Be Aware of Social Issues When Travelling and Photographing People

April 25, 2023

Cold Water Stream, Middlehurst Station, NZCold Water Stream, Middlehurst Station, NZ

Cold Water Stream, Middlehurst Station, NZ
Phase One XF 150MP, 110mm Schneider Krueznach, f5.6 @ 1/500 second, ISO 50

When travelling, it can be tempting to photograph street life and the people who live there. There’s probably no trouble photographing someone shopping in a market, but what about a homeless person or a beggar? Photographs of homeless people have historically been very popular, so much so they are almost cliché today. Invariably the attraction for the photographer is the well-worn clothing or the character lines in the face. Even so, I would find it difficult to photograph someone on the street where I live without first asking permission. I’d feel like I was taking advantage of them if I stole a sneaky shot – but that is a purely personal viewpoint.

Of course, it’s not just about asking permission – there are also issues of trust and exploitation to consider. Are you genuinely starting a conversation because you’re interested, or do you just want to take a photo? And if so, does it really matter, given most social interactions are invariably shallow (have a nice day)?

So why is it different when we’re overseas in a less wealthy country? As tourists (or travellers), we’re looking at the creased clothes and lined faces as photographic subjects, but often we’re oblivious (or choose to be) to the social issues these scenes represent. Does this mean we shouldn’t photograph people in the street?

My experience is that some people are happy to be photographed, others are not. That’s your first clue. And when I have engaged with a positive subject, they have no expectations of a lifelong relationship, but seem genuinely happy to receive the attention and have a conversation.

The ‘thought police’ will criticise me for exploiting my subjects – a nosey Westerner who is (comparatively) wealthy pretending to engage with a poor local struggling to exist from day to day. I can’t argue that fact, but I think that is the case whether or not I take the photograph.

Years ago I was invited to photograph in a small community. I was given strict instructions by the ‘minders’ of what I could and couldn’t do, but once I was there, what I discovered was that these people were no different to me and if I just used the manners my parents taught me, which includes respecting others, the interaction became fairly straightforward.

 I find this a good approach for photographing people everywhere. And no matter who you photograph, there will always be someone on social media saying you shouldn’t!



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