning her back on the man now attempting to take her photo. With her face now hidden, he lost interest in her and he turned his lens to a child sitting on the ground a few metres away.

The couple’s approach to exploring the village made me feel uneasy. It was not the first time I had seen tourists behave in such a way. The particular island I was visiting in Indonesia doesn’t receive many tourists, but the village – with its traditional thatch-roof houses and megalith tombs – is accustomed to visitors. Even so, visitors must sign a guest book and make a small donation to enter. But just because a place is accommodating of tourists doesn’t make it a zoo.

Of course, some places are less accommodating of tourists.

Of course, some places are less accommodating of tourists.

Too often I see tourists rush in to villages, and even homes, reaching for their cameras without attempting to make any connection with the people they are so anxious to photograph. Often this is without the permission of those they are photographing, or when those people are clearly uncomfortable.

I find this strange, and question the intent of tourists in these circumstances. What value is a photo of someone whose name you don’t know, a stranger with whom you haven’t had a conversation? Their culture, clothing and home may look different to yours. But what does that mean if you haven’t built any rapport with that person? When you look at their photo years from now, what will you remember about them and the interaction you had?

When I see tourists objectify local people and take photos of them in their homes and going about their everyday lives, I wonder why they want such photos. Is it to flood their friends’ Facebook feeds with the faces of smiling children they claim to have befriended on their travels? Is it to prove how “local” they went or how much they now really understand the culture and traditions of the country they visited?

One of the best things about travel is the people we meet – and we don’t always need to speak the same language to make a connection. But making a connection of some form is key, particularly before snapping a camera in the face of a stranger when you are a guest in their home. Ask questions about the food they’re preparing, the materials their homes are made from and the beliefs and practices of their community. Show an interest in something more than just taking their photo.

When I see tourists photographing locals, I also worry about the locals’ privacy and safety. I don’t think it’s enough to ask someone’s permission to take their photograph. Even if they nod their head, say yes or accept payment for a photo, it is likely they are not aware of the full extent to which their photo and information could potentially spread. Often, in the cases where permission is sought, it is from the child, rather than their parent or guardian. Language barriers aside, it is unrealistic to expect most children to understand the dangers associated with their personal information being publicly accessable, particularly with the reach of social media.

When a tourist takes a photo of a local, even if they seek their permission, it is unlikely they explain how they will later use that photo. This can be dangerous. A photo harmlessly posted on Facebook perhaps with seemingly minor details like the person’s name, town or village can lead to that person being contactable or located.

Most international and grassroots organizations that work with local communities, particularly those that work with children, have policies and procedures in place to protect their beneficiaries from abuse and exploitation. These include strict rules around the collection and use of information including photos and personal data. When these organizations collect such information from their beneficiaries, they are required to explain how it will be used, whether it be in a brochure, a TV advertisement, a website article or for internal records. The person being photographed, filmed or interviewed must understand and be comfortable with this before the information is collected, and parental consent for children under 18 must be sought.

Reverse the situation. Would you let a tourist visiting your home country – one that you’d had little or no interaction with – take a photo of you or your child because they thought the way you looked or lived was interesting? I would hesitate, and question why they wanted my photo and what they would do with it.

If no rapport had been built and there had been no attempt by the tourist to gain an insight into my life, I would find it insulting and intrusive. I would probably refuse, and be upset if they tried to take my photo without my permission.

This is what I want tourists to consider when they travel. Why do you want a particular photo? How are you using the information you collect and are the people you photograph aware of and comfortable with this? Are you considering and protecting their privacy and safety?

Photos are a fantastic way to capture and preserve a moment. Long after our travels are over, and perhaps our memories faded, photos are what remind us of the adventures we had and the people we met. I’m not saying we should never take photos of the people we meet on our travels – but make establishing a connection a priority, so that your photograph has meaning. Consider your intent and whether that is fair on your subject. And hold their privacy and safety in the highest regard.

Christie Long is a communications professional who has previously worked for Plan International and World Vision. She has lived in Tanzania, Thailand and is currently working in Indonesia for a local NGO. A trained journalist, she prefers to tell the stories of organizations working for social good.

Do you think it’s OK to take photos with locals? Tell us in a comment below.