When it comes to capturing your travels, make sure you’re considering the ethics of the photos you’re taking. Photo / Getty Images
Jessica Wynne Lockhart gives advice on how to take and share photos responsibly on your next holiday. It’s not just about asking permission — it’s also about determining what it is that you want to say.
For better or for worse, social media has had a profound effect on where and how we travel. Even as the era of travel influencers seems like it might be drawing to a close (thanks to changing social media algorithms), destinations are still trying to tap into a trend that’s been around long before Instagram: The quest to get that perfect vacation shot.
Social media didn’t start it. Neither did selfie sticks. Since the dawn of personal photography, we’ve been lining up to prop up the Tower of Pisa, pinching the top of the Taj Mahal, and walking across the Abbey Road pedestrian crossing.
So, we’re not exactly new here. Yet, travel photography continues to be fraught with countless examples of bad behaviour, from flying drones where it’s prohibited to taking smiling selfies at Holocaust memorials. It’s reached the point where some hotels, restaurants and tourist attractions are beginning to limit photography, and in some cases, outright ban it.
So, how exactly can you take “responsible” photos on your next holiday — and why does it even matter?
The first ethical dilemma many travellers face is whether to request permission from their subjects. Ask and risk losing the moment. Don’t ask and you might risk violating someone’s boundaries.
For award-winning Kiwi photographer and adventurer Mark Watson, it’s not even a question: consent is a must. He suggests making eye contact with your subject and gesturing your intent by lifting your camera. And, as a bonus, the act of asking for permission may result in a cross-cultural exchange you might not otherwise have had.
“As a photographer, you’ll often have an emotional response to something that you’ve seen,” he says. “But it’s important to check yourself and respect the local people.”
But for Tracey Scott, who was named New Zealand Travel Photographer of the Year in 2021 and 2022 by New Zealand Institute of Professional Photography (NZIPP), it’s a bit more nuanced than that.
“Everyone has their own moral compass,” says Scott, who describes her shooting style as “organic”. However, she agrees there are situations when requesting permission is non-negotiable.
“In Ethiopia, I always asked permission, as it’s believed that when you photograph someone, you’re taking part of them,” she explains.
Being respectful shouldn’t just apply to people though — it should also apply to the environments you’re travelling through. While Watson does include geotags of the remote locations he’s visited on social media posts (a controversial practice, as critics suggest it can lead to over-tourism), he adheres to Leave No Trace principles.
“It’s good to slow down and think, ‘Okay, this is pristine desert. Am I making footprints that are going to be here for 20 years?'” he says, noting the problem isn’t the number of people lining up to take photos in a fragile environment — the problem is how they act once they’re there.
“It’s about respecting the environment, respecting local people, and thinking about the bigger picture,” he says.
Finally, what you do with your photos once you get home is just as critical as the act of taking them. Regardless of whether you’re just sharing your photos on social media or in a family album, it’s important to consider the story you’re telling. Did you post only pictures of people in traditional costumes — but not in modern clothing? Did you only share pictures of children with flies on their faces, but not those same children attending a well-furnished school? You could be guilty of both perpetuating stereotypes and creating poverty porn.
“There’s a fine line between a genuine interest in others’ cultures and exoticising people for your own benefit,” says Nicola Bailey, an Australian photographer and the photo editor for Adventure.com. “As a Westerner, there’s the risk that you’re setting people — often in developing countries — apart as ‘different,’ rather than highlighting similarities that you may share. You’re not only reinforcing stereotypes but also reaffirming the notion that the customs of the West are right and that others are, in some way, more backward.”
Captions matter, too. In a former life, I worked for a volunteer-sending organisation, where part of my job was to monitor volunteers’ social media channels. Hands-down, the expression that still makes me cringe is “#TIA”, which stands for “This is Africa” — as though the world’s second-largest continent could be neatly summarised in a three-character hashtag. (My second-least favourite caption? “The people had nothing, but were so happy and generous.”) If what you’re sharing seems over-simplified and one-dimensional, it probably is.
“Photography generally shapes how people see the world and so when we share photos, we are influencing how others perceive the world too,” says Bailey. “When sharing a photo and communicating about it, the rule of thumb is quite simply to represent all people with dignity and respect.”