Should I take photographs?

gail (1)Travelling presents an opportunity to photograph in lots of different destinations and situations, but sometimes there may be culturally sensitive issues to think about before reaching for the camera or other photo-taking device. There are lots of people in the world who do not have clean water, electricity, schooling or enough to eat, let alone access to mobile telephones, the internet and printed media, so they have no idea where their photograph may end up or how it could be used. Sadly, in this day and age, child prostitution, child trafficking and other crimes against children are facilitated via the Internet, and photography can play an unwitting and innocent role. Photography and its use is no longer straight forward, so perhaps it is time to stop and think a little about the ethics of photography.

Disturbing wildlife just to get a different viewpoint is definitely unethical, so to minibuses converging on an animal, regardless of any distress caused, to guarantee the all-important souvenir photograph can be taken. Sadly, it is not uncommon for animals, including birds and snakes, to be drugged or mistreated so that they can be used as a ‘photographic prop’. Is it right to visit a village and encourage people to give inappropriate demonstrations for photographs? Do tourists click away with little thought to people going about their daily lives – would they do the same at home? Is it ethical to stick a camera in front of someone and take their photograph, without even speaking to him or her? Ethical photography is about being considerate in attitude and approach, rather than being voyeuristic, thoughtless or selfish.

The ethics of paying for photographs on holiday is a difficult one.  If people ask to be paid, is it better to decline and not take the photograph? This is an individual decision as in some places people genuinely make a living through having their photograph taken – the water sellers in Marrakech for instance. They may have a set price or may negotiate – using the local exchange rate or cost of living rather than western rates avoids over payment or setting a precedent.  In contrast, asking children to pose for a photograph for money, pens or sweets is wrong on all count and inevitably encourages them to then ask other tourists for money or gifts, and worse still, could result in them leaving school.

Photographing ‘clients’ on holiday raises another question about ethical photography. Relaxed and enjoying their holiday activities, they may understandably object to photographs taken by a tour operator or local guide being used on Facebook or a Flickr stream. Whilst great for PR and marketing, it shouldn’t be taken for granted that clients will want to have their personal holiday experience ‘online’ for general viewing.

Is it ethical for organisations, often with ‘Responsible Tourism’ credentials, to run photography competitions and encourage people to enter, when the terms and conditions may require unrestricted rights for the use of those photographs? What about the ethics of entering a photograph of a person who has no knowledge of how their image might be used? They may be delighted to see a winning picture of themself in a brochure, magazine or online, but alternatively there could be cultural sensitivities or even social consequences as a result of public exposure.  Usually it is better to try to make sure that people want to be photographed, and are happy to be photographed, by talking with them and asking their permission. Being upfront gives people the opportunity to make it clear if they do not want to be photographed. Photography competitions with rules that disregard copyright or take advantage of the use of entries are best not entered.

Holiday photography can be a huge force for good and can play an important role in archiving what is around us, highlighting positive and negative impacts on our environment. Sharing photographs on social media attracts different opinions, but Internet safety where ‘user generated’ content and digital photography is involved is important. People go on holiday, take photographs and share them, for example, on Facebook. They use the public setting, probably not thinking about their privacy, application settings or copyright. Governments, tourism, travel and other commercial organisations who engage through social media, need to be ethical in their use of content and photographs shared with them online, especially when they subsequently convert into free marketing opportunities for wide-ranging social media strategies (Pinterest, Google+, Twitter, Tumblr, etc.). Exploitation of children in tourism is a serious issue yet Tour Operators who support campaingns with, for example ECPAT UK or Tourism Concern, put photographs of children on their social media. Is there a contradiction? Can holiday photography unintentionally damage their efforts? Should posting and sharing photographs of children on publicly accessible websites or social media be avoided, particularly if a location is easily identifiable?  What makes it ethical to post a photograph of a young child from an indigenous community on Facebook when UK children under thirteen years old are not supposed to use it? Social media sites may also make publicly-posted content available to selected third parties and then those third parties may syndicate to other media and services, so there is no knowing where a photograph ends up.


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