Photographing People when you Travel


the blog:

Sorting through my emails this morning and a message from Afar magazine caught my eye: How to Photograph People When You Travel (Without Being Disrespectful)

Keith and I have had this discussion numerous times, especially when we are traveling, taking to the streets to photograph or doing any personal work. Without even reading this article yet, it made me revisit our conversations.

This can be a very sensitive subject. We tend to be unobtrusive observers no matter what we are photographing but when we want to take a portrait of someone interesting and we aren’t getting paid for the privilege, say when we are out and about – we approach the person and ask their permission. Sometimes we can communicate with words, other times through hand gestures and smiles. Sometimes we are told no and most often we are told YES! Other times it is more documentary in nature and the person(s) may or may not be identifiable but part of the overall composition.

But sometimes even when you have permission (or you don’t need permission) it just doesn’t seem like the right thing to do. Last year when we were walking the streets of Havana we really didn’t like how we felt, taking photos of the simplicity of their lives, the poverty, the rationed life style.  Here are these people, living in this crumbling city, going about their day to day life and who did we think we were to look at them and think that it was ok to be pointing our cameras at the regularity of their lives? Cubans live outside as much as inside and there were times as we were walking down the street that we felt that we were in their living room, invading their privacy.

Our intention changed pretty quickly and we purposely overlooked scenes that were “great” photo opportunities that other people with cameras didn’t seem to mind taking. It felt like Cubans were being viewed as entertainment for the tourists. Like a curiosity more than anything else. That being said, there were plenty of photos that were taken and many of them portraits and a documentary of life in Havana. 

I guess the takeaway is that sometimes you just don’t photograph people when you travel.  I think Keith said it best last year…..

Finally, a portrait of a colorful Cuban man. Everyone has lots of street portraits of Cubans when they return. Why have I not shown mine yet? Almost any tourist, especially those with cameras (even more so those that are good with cameras), knows the Cuban people are like animals in a zoo and there to point a camera at from any range no matter what they are doing. Why should I be different? Well I’m glad you asked. I imagine what I would feel like if I was going about my day and not one but multiple tourists felt compelled to stare at me and immortalize whatever pedestrian or emotionally charged moment I was having. Multiply that by a lifetime of people pointing cameras that cost more than a years wages and I imagine I would eventually snap. The fact that these people haven’t is a testament to their strength. I do have exceptions. I will ask to take a portrait if I have been engaged with that person in conversation for a time. I will take a portrait if they ask me to. That was the case here.This gentleman asked me to photograph him as I was walking by with my family and a camera dangling from my arm. I only got off two frames before he asked me for money for taking them. I stopped immediately. He has obviously been photographed so many times and seen so many others that he felt comfortable selling his image. If the photographers have a particular body of work that will help someone in any way or at least tries to then I put everyone back to fair game. I was just taking interesting photos as a tourist and therefore didn’t meet that particular challenge. I feel the same way about photographing the homeless, here or anywhere. Too many people take photos of them with no intention of helping in any significant way. It is unintentionally cruel. It is something I learned in a pointed way as a much younger photographer. I may have to tell that story another day.