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Confessions of a Travel Blogger

Writing Responsibly About Your Adventures

I have a confession to make. My travel blogging has led to trouble. Even worse, it was not trouble for me but for someone I met en route

It seemed so innocent at the time, just one little comment from a local that I quickly inserted into a post from an internet cafe in a less-than-democratic country. My haste was his pain: three days of grilling from the police, as I found out months later.

Why did I do it? The guilt over this unintended consequence has kept me awake many nights asking just that question. In hindsight it clearly was a stupid thing to have done, although I obviously had not seen so at the time.

People with whom I have spoken since this event say I am being too hard on myself. They try to assure me that I could never have known those few words – just one sentence that was so unremarkable on the surface of things but touching on an international event the ruling government in question did not want publicly discussed – would have such ramifications. Even my friend who was arrested said later that he was surprised his words had raised such ire.

I have a different take on the situation. In my rush to share every intimate detail of our journey with family and friends, and to make our dispatches as interesting as possible, I just did not think. Had I taken a moment to reflect and erred on the side of caution, those words would have stayed where they belonged: in the private realm and not the public arena that is the Internet.

Think First, Act Later

It is a mistake that even bloggers with the best of intentions can make all-too-easily, increasingly so in an era of Twitter and Facebook, where user activity is measured in seconds. Add to that the introduction of ultra-portable devices like the iPhone and netbooks and with Internet access popping up even in repressive countries like Turkmenistan and it is easy to see why sharing travel experiences with friends and relatives after you return home is so “last century.”

But as I learned the hard way, this more connected global world brings with it an increased responsibility on the part of all travelers who share their experiences online to consider carefully what they publish. Anything that seems the slightest bit controversial or political in nature involving individuals is probably best left unsaid. At the very least, names and situations should be changed so authorities cannot identify the people involved. Anything less and the consequences could be dire for the people you are writing about.

Sometimes you do not even have to be an active blogger to be placed in a dicey moral dilemma while travelling. If you happen to be somewhere when news breaks, you may have to decide whether or not to sell your photos and videos to media organizations. That is what precisely what happened to foreigners who were unexpectedly caught in Tibet during the 2008 riots.

Dave (www.thelongestwayhome.com) was one of these travelers. The payments offered were substantial: enough to keep him on the road for a year. The initial idea of selling a few snapshots to boost his bank balance was tempting but his view quickly changed when he witnessed the reaction of local taxi drivers, who were monitoring coverage of the riots from an Internet cafe.

“The drivers in the cybercafe saw nothing but fear when pictures began appearing on the Internet news stations. While so many wanted their plight to be known to the world, priorities changed for them when the Chinese military came storming into the city in their thousands. The next day the military were doing door to door searches for people based on printouts from CCTV footage, and news sites. It was now a city gripped in fear. Whole families were taken away based on images both from outside of Tibet, and from within.” 

“If you see a man's face under these situations as he realizes that he might be falsely identified due to having a similar jacket as someone else on a photo, then you can see true fear. Not just for themselves, but for their whole families. I was there, I saw this, I felt this, and there was no way I was going to publish these photographs or sell them.”

The key message here is to remember that any website you contribute to – whether your own or someone else's publication – is not a private affair. You might think you are writing only for the folks back home, but unless you specifically take steps to limit the site's visibility only to subscribed users, everything that appears on the computer monitor will be indexed by search engines and open for the world to see. That includes authorities in the countries you visit.  

Do Your Research

If this all sounds more than a little scary, maybe even enough to put you off keeping an online travel journal for life, here is the good news: with a little research and forethought you can keep an account of your journey that is interesting but without being harmful to anyone you meet along the way.

First, do your research before leaving home. Going to Estonia or Iceland? You probably do not have much to worry about as those states have excellent track records on press freedom and freedom of speech. But if your trip includes countries like China, Vietnam and Egypt, where filtering systems and surveillance mean online content is highly likely to be officially monitored, be prepared to censor what you write accordingly. Even a faintly negative comment could be enough for the police to act against anyone you identify.

A good starting point for this is the website of Reporters Sans Frontieres (Reporters Without Borders). There you can find their annual report on press freedom, which ranks countries from best to worst.

Another recommended exercise before you board a flight is to consider how you will approach photography. Asking permission to take someone's photo is always good practice and be prepared to respect a negative answer. Quite aside from the annoyance someone might feel having a camera lens stuck in their face, the right to an individual's image rests with that person alone. 

Sometimes asking is difficult. You may feel the moment will be ruined if you ask or perhaps you are in a public place and taking the picture from far away. Just remember that unless you have a signed model release from that person, you do not have the right to sell that image. Ask yourself as well: “If this were a picture of me, would I be happy seeing it on the front page of the New York Times?” If the answer is no, consider keeping that picture for your private collection or not taking it at all. 

One of the best ways to approach the photography of people is to hire a local guide who will help you make connections with locals and explain your interest to them. It will certainly cost more than just wandering the streets yourself but forming a relationship with the people you want to photograph will result in much better images and ensure there are no misunderstandings.

Finally, when you are sitting in front of that computer, composing your latest dispatch home, just take a moment to think. Consider how the people you are writing about would view your latest report from the road. Would you be proud to show it to them? Would they show their friends and family? If the story touches on sensitive issues – but ones that you feel are important to share with your audience – could you change a few details so the person will not be identifiable?

Taking those few extra moments will not take much out of your day, but it could mean the world to the people you are writing about and - especially in the most repressive countries - save them from a situation you would not want to face yourself.