A Photographer's Code
issue 185 - July 1988
A photographer's code
Cartoons by Jim Needle
Most visitors to the Third World take a camera. We all like to have some record
of what can be a very enriching experience. But it's not always a good idea. There are
times when using a camera can make you feel uncomfortable and cause resentment
among those whose photos you take. If you still want (or need) to take photos,
try and do it sensitively. Here's an NI code for the travelling snapper.
Do you need to take pictures every day? Try a day of intense observation with the aim of memorizing scenes - you'll certainly see much more. Blink hard every so often if you suffer withdrawal symptoms.
In some countries it is illegal to take pictures of people without their permission and in others it is considered culturally or religiously offensive. But in any case, if you are taking a portrait of a particular person, it is only right to ask before you go ahead. You wouldn't nose around their house without asking, so neither should you look into their soul. Sign language and smiles will usually help.
You will often find English-speaking people attach themselves to you or offer their services as guides. Even if you don't think you need showing round the tourist sights, a local person can help you take good pictures. They can introduce you to people you can then photograph.
Taking pictures of individuals without their knowledge using long lenses is a hostile act. You aren't really a nasty person, are you? The results in any case are usually blurred by camera shake.
If you agree to send the subject a print, make sure that you do so. But remember that it can be an expensive, tedious and difficult business getting a print to a Bolivian mountain village. You need a full, working address. Carry a small notebook in your camera bag.
Show no dismay if payment is asked for. After all you are effectively being paid - by your employer through holiday pay, for example, or through a government grant if you are a student.
If you spend time with a family or group ask if they would like to take a picture of you or at least look through your lens (children are fascinated by telephotos). You don't trust them with your camera? Why should they trust you with their image?
In some countries, people (especially children) will actually ask you to take their picture. You really should. This can be fun for all concerned - a chance for you to bring a little entertainment into their lives.
People who live in poor surroundings may not like being photographed. You probably wouldn't like to pose alongside your garbage. So maybe you shouldn't ask other people to do so. If you are doubtful, imagine yourself being photographed by a tourist in similar circumstances in your own home town. If you don't think you'd mind then it's probably OK.
Do not take pictures of people from inside a moving bus or car. It makes the subjects feel as though they are in a human zoo. Photos taken through glass are generally so bad that they are discarded very quickly anyway.
Many tourist photographs are similar to those in picture postcards, or books or magazines. Third World countries are usually stereotyped as poor and backward. There is indeed a good deal of poverty. But there is much more besides and your pictures should try and reflect this.
Help us keep this site free for all
New Internationalist is a lifeline for activists, campaigners and readers who value independent journalism. Please support us with a small recurring donation so we can keep it free to read online.