8 Tips for Culturally Sensitive Travel Photography

by Angela Dollar

Our photos are often our most prized possessions that come back with us in our travels. Their power to transport you right back to Crooked Trails traveler in Nicaraguaa time and experience is profound, and they enhance our travel stories and memories for a lifetime.

However, a funny thing happens to some people when they get behind the lens during their travels — the excitement of an exotic scene or a beautiful face makes us forget we’re not on the masthead at National Geographic, and courtesy gets thrown out the window in the interest of grabbing that “killer shot”.

Here are some guidelines to ensure you are staying culturally sensitive while capturing some breathtaking photos.

1. The Golden Rule: ASK!
It’s a simple concept, but cannot be overstated. When taking a person’s photo, or even a small group of people, you should always ask them first. And be prepared to politely acquiesce, should they decline.

2. Try striking up a conversation first.

Engage with the people you want to photograph before you lift the lens. Introduce yourself, ask their name, tell them a bit about your home country, ask a bit about their home and what they do. After a bit of chat, you’ll have a better chance at a “yes” when you ask if they’d be willing to be in a photo. Even better, now you have a name and a story to go with that photo!

3. Study up on the local culture.

Many traditional cultures hold beliefs or superstitions that prohibit photography. For example, in many of Thailand’s northern hill tribes there is a common belief that taking a photo of someone can steal their soul. Indigenous communities that have had more exposure to western influences have been more exposed to outsiders taking photos, but don’t assume that is ok – always ask first. Learn the phrase, “May I take your photograph?”, in the local language of any and every place you go.

Young Women at Paro Tsechu in Bhutan

4. Make special considerations for religious places and festivals.
Traveling off the beaten path means that you may encounter situations that require extra sensitivity when photographing. Places of worship or religious significance are an obvious place to tread lightly; make sure to inquire about photography rules if they are not clearly posted. But local cultural festivals also require consideration. Even if secular in nature, festival performances might include traditional costumes and objects that hold special significance in the local culture. The songs and dances themselves may even be treasured enough that locals do not want them recorded. To top that off, in many parts of the world, local culturals are too reserved to speak up when a visitor is unwittingly breaking local guidelines. A guide should be able to advise you; if not, speak with the local tourist offices or ask a few local revelers. Consider also if your desire to capture the moment may cause a disruption to the event. Flash photography may break the ambiance, and jockeying for the best position to get a shot might mean rudely cutting off someone else’s view.

5. Take your time.
Back in the early days of Crooked Trails, our co-founders Chris and Tammy made a bold move in asking trip participants to forgo bringing a camera entirely, and immerse themselves thoroughly in the experience. While we no longer ask that of our travelers, we do recommend on a multi-day village stay that travelers wait until at least day two to take the camera out. That way, your hosts have had a bit of time to get to know you and it will be more natural to start asking them if they’re ok with a few pics.

zebra in Tsavo Kenya6. Use that zoom.

Consider investing in a strong zoom lens for your travel camera. (And remember that optical zoom produces far clearer results than digital zoom.) This will allow you to be more discrete and maintain a respectful distance for circumstances like shooting animals in the wild or a taking a vignette in a crowd.

7. A camera is not a fashion statement.

When exploring the ruins of Machu Picchu it’s fine to have your camera slung around your neck for easy access. But when you are walking the streets of a small village, keep it tucked away but handy. Nothing screams “tourist” like a camera dangling from your neck, and if your primary goal is to make real connections with local people this could be a deterrent. Keeping it tucked in your bag and on the ready means your eyes are open to everything around you and soaking up the essence of the place.

8. Real life trumps photos.

Even your very best photos are going to be flat representations of multi-dimensional experiences. Remember that, and it may temper the urge for rapid-fire photography. Getting behind the lens separates you from your surroundings – in essence, you step out of the experience for a second and become an observer rather than a participant. Sometimes it’s better to leave the camera in your bag and just put all your energy into soaking up the moment instead.

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One Comment on “8 Tips for Culturally Sensitive Travel Photography”

  1. Excellent tips! Even though I consider myself a “sensitive,” seasoned traveler, I learned some new ways of re-assessing my camera addiction.

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