Morals and Ethics of Travel Photography: When Shouldn't You Take That Photo?


Ever find yourself in a situation where you want to snap a photo, but for some reason, you hesitate?

Perhaps something about the subject or the situation doesn't feel quite right and after quick consideration, you turn off your camera.

Or perhaps, despite feeling that it's wrong on some level, you go ahead and take the shot anyway.

Later, you wonder if you maybe you shouldn't have and feel the tiniest bit of regret... or perhaps you don't look back or give it another thought.

Crimes of Passion exhibition in Bristol
photo © 2009 Heather Cowper | more info(via: Wylio)


What would you do in these situations?

Below are several situations in which the ethics of travel photography are questionable, so let's talk about them and learn from each other.

Please read each of them and think about what you would do. Then let's talk about it in the comments section.

Take That Photo—Or Not?

Situation #1: A desperate moment that tells a story

You're passing through a poor area -- a shanty town of extreme desperation and squalor. It's perhaps the ultimate scene of poverty you've ever encountered.

Children, desperate and hungry, approach you, begging for a crumb of food or a spare penny. With the shanties in the background, it would make a great shot -- one that tells a story of the reality of the political situation or the income disparity in the 3rd world. It's an important story you think should be told or corroborated.

Is it right for you to do so? Do you reach for your camera and photograph these kids as they run in your direction? If so, do you give them food or money afterward?

Shanty Children
Two boys living in a shanty community outside of Jerusalem


Situation #2: Photo snapping or soul snatching?

You're in Chamula, an indigenous town in Mexico known for camera smashing and even jail time for those tourists who get caught taking photos of the people. The equivalent of modern-day Mayans, the people believe that you're taking a piece of their soul when you take their photo.

You happen to have a special curved lens that allows you to sneak shots without anyone's knowledge, but promise yourself that you won't use it. But then, you spot a pregnant woman in traditional clothes holding her baby...

Her eyes are intense...her face is slightly dirty...her hair is disheveled. It's a once-in-a-lifetime shot, something you'd see in National Geographic. Do you take it?

Chamula from a distance
Chamula, Mexico -- a town where cameras get taken and tourists get in trouble if they take people shots.


Situation #3: Private or public -- a fine line

You're somewhere in the Middle East and you spot a women taking a moment to pray. She looks at peace and in deep connection with her God -- and she is unaware of your presence. Also, she's outside of the mosque -- and not in it. Or perhaps she's in a castle and nowhere near a mosque.

It would make the perfect photo. Do you take it? Do you figure that while it is her private moment in one sense, in another, it's not since she made it public?

Muslim Woman
Woman resting or perhaps praying in one of Jordan's Eastern desert castles.


Situation #4: Documentation of a crime, tragedy or other breaking news

You're traveling through a country that's unstable. You're hours away from an actual war zone, but as you know, anything can happen anywhere and sometimes, it does.

In this case, two civilians -- a man and his son -- have just been shot by two soldiers in the middle of the street. Someone has called for help, but it's obvious they're about to die. Meanwhile, the soldiers are in a vehicle whose license plate is visible through your camera's 300 mm lens. If you take the photo, odds are that no one will notice.

And if you get the shot, you might be able to sell it to a major network and earn some cash, which would allow you to travel longer. You could also run it in your blog, which would result in major traffic spikes. Do you take that photo?

Nuclear War kills kids too
photo © 2009 Takver | more info (via: Wylio)


Does who you are matter?

After considering each of these scenarios for a moment -- as a traveler -- try to change gears and imagine that you're an aspiring photojournalist. You haven't gotten any work yet, either. Would that make a difference?

What do you think?

Are you a traveler, an aspiring photojournalist or an amateur or serious photographer? Whichever category you fall into, what would you do in these situations and why? What situations have you seen or been in? How did you handle them?

Blind beggar in Central America.


What Do I Think...and What About These Photos?

As I'm sure you know, the photos in this post are mine except where noted.

Before I explain the circumstances surrounding each shot, I'd like to identify myself as a former newspaper reporter who had once (briefly) fantasized about becoming a photojournalist or documentary maker.

