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Tourists, Stop Ignoring the Ethics of Travel Photography

Traveling responsibly means a lot more than keeping a low carbon footprint and avoiding plastic water bottles.

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Exploring and photographing cityVesnaandjic/Getty Images

Live by the golden rule: Treat others how you’d want to be treated

The golden rule applies to travel photography just as much as it does to the rest of life: Simply put yourself in the place of others and think about how you would feel in that same situation. When we travel, our goal should be to leave a destination a little bit better than when we arrived, or at least not make it any worse—in fact, this is what characterizes sustainable and responsible tourism. After all, if your grandchildren visit Thailand 50 years from now, don’t you want their experience to be just as wonderful as the one you had?

Plus, no matter how much you paid for your vacation or how stark or beautiful the scene is in front of you, you are not entitled to that photograph. Other people, especially those with different colored skin or with low incomes, are just as deserving of privacy as you are. Overall, how you interact with the environment and the residents of the places you visit, including with your camera, leaves a lasting impression. Here’s how to make that impression a good one. Keep in mind that we’re in a pandemic and there are various travel restrictions in place.

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Photographer travel destinationMesquitaFMS/Getty Images

Never take a photo of someone else without permission

How would you feel if a stranger snapped your photo? Well, that’s exactly the same way almost everyone else on the planet feels, too, no matter how photogenic their face or how colorful their traditional clothing. People are not tourist attractions.

It’s easy to make photographing someone an enriching experience for you both. Just ask before you take their photo. It doesn’t matter if you can’t speak the local language (though learning the words for “please” and “photo” shouldn’t be hard). Put on a friendly smile, make eye contact, and slowly start to raise your camera. Wait for the person to nod or say yes before you click. Chat with the person (use sign language or just speak enthusiastically if you don’t have a common language; they’ll usually respond in kind). This helps put them at ease, with the bonus that your photo will be more natural instead of with a posed “cheese!” smile.

And if they ignore you or say no? That’s a loud-and-clear signal not to take their picture. Respect their wishes. If you’re taking some people-free pics, this is how to use the right vacation photos to make fast money.

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Tourism in Marco Zero, Recife AntigoMesquitaFMS/Getty Images

Add this to your travel-photography repertoire

Once you’ve captured an image of someone, walk over and show it to them. Even with the proliferation of smartphones, not everyone sees their photo on a regular basis. You might start a cross-cultural interaction, perhaps just with smiles and gestures, and it might turn into a highlight of your trip. Be sure to ask the person’s name so you can tell the story of meeting them when you show off their photo back at home. You can even offer to email their portrait to them. There’s no need for a fancy camera, either: Before you go, review these genius tips to take a postcard-perfect picture on your smartphone.

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Young father photographing his son and wife in the parkdjiledesign/Getty Images

Be extra careful with kids

Be especially mindful when you’re taking photos of kids. It’s important to secure the permission of both the child and their parent. Once you have it, make a point of showing the photo you took to the family and offer to email it. And never post a photo identifying a minor on the Internet. Just think of what you would want to happen with your own child.

No matter where they live in the world, kids deserve to have a childhood full of love, learning, play, and rest. Anything that takes away from that endangers the child. That includes when a traveler gives a child a gift (even if it’s an educational one) or buys something from a child. Don’t teach a child that their body is a commodity by paying for a photo. Travel companies like G Adventures share responsible tourism tips on their website, including how to treat children when you travel. And remember: There’s plenty out there to photograph. Just check out these 50 jaw-dropping photos of the world’s most beautiful countries.

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Craft and tourism fair in BrazilMesquitaFMS/Getty Images

Don’t just take—buy, too

Never forget that people live in the places you go on vacation. They’re trying to go about their daily lives and make a living. Don’t get in their way. (Remember how annoying that tourist was in your hometown, standing right in the middle of the busy sidewalk and gawking? Don’t be that guy.)

If you’re photographing a market, don’t take pictures of artists’ designs and ideas. That’s their creativity on display, and you’re putting their business at risk if you help others copy it. And if you want a photo of the colorful piles of fruit or even the llama jaws in Cusco, Peru, ask the proprietor of that shop. Then put your camera down and do some shopping. Buy some snacks, a drink, or a souvenir. Contribute to the local economy.

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My camera is mirror with memoryM_a_y_a/Getty Images

Stay on the trail

Whether it’s for your own safety or to preserve the fragile environment, obey signs that tell you to stay on the trail. You don’t want to become infamous for falling off a cliff just to get the perfect photo for social media. Nor do you want to walk on rare flowers or destroy the turtle nests buried beneath the sand. You’ll definitely want to think twice before you take these photos in a national park.

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female photographer taking photo of wildlifePRImageFactory/Getty Images

Keep the physical and psychological health of wildlife in mind

Sure, getting a photo like one of these 14 stunning photos of elephants in the wild is the dream of any photographer, whether professional or amateur. But keep the well-being of the animal in mind, as well as your own safety. Don’t get too close, always leave an animal with an escape route, and triple check to make sure your flash is off.

It’s also usually a good idea to wildlife-watching with a reputable tour operator. They know to stick to the rules. For example, La Paz, Mexico enforces strict rules for all boats wanting a look at the whale sharks that visit there every winter, making sure that swimmers and boats don’t get too close, even to capture that perfect photo.

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Photographer takes pictures of activists holding signsjacoblund/Getty Images

Get your picture and get out

If you’re in a popular spot, take your photo quickly and then get out of the way so that others can get their photos, too. Don’t make other tourists wait while you rearrange your hair or try a dozen different poses so you look like you’re touching the top of the Eiffel Tower, holding up the Hollywood sign, or any of these 18 cliché travel photos. In fact, maybe skip those photos altogether and take a unique photo to show off.

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Young female solo traveler taking photos with smart phonerecep-bg/Getty Images

Know the law

Another type of photo to avoid is one that is illegal. Photography laws are different in every country. In some places, you can’t photograph police officers, airports, or military buildings. Sometimes you can’t take photos in museums. (And certainly, museums and galleries restrict flash photography to protect their art.) Other places have rules that may surprise you. Did you know, for example, that it’s illegal to take photos of the Eiffel Tower at night? And even in the United States, if a property owner asks you to stop taking pictures, you are legally obliged to do so. Know the laws where you travel.

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Photographer with leather bag in the cityLDProd/Getty Images

Put your camera down

Even if it’s your job to take photographs, put the camera down every once in a while and enjoy the places you’re visiting. Admire the whole landscape, watch the ocean so you don’t miss the whale breaching, eat your food hot when it arrives at the table, focus on your kids’ faces as they see that elephant for the first time. Vacations are for experiencing, not for documenting. Where should you go for these amazing experiences? Consider these recommendations: I’ve been to 60 countries and these 6 changed me forever.

Johanna Read
Johanna Read, Canadian writer and photographer, writes about travel (including under COVID-19), wildlife, food, health and wellness, and responsible tourism. She aims to encourage travel that is culturally, economically, and environmentally sustainable. Johanna also writes occasionally about public policy, leadership, and management. She draws on her management consulting work (where she specializes in organizational culture and employee wellness) and on her background as a Government of Canada policy executive. Her BAH (psychology and sociology) and MPA (health policy) are from Queen's University. Johanna's bylines include Reader's Digest, Fodor's, Lonely Planet, USA Today, and Canadian Traveller. See her portfolio; follow her on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.