Panajachel, Sololá, Guatemala

Photography during travel

One of my pet peeves is traveling with people, or witnessing tourists, that like to take pictures of locals without asking. I'm not talking about a wide street shot, or in a crowded place where the person isn't the focus of the shot. I'm talking about that in-your-face-I-like-your-kid-your-clothes-are-so-pretty-dont-mind-me-and-my-massive-camera types of photos. Here's the thing: it's not cool. I have heard travel writers/photographers justify this with "it's my job", but I would disagree that anyone's job, or vacation memory trumps the right of any woman, man, or child's right to privacy, personal space, respect and courtesy.

Being in a foreign land doesn't automatically erase the ethical practices of photographing someone's child, for example.

In Guatemala, I have witnessed travelers being reprimanded for taking shots without permission. Reprimanded on the verge of a full-on beat down. I will confess that even as a Spanish-speaker, I didn't intervene in defense of the traveler - because they were warned. In some countries, a photograph represents a taking of the soul or goes against religious beliefs. And in most of the world, like in America, it is not cool to walk up to a child, or anyone really, and start snapping photos of them without asking first.

I take a lot of portraits when I travel, but it takes time and patience (I also hate it when I take the time to break down barriers and do what I must to get permission and the perfect smile only to have a group of people jump behind me to get the shot too - GRRR - but I digress) and