I'm now an ESL professor with students from all over the world, including many of the countries I've been to. I think that, on some level, I consider myself an amateur anthropologist. If I were to get a PhD, it would be in Cultural Anthropology. Also, while I'm not an artist (I can't draw or paint), I am creative visually and feel that I do OK with that sort of expression through photography.

Here is an explanation of where I took the photos you see in this post, how, why, etc., as well as my general travel photography philosophy.

Photo/Situation #1

Where/When: I was in Israel on a day tour of Bethlehem, Nazareth, Jericho, etc., wrapping up a 40-day trip through the Middle East. It was my last day before flying home, and I was in a car with two South African travel companions; the driver was a Palestinian man who was deaf in one ear.

What/Why: I caught a glimpse of the shanty town and asked the driver to pull over. I was a bit confused as to where we were exactly (Palestinian Territory?). I hadn't seen anything quite like that scene in the Arab countries I'd just been to. I thought it was important to photograph it, to document it, for a few reasons. First of all, it was so similar to what I'd seen in 3rd world countries; it was the physical manifestation of the disparity between the rich and the poor. Also, the Middle East is controversial and many people don't really don't understand what the reality of life is there. I thought I could help others see one small part of it.

What happened: The driver pulled over and just as I got out of the car, the kids came running. They had such intense looks on their faces, I almost felt frightened. At the same time, however, I felt that there was a story to be told through the photos. It all happened in less than a minute and so, I made a split-second decision. I went ahead and took a few photos of the boys (who were, according to our driver, Palestinian Bedouin.). Then, out of nowhere, more kids came running. I took another photo or two and then, it became uncomfortable and chaotic and we left. I vaguely recall giving the kids some food, but I don't quite remember. That's how fast/intense it was.

Note: In many other situations, I've gotten to know children first before taking photos; then we viewed them together. And they're almost always joyful moments full of smiles. And that's true whether in a small town in the Middle East or a congested township in South Africa.

Photo/Situation #2

Where: I was on a day tour of Chamula, a unique town in San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Mexico, known for its modern-day Mayans and their special church where healing rituals are held by curanderos/shamans. The town is also known for its strict rules regarding photography. They believe that taking photos does take a piece of their soul.

What we were told: We were warned by our tour guide that we should, under no circumstances, take photos of the individual people or small groups. If caught, they might "break your camera or even your arm," he said. It was OK, however, to shoot photos from up on the hill.

What I did: I listened to what the tour guide said and respected the the people's wishes. I shot photos of the town and its market outside the church (down below) from up above. I never even considered taking a shot of an individual person.

Photo/Situation #3

Where: One of the Eastern desert castles in Jordan

What: I went inside the castle to cool off since it was so hot out. I noticed this woman in a moment of quiet contemplation, possibly praying. I wasn't sure.

Why: I felt a sense of peace emanating from her that I thought I might be able to convey in an artistic shot. While I thought it was a semi-private moment, I felt it was OK since she was not in a mosque or even near one.

Photo/Situation #4

What/where: This photo is one that I borrowed and I'm not sure what it's really about, but I thought it would work as a representation of a crime scene or to help us imagine a war crime as I described in the scenario.

What would I have done if in such a situation? If the situation were what I described above (killing of a father and son by two soldiers, with help coming and the soldiers' vehicle's license plate visible, etc.), I would have attempted to take the shot. If, however, no one had attempted to help the man and his son, then I would have made that the priority.

Situation X: the Final Photo

See the last photo of a blind beggar? I shot that one in Antigua, Guatemala. Why? I thought it depicted the poverty in the country well. After I took several shots, I walked away. A minute later, it occurred to me that I should have given him some coins to help him out in some way. But when I turned around, he was gone and I wasn't able to.

I wish I had given some money or food to him and feel that I should have done it immediately and without hesitation.

Because I did not, it is this photo that now haunts me...

Lisa Egle, the author of this post, is a world traveler and ESL professor, who is currently writing her travel memoirs. To learn more about her and her travel adventures, visit her site Chicky Bus. You can also follow her on Twitter, where she goes by the name @chickybus, and over on Facebook.


In order to comment on, you'll need to be logged in. You'll be given the option to log in or create an account when you publish your comment. If you do not log in or create an account, your comment will not be displayed.

Recent Posts by chickybus