CONSIDERATIONS FOR THE TRAVEL PHOTOGRAPHER
Learn to respect local laws, then learn when to bend them
Don’t be ignorant. Different countries have different rules regarding what you can and can’t do as you travel, let alone shoot. It is ESSENTIAL that you do your research on what’s considered acceptable and taboo, what to avoid, and what to respect. Okay, to most of us it’s common sense, but sometimes you can get taken by surprise.
A few examples of situations I’ve learnt the hard way include
Airports are pretty much a global no-no, so be careful where you point that camera, even when it’s slung to your side. Just keep the lens cap on, and security guards will generally leave you alone.
Around the world, private property is private. Respect that.
In Muslim cultures, we generally do not snap women or Mosques, and shooting the elderly can be considered disrespectful.
In the UK, whilst a photographer has the right to shoot in any public space, the police may stop you on the grounds of public security.
In Communist countries, or those with a strict authoritarian rule, we don’t even think about shooting the army, police, political figures, official buildings, tanks, planes, WMD, or anything that could make you look like a security risk.
From my experience, most indigenous populations will expect/demand some remuneration if you want to take their photo. It’s a problem (if you can call it that) caused by a huge increase in photographic tourism over that past 60 years. You can’t blame them really, not sure I’d like a lens stuffed in my face every day. If you can’t stomach, or object to, the ‘shoot and run’ technique, then keep small change on you and offer it before or after. If I really feel like I have to pay for a shot, then I prefer to snap first without asking and then offer some money, as it means I get my shot in as natural a state as possible. Doesn’t always go according to plan 😉
Travel out to the far reaches of most African and Asian countries and you’ll be entering a whole new ball game. These areas are generally governed by the local police or militia and adhere to their own set of rules. What you shoot really is down to who you know, how much influence you have in the area, and how much money or time you’re willing to spend arguing at each checkpoint. The trade-off? You’ll get some amazing shots!
In Japan, whilst you may have traveled there just for this one image, you don’t shoot a photo of a Geisha without asking first. And they are SPEEDY, even in their tightly wrapped Kimono! So get your running shoes on, and chase one if you dare.
In many South East Asian countries, it’s considered rude to shoot candid photos of people without asking permission.
Generally, when travelling through religious cultures and centres of worship, we should be respectful of local beliefs and not construct a shoot that goes ‘against the grain’; it can be dangerous and get you in serious trouble.
Night-time shooting can, obviously, be more dangerous than daytime. Plan to take out a trusted guide and driver if you want to shoot a night adventure for your first time. Cities look B E A Utiful at night, but don’t put yourself in a precarious situation, and always plan an escape route.
Drone photography around the world is in a state of political flux; if you must do this then be prepared either find the correct permission or face the consequences.
The more remote indigenous communities around the world generally don’t like having their photo taken with your soul-stealing machinery. Ask, pay, shoot.
Sometimes it’s not the subject that we’re shooting who has a problem, occasionally you’ll find members of the public who feel the need to interrupt your shooting, and they can get aggressive. Okay, so they have a problem with you, what do you do? Tell them to f*ck off? Try to calm them down? Walk away? It’s up to you, but I usually walk away, life’s too short to get in an argument unless you have a permit. Just see it as part of the process, and go find something else to shoot 😉
Is it okay to photograph children anywhere in the world? We could probably say yes if there is a bigger context being inferred through the image at the same time. Post production such as cropping and filters can also further the image’s legitimacy, as can associated text or additional images to help focus the images as a set. Just be careful and use common sense.Kashgar - Western China
Interestingly, it’s the stuff we’re not allowed to shoot that we generally gravitate towards, and that’s understandable; you want to find new and exciting images for your portfolio and projects, and the taboo generally ticks these boxes. Again, this is where we divide ourselves into two groups; those that do, and those that don’t. I’m not saying ‘don’t do any of the above’, I’m saying be careful, understand the consequences, and then make up your own mind. Is one image worth going to jail over? Only you can make that decision.
Just to confound matters, I can’t find even one official-looking website on the internet that can help us photographers when traveling abroad (potential website project, anyone?). Yes, there are lots of personal blog posts listing vaguely possible truths at one point in time, but nothing solid we can rely on. So, here you need to use your common sense and fish for information as soon as you get to your destination. I usually question the hotel staff first, ask them politely what they would consider taboo to photograph, and then go ask a few others to form the general feeling. Now you have a little more to go on, and can start planning your shooting with more confidence. Check out the Embassy websites at your destination, or even send them an email ahead of time requesting more information, I find they take a while to respond but are generally helpful.
I’m sure some of you are now thinking “crap, how in the world can we get those award-winning images without getting into trouble?”. You know which camp you’re in, if you want to push past landscapes, paid portraits and food shots, you have to think outside the box. Yes, it can be dangerous out there, but it’s also exciting, life-affirming, and portfolio blitzing. Just remember, what seems trivial to you could be a huge deal for someone else, and foreign governments don’t play by the same rules as your own. It can get pretty nasty pretty quickly out there, so be very careful and try to understand the situation before you aim that camera.
In part three we talked about some of the rules and regulations we must consider as travel photographers, no matter what skill level we are. We are ambassadors for the discipline, and should be making every effort to adhere to local laws and customs wherever possible. Saying that, we also touched on situations where we might decide to bend the rules, and that really is up to the photographer and their personal/professional situation. Just remember; if you live by the sword, you die by the sword!
This tutorial was written as accompanying documentation for a course I ran for diploma level students in various countries around the world between 2012 and 2016. Aged 16 to 19 years, these students undertook a semester of photographic practice and theory whilst performing regular assessments to gauge learning. I found that whilst all students were capable of passing the required criteria, some found it hard to put their new found skills to effective use once the course had finished, I figured there needed to be some way to help them remember the core lessons as they went on through life, developing their skill set. So I wrote this. I’ll update it as and when I feel I need to as the vast majority is common sense, tips based on a fair amount of experience and some key reminders. Most of this will age fairly well, but of course technology changes ever faster, so perhaps take the camera suggestions with a pinch of salt 😉
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Barnaby Jaco Skinner
Professional photographer & Artist
I'm a professional photographer and artist. I've worked and lived around the world, spending most of my adult life on the run from conformity and routine; it's a lifestyle that lends itself well to exploring this vast Earth we call home. This virtual place is home to some of my latest work and acts as a portal for business and workshop clients.