The ethical nature of taking photographs of people, particularly those in less developed countries, has been a contested issue within global journalism but is little mentioned amongst the backpacker crowd. Photographs are most travellers’ way of recording their ‘once in a life time’ experience. Whether it is a photo of themselves in front of a famous heritage site, or simply an image of local life, with the capacity for nearly endless digital memory we simply snap away at anything and everything.
However, have you ever really put yourself at the opposite end of the lens? Although a child swaddled in its mother’s arms, at the corner of a dusty African roadside may look like a masterpiece worthy of National Geographic, have you ever stopped to think how very intrusive the act of pointing a lens might make that subject feel? Moreover what is our fascination in taking such photos of youthful innocence, the poor and the holy? Very few of us would consider taking a photo of a school child or a priest standing by the road at home, yet when you see that exact same image in a less developed country it seems far more aesthetically rich; the child more endearing, and the holy man more captivating. Are we merely objectifying the subject, transforming their life into a commodity, or, is it simply innocent curiosity and the fact that they are different to us?
Regardless of the reason why, we must ask ourselves whether our own curiosity in the image takes priority over the subjects’ right to privacy. In Western culture, the issue of personal privacy brings to light a stark contradiction. On the one hand, we are only too happy to plaster pictures of ourselves all over the internet on social networking sites, yet on the other, we object to being amongst the most watched citizens in the world in terms of surveillance and most of us would strongly object to having photographs of ourselves taken by complete strangers. Is it right therefore that we subject other people to this discomfort? One could argue that we are merely replicating the permanent panopticism of our own surveillance society, putting others lives under the same level of scrutiny as our own. However, we are not giving our ‘subjects’ the choice. Tours through India’s biggest slum Dharavi can be arranged, where tourists can experience life in a slum from the comfort of an air-conditioned vehicle, photographing those less fortunate at their leisure. In this instance, little regard is given to the subject of the photo, and instead, the very act of photographing could be construed as inherently selfish, as it is only by seeing those less fortunate that we realise how privileged we are.
Having said this, often the tourists themselves become the subjects of the photo. In very religious societies, tourists may find themselves a guest in many a family portrait, and female travellers in particular can become the focus of much unwanted attention from both men and women alike, their photo a souvenir and a novelty. Curiosity is a part of human nature, the allure of that ‘different something’ – so can we place blame on either party for wanting to express their intrigue by way of a permanent memory? Further to this, one cannot ignore the agency of the photographic subject in question. From holy men in Kathmandu, to snake charmers in Marrakech, they capitalise on the curiosity of the tourist to their benefit, charging tourists for photographs, bettering their lives through our snap happy nature.
Whatever the reason behind wanting to take photographs whilst travelling, the fact remains that photographs that are culturally rich, both captivate and intrigue us. It is through the medium of photography that much of our knowledge of the world is gained. Although some may find it hard to accept that it is the difference between the audience and the subject that drives our desire to photograph, one must acknowledge that if every culture and every race were homogenous, then there would be no distinction between home and abroad and, ultimately, it is this ‘difference’ that inspires us to travel.