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?


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