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Travel Photography Is Exchange

Being Personally and Culturally Sensitive to Locals

Exchanging photos in Columbia
Karen Schulman, the author of Travel Portraits: Master the Art of Taking People Pictures, used a Polaroid camera to photograph these Columbian girls, and then she gave them each a photo.

I used to think the key to great travel photography was a long lens. It allowed me to hide in the shadows and hope people wouldn’t notice me. My photos from this era were often grainy blurs, caused by heavy zooming and attempting to click before my subject started yelling. Like many travelers, I felt that images of people were far more evocative than static shots of monuments and landscapes and that by focusing on people I was interacting with the “real” culture of a region.

But as I flipped through my albums of anonymous faces, I realized that treating people as images or “sights” to be captured was no way to get to know anyone or anything. I began to realize that photography is an exchange that has an effect on both the photographer and the subjects and that photographers have the responsibility to ensure that these effects are positive.

Ask Before Taking a Photograph

To shoot without asking, even with the best of intentions, creates a clash between camera-toting “haves” exercising their power to steal the likeness of “have-nots.” Shoving a camera in someone’s face without asking is rude anywhere—the photographer is taking something without offering anything—even conversation—in return.

While it may be scary to ask permission to take a photo, a thousand “nos” are worth it when that one special person agrees to be photographed. Stiff-looking models staring straight into the camera are not the stuff of great photography, but such shots are easily avoided by taking the time to get to know your subjects. Friendly conversation—even if you butcher the language—will usually lead them to feel comfortable with you and forget about your camera.

Payment for Taking a Portrait

Even if you share a friendly exchange, those with the “look” will still often charge you for their services. Particularly in heavily touristed areas, posing for tourists is a dependable source of income, and requests for tips from these professional models should be respected.

Tipping “nonprofessionals,” however, can reinforce the have/have not relationship and get in the way of establishing a real connection with a subject. It is therefore best to find a way of compensation that fits into the local economy. For example, in the Witches’ Market in La Paz, Bolivia, I spent several hours visiting stands groaning with amulets, herbs, and dried llama fetuses, chatting with their keepers and buying a few trinkets from each. The “witches” seemed pleased by my interest, and, since I was a paying customer, none turned down my request that they pose. I left with magical protection over all aspects of my life and great shots of the women I had met.

One of the most glaring negative effects of tourism is the sharp barrier between tourist turf—with its English-language transactions—and local. In touristy areas, simply getting away from the tourist scene shows your interest in the local culture and may warm up many potential subjects. When I sat down at a Peruvian street corner bar (instead of in the gringo bar 20 feet away) to swill some chicha, the Andean maize beer, the locals were first baffled, then amused, by my presence. After spending half an hour cracking up at my attempts to pronounce the Quechua version of “Cheers!,” my companions happily let me photograph them. A tip was still expected, but I escaped the direct exchange of money by buying a round.

Cultural Sensitivity and Photography

Photographing people is always an exchange. The person you shoot is affected because you’ve marked them as photo-worthy. Locals know that crowds still gather around those in traditional garb. Once, when I asked an Andean woman in sweatpants and a baseball cap if I could take some photos, she agreed but pointed to a her neighbor who was wearing the traditional layers of skirts and a bowler hat. “I think you’d rather take hers,” she joked. People who make great subjects generally do so because they’re on the margins of society, and they know it; so it’s important to make the subjects feel you want to photograph them because you shared a special moment or deeply respect their culture, not simply because they’re exotic.

What you choose to photograph continues to have an effect once you’ve returned home. Your shots either confirm or shatter stereotypes for their viewers. The loss of traditional arts and lifestyles is tragic, and the images of those who hang on to them should certainly be recorded; likewise, images of poverty can raise the consciousness of their viewers. But to return from a developing country with pictures of only the colorful or ragged reinforces stereotypes. When my relatives who had never traveled saw my photographs of India, in which I focused on wild religious rituals and street people, they believed once and for all that India was “backwards.”

The Responsible Photographer

Getting away from recording the mysterious and miserable is also an artistic challenge. The mark of a good photographer is someone who presents subjects in a unique way, not someone who simply points their camera at a unique subject. To honestly record a culture, you must get away from the easy shots of the exotic. Instead, try to take an amazing shot of the McDonald’s in Delhi, or a chic Bolivian businesswoman in colonial La Paz.

While the homogenization of the world is depressing, one cannot expect the developing world to stay poor for aesthetic reasons. So make the effort to show the “real” culture of wherever you are by showing the old and the new, the traditional and the globalized. Images of the unique traditions that could be lost will be far more thought-provoking when contrasted with the uniformity that could come.

Even if you stick to classic images of traditional cultures, your images will be enriched by the effort you make to find out the stories behind the faces. Missing teeth and torn clothes will be all the more evocative when you know that the old woman in the picture has given birth to 12 children, buried half of them, and can still face life with a smile. Your shots will no longer be anonymous, they will be of the people who showed you their world.

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