When we travel it is natural to want to capture every memorable moment. Many times these memorable moments are the times when we are struck by something unusual or so different from our experiences back home – for example a pride of lions lounging under a tree or a family of elephants striding across the savannah – these things we don’t see in our normal lives. But how do we deal with those moments when we see extreme poverty or simply people getting on with their everyday lives in a very different way to our own lifestyle? Is it OK to photograph that as well?
Often travellers coming to Africa are struck by the poverty and want to take photographs of people and dwellings in slum areas. There are two sides to the coin of whether this is OK or not and I believe it comes down to your intention. Is it voyeuristic? Do you simply want to post the photos on Facebook to show your friends how intrepid and benevolent you are by visiting these poor people? Or is the purpose to raise awareness of the issues of poverty, showing friends back home how fortunate they are and potentially getting people to think about what to do to overcome the challenges? Depicting poverty is a minefield and even your best intentions can be misinterpreted. Showing sensitivity and respect to the community is vital both in your actions to get the photo and in how you use the photo afterwards.
On our safaris, guests often ask us if it’s OK to take photos, whether we are in an urban slum or a Maasai village. The trouble is that it is not much use asking us – it is the people in your photograph that need to grant permission. And then it is important to respect the answer. Many older people in rural Kenya and also Indigenous Australians (among other groups of people around the world) believe that a photograph can have a negative effect on your soul (different people have different beliefs about exactly what happens, but “capturing the soul” seems to be the underlying theme) and so will refuse a photograph. Or they may just be uncomfortable being the subject of so much interest. On the other hand, many children in developing countries have swarmed me in their eagerness to have their photo taken and then to be shown the picture (the wonders of digital cameras!).
Often taking photos out of the car window is the only way to get that fleeting shot as you travel through the country. It seems like a good compromise: you can’t possibly stop and ask permission and the person probably wouldn’t even notice they were being photographed anyway. But we have also experienced people shouting and waving and generally showing displeasure at being photographed this way.
Overall, I think the best way to approach photography of people is to ask: how would I feel if it were me? Can you imagine stepping out of your house when a carload of African travellers drive down your street and take photographs of you, your house and your neighbours? That would be weird surely.
A final note about responsible photography is to be aware of where you are. A few years ago in Kashgar (western China), one of my guests was taking a photo of a donkey and cart, without noticing the large military trucks passing on the same road. She was so endeared by the donkey, she failed to realise the guns and the shouts from the soldiers to put her camera away! In many countries, bridges, border posts and transport hubs are regarded as strategic interests and photography is prohibited. Consideration should also be given at religious sites or events.
Do you have an opinion about photography of people and poverty? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.