How to Be A Culturally Sensitive Photographer
by karthika gupta

There is a little wanderlust in all of us. At some point in our lives, many of us dream of traveling the world to experience its beauty for ourselves. Travel has the power to open our minds to new possibilities and make us more tolerant and conscious as humans. What might be simple, normal and mundane to locals is often unique, challenging, and exciting to travelers.

“Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny space you occupy in the world.”
- Gustave Flaubert
How to Be A Culturally Sensitive Photographer

For photographers, travel and photography are closely intertwined. Photography is a way to capture and communicate the sense of a place and its people. Photographs immortalize our experiences (this is especially important when we travel to places outside of our cultural comfort zones). In travel, every moment and experience is new, and the need to document and preserve them sometimes outweighs simple basic common sense.

So how do you fully immerse yourself in a moment and document it? How do you decide when it’s appropriate to photograph, and when it’s better to simply observe or interact without a lens? While there are no hard and fast ethical rules for travel photography, there are situational restraints and cultural, social, and economic differences between you and your subject that must be considered. Remember, just because you bought a plane ticket, you aren’t entitled to photograph everything you see on your trip.

The rules for responsible travel apply to responsible travel photography

Armed with a thorough knowledge of the destination, an interest in cultural enrichment, an open mind, a pleasant attitude, some common sense, and a smile, photography abroad (just like travel itself) can be a very fulfilling experience.

Below, I’ve outlined some basic guidelines to help you be a culturally sensitive photographer while traveling.

Knowledge is key

Invest time before traveling to research the traditions and photography customs of your destination. Customs vary by country, region, and religion. Understand and appreciate the diverse cultural contexts and be respectful of these differences. Be aware of the situations you will be entering into and always remember that you are a guest. Do not make yourself an intruder by acting entitled to anything; this applies to every part of travel (including photography).

Although monasteries in Leh forbid photography of any kind inside the prayer sanctums, many tourists took photos inside. Even after monks asked them to stop, tourists continued to photograph the sacred interior, pretending like they couldn’t understand.

Do your research to avoid disappointment over the photography restrictions that exist in the places you plan to visit.

Be respectful and communicate your needs

Self-confidence, an open attitude, and a genuine smile are important wherever you travel. People generally reciprocate the kindness and respect that you demonstrate. When you are open and honest about your desire to photograph something or someone, people typically respond positively. I have found that most people love to have their picture taken. If you are uncomfortable or nervous about asking for a photograph, it’s best to just leave your camera in its bag.

Respect comes in many forms. Try to learn some of the language, even if it is a few simple words. Learn what kind of behavior is accepted and what is considered to be disrespectful. Assess each situation using knowledge and intuition.

Ask permission

Almost everyone around the world knows what a camera is and what it can do. Even if you don’t know the language, use hand gestures and point to the camera to communicate that you want to photograph something or someone. Not understanding the language should never be an excuse to photograph an unwilling person. As a photographer, it’s your responsibility to ask for permission before you click the shutter. I strongly suggest that you learn some simple phrases that are related to photography in the language of the country. This allows you to communicate more directly with your subject to explain why you want to take a photograph, and it shows an interest in learning the local language. The effort to communicate in the native tongue is often greatly appreciated by the locals.

Sometimes, you can even use your camera as an ice-breaker. After taking a portrait, show your subject their photo. You will find that photography instantly becomes more fun and less intimidating. If you can, bring a small Instax camera with you and give your subject a print of their image.

More than anything, respect that “No” really does mean NO. While some photographers argue that asking for permission ruins the composition (and is often not even possible), I believe that if you are taking a picture of a person, you should make every effort to ask for permission, either before or after.

Travel without taking pictures

I admit that I have experienced a place or event entirely through my viewfinder. Strapping my camera to my body like my life depends on it, I end up missing all the nuances outside of my direct line of vision. Knowing I never fully immersed myself in a specific moment weighs heavily on my mind and I end up feeling less than happy.

Be intentional about traveling without obsessively capturing every minute of every day with your camera. If you are into blogging, plan out a photography day and a non-photography day so you can travel without the pressure of constantly taking photos. Spend time exploring your surroundings, and your body and mind will thank you for it. Even if you are on assignment, schedule some time away from your camera. Not only will it help you relax, it will also recharge your creative juices to make you more productive when you get back to work!

Know your gear

This one is one of the basics of photography, no matter your genre: Know your gear. When you are traveling and asking strangers to pose for you, it is not a good time to learn how to use your gear. Save the experimentation for another time. People lose patience and often get suspicious of you and your abilities. Subjects are more likely to walk away than to waste their time with a stranger who does not know how to operate their camera.

Know Your Intention

Every photo should serve a purpose. Travel photography does not exist for the photographer to brag about all the exciting places they have been. Most people (especially locals) don’t care that their everyday life, struggles, and challenges are a part of your “authentic” travel experience.

Before taking a photo, ask yourself the following:

  • Why do you want to take the picture?
  • What is the narrative you hope to convey?
  • Is the photograph self-serving, or is it for a greater purpose?

Photography is such a powerful medium, and I believe that travel photographers have the responsibility to show an honest representation of the people, culture, and society, with respect to their dignity.

Editing and post-processing

With today’s powerful editing tools, we can easily change many things about a photo. A photographer’s editing usually reflects their style (something that they have probably spent years perfecting). However, extreme editing of images can be misleading, and cause people to have misconceptions about what they can expect if they want to replicate what you create. This can have very harmful effects on the environment and local communities.

When showing an honest and respectful representation of a person or culture, the amount of editing matters. Editing for aesthetics in a way that changes the narrative or story of a person is not acceptable.

To pay or not to pay

Perhaps one of the most controversial situations while photographing abroad is whether or not you should give money to the people you photograph. Occasionally, an uneducated, desperate tourist gives money to take (what they believe to be) an award winning prized photograph, and the locals start to treat photography as a lucrative business opportunity in the local community. This can get quite uncomfortable and unsafe for the photographer (and for other photographers who travel the same route).

I prefer to engage people openly and share my story and my need for a picture. I find that in most cases people are happy to share their story and allow me to photograph them. Through this experience, I open myself up to cultural and emotional enrichment. If someone expects money for a photograph, then the decision becomes less about whether to pay and more about whether to even take the photo. Paying your subjects is a judgment that only you can make on a case-by-case basis. All I ask is that you are mindful of the example and expectation you set for future travelers and photographers.

Sometimes when we travel, our excitement clouds our better judgment and we do things we would never find acceptable at home. Take a moment to check yourself. Your photography should be an act of respect, not an act of exploitation. If it doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t, so don’t do it.

How To Be A Culturally Sensitive Photographer

Photography is such a powerful tool. As a photographer, you are held to moral and ethical responsibilities. By taking a photo and sharing it with the world, you have the duty to preserve and communicate your subject’s story and dignity. Please don’t take this responsibility lightly. Like everything else in life, listen to your intuition and think from the point of view of your subject first before you click the shutter.

By following these guidelines, you will open yourself up to building meaningful relationships, learning about culture, customs, and traditions, and telling a true and honest story. I urge you to be a culturally sensitive photographer by treating your subjects with this level of curiosity and respect.