Responsible Travel Photography: 7 Ethically Minded Tips

Photographs are amongst the cheapest, most transportive ways to remember a holiday. But responsible travel photography is essential for anyone mindful of making a positive impact with their adventures. Traveling with International Expeditions will yield many new experiences– priceless moments worthy of capturing on film (or in pixels). And there’s no better way for you to take home a piece of the place home without leaving footprints.

Responsible travel photography might sometimes mean missing the shot you want. But if you follow these ethically-minded tips, you’ll get all the shots you need to remember the experience without breaking cultural taboos, damaging the environment, or endangering people or wildlife.
A Maasai Welcome to Kenya

1. Get to know the culture you’re visiting.

While many people around the world love having their picture taken, some cultures take serious issue with it. There are some indigenous cultures that believe taking a photo can steal a person’s soul. Imagine someone desecrating the things you hold most sacred! You wouldn’t take kindly to that, especially if it meant your own damnation. Doing a little preliminary research can help to keep both the photographer and the subject out of hot water.

2. Don’t take anyone’s picture when you wouldn’t want them taking yours.

When you’re caught up in the magic of a new place, it’s easy to forget that, for the residents, this is life. Unfortunately, some people’s lives have them sleeping on the street or using the bathroom in public. Parents might be fine with their children running around naked, but that doesn’t mean they’d appreciate a stranger taking pictures of it. When you’re behind the lens, don’t lose sight of (and definitely don’t hide) what you’re doing. Take time to consider the feelings of the people on the other side of the lens.

Ribereno girl

3. Interact with people before you take a photo of them.

One of the easiest ways to avoid making a cultural blunder is to simply communicate with people before taking a picture of them. Even if there is a language barrier, sign language can make your intentions clear. A good way to begin is with trying to establish why you want the photo—a beautiful scarf, captivating eyes, an amazing smile— and then asking for permission. Initially, this might seem like it will take away the spontaneity. But in reality it often adds to the depth and story of the photo.

Amazon village girl

4. Share the moment with the people who have created it.

Photographs are a treasured thing, both for those who take them and those who have graced them. Taking the time to share the photograph with your model is a gesture that most locals– especially in less industrialized nations– will genuinely appreciate. Even in the world of smartphones and cheap digital cameras, there are still those who haven’t seen such things… at least not with them as the centerpiece. And, if you’ve promised to send a photo, you should always follow through on that.

5. Respect signs, fees and warnings.

When we’re traveling in a foreign country, ignoring the rules seems to come a little easier. But it doesn’t make for good photography. It’s very important to mind signs that prohibit photographs, as there is undoubtedly a purpose for doing so. If there is a fee, it’s not cool to avoid it. The money likely contributes to the maintenance of whatever you are photographing. If there is a warning not to go somewhere, trust that the warning has been given with good reason, even if ignoring it would provide the perfect perspective.

botswana and victoria falls overview family at victoria falls

6. Be aware of what is going on around you (a.k.a. no selfish selfies!)

Nobody is immune to losing themselves to technology now and again. When we’re taking pictures we begin to see the entire would through a tiny viewfinder or digital screen. But the reality is that an entire world is still moving all around us. Responsible travel photography means being aware that others are trying to capture the moment, too. Be aware that other sightseers might be trying to enjoy the scenery, even if they have no camera in hand. Most importantly, be mindful of where you’re stepping and what you might disturb.

Photographing elephants on jeep safari in Kaziranga

7. Don’t interfere with animals.

The destinations IE travels to are often full of animals, and even adults can’t help but be insanely excited over seeing and photographing wildlife in their natural environment. But it’s not a good time to lose your head and poke the bear, either literally or figuratively. Animals deserve their space, and we have to respect and appreciate their freedom. That means we stay out of their path, don’t interrupt their routines, and never, ever feed them for any reason. These sorts of thoughtless actions will almost certainly put the animal’s life at risk, and possibly the photographer’s as well!

Responsible travel photography is fairly simple. When photographing people, acknowledge that they see us and that they are the subjects of our photographs. With wildlife photography, we should do our best to give them space and disappear into the landscape, never letting them know they are our subjects. Even places have rights. If they’re sacred, we should respect that. If we’re told areas are dangerous or fragile, we should regard them with appropriate caution. And we should always leave them as they are, so others can enjoy them .

In the end, these practices will provide all the richness of remembrance that we could ever want. Not only will we have the pictures to share, but also we’ll have the great stories of how those photos came to be. That’s truly capturing the magic of a moment. And that’s what responsible travel photography is all about.

Jonathon Engels is a traveler, writer, and vegan gardener. Born and raised in Louisiana, he has lived as an expat for over a decade, worked in nearly a dozen countries, and visited dozens of others in between. His interests include permaculture, cooking, and music. More of his work can be found at Jonathon Engels: A Life About.