Yesterday while roaming the streets in Cartagena, I found myself taking photos of the darling local vendors who were slicing fresh fruit to sell at their stalls to the people passing by. Perhaps the progressive and materialistic developments of modern-day America are to blame, but this simplistic act struck me as enough of a novelty to pull out my camera and snap a photo from a distance for posterity. While I did so discretely and the man probably wasn't even aware of his photo being taken, I still felt a tinge of guilt as I put my camera away. Was I unintentionally belittling this man?
Moments later, I was approached by women in costume resembling traditional Colombian dresses asking me to take photos with them (obviously expecting payment in return). It was clear we were in a high-traffic tourist area and that these women made their living by posing with visitors. This situation felt very different than the photos I had taken of the man slicing pineapple around the corner…but in what way?
These experiences (and a series of others) prompted me to do some reflecting on how we as travelers can respectfully engage with locals while simultaneously documenting our trips to remember them. And while I (personally) think capturing photos with locals can be considered acceptable at times, I also believe it must only be done in a way that’s considerate and treats others with dignity. It felt appropriate to share some suggestions of how we can all be more courteous throughout this process. A few disclaimers before I dive in:
I certainly don't claim to be an expert on this topic nor am I seeking praise for my comments. I also realize that this subject is not a "one size fits all" approach. Not all cultures are alike and what's acceptable in one may not be in another. Similarly, not all people are alike (no matter where you are) and one shouldn't assume everyone in the same destination will play by the same rules. We should ALWAYS be thoughtful about when a photo is or isn't appropriate (if you think it may not be, just don't). Finally, I'm aware that it's impossible to properly articulate all the nuanced consideration points on this subject in one blog post. This is merely meant to lead you to do your own thinking and move forward with more thoughtfulness.
Having caveated the above, here are my what I’ve decided are my personal “rules” to remember when it comes to taking photos with a local abroad.
IF SOMEONE IS DRESSED UP IN COSTUME RESEMBLING LOCAL CULTURE, THEY DESERVE COMPENSATION IF YOU TAKE THEIR PHOTO
Some people in tourist cities want you to take their photo (like these ladies you’ll see in costume all over Cartagena)... but at a price. Remember that this is their livelihood and you absolutely must be willing to pay them if you want a photo in exchange. Don’t be cheap about this, but do be mindful that tourist traps are almost always designed to get as much money as they can out of you- everywhere around the world (I'd recommend asking them before you take the picture how much they want, rather than getting into a bidding war after you've already attained what you want out of the deal). Even though you are paying them, remember: they’re still human beings- not just a prop for your photo. Introduce yourself. Ask them how they are. Thank them for taking a photo with you. Always, always ALWAYS be kind.
2. BE COURTEOUS TO BACKGROUND SUBJECTS
While we obviously can’t expect to be given verbal consent from every single human who happens to be standing in the frame while we’re taking a photo, we should still be courteous about our photography execution. If you were working and trying to do your job, wouldn’t you feel uncomfortable with someone standing in close proximity taking dozens of pictures with your face in plain sight? If you can’t snap a quick photo discretely and move on, a simple smile and pointing to the subject you’re trying to get a photo of indicates to the local bystander you’re not just photographing them without consent. With that said, sometimes the person is involved in order to “make the photo happen”. If that’s the case, you can still do so in a way that doesn’t create a spectacle. For example, I’ve loved the plentiful fresh fruit vendors in the streets of Cartagena and wanted to have photos to remember them by. So while I was purchasing fruit (yes, actually purchasing and supporting the vendor, not just pretending for a photo), my friend Haley discretely snapped a few quick iPhone photos. Even when I was the one behind the lens capturing photos of another vendor, I don’t think either subjects were even aware these photos were happening (because I wasn’t blatantly holding my camera in their face). Furthermore, the subjects aren’t identifiable (some photos are from behind or the side or their faces are covered by their hats, etc.) I think there is a little more leniency with etiquette when a subject is in the background and not at the forefront, but that still doesn’t mean it’s fair game. Still feeling unsure about what’s appropriate? This brings me to my next point…
3. FOSTER A CONNECTION AND ASK FOR PERMISSION
Sometimes it’s a specific person we want the photo of. The people we come in contact with while traveling can no doubt move us and leave us wanting to remember those encounters. Even still, this doesn’t entitle you to snap a photo for your memorable gain at their expense. Way before a photo is even on the table, we should be fostering connection with the people we come into contact with. I met Juan (pictured above) on the beach while he was fishing. He spoke no English and I only spoke a little broken Spanish. Nevertheless, we started chatting and using hand signals to communicate with one another. We were able to learn what the other did for a living, share about our families, where we’re from and a few other basic “get to know you” details. He was a fisherman and was collecting oysters and shucked one for me on the spot as a gift. After chatting for a while (and after he had learned I was a travel writer) I asked him if it was okay for me to take his photo. He gave me a thumbs up and picked up an oyster to pose. I only felt comfortable doing this because Juan and I had spent at least 15 or 20 minutes getting to know each other and some trust (albeit marginal) had been established. I’m thankful that I have this photo to remember Juan by, but more than that, I’m thankful that I was able to capture it because of the connection we had established. That (in my opinion) is the most valuable takeaway from any travel encounter— a photo is just icing on the cake.
4. RESPECT THAT “NO” MEANS NO
No matter how much we want to remember a moment from our travels, we absolutely have to respect the person first and foremost. Even if we’ve built a relationship. Even if they’re dressed in some form of costume that seems to scream “take my picture!” Even if we just really, really want it. A photo is simply not worth dehumanizing someone. Period. End of story. I know that in today’s world of social media and wanting to share every tiny detail of our lives, this may be a hard pill to swallow. But I stand firm on this. If we can’t respect other people, we should’t be traveling. Some moments aren’t meant for a photograph— that doesn’t make them any less special.
Again, this is merely scratching the surface on what I believe to be quite a nuanced topic, but my hope is that it compels you to be more considerate of those you come into contact with while traveling. Have any other points on this matter that I failed to mention? I’d love to hear them in the comments below.
Thanks as always for stopping by- I’m so happy that you’re here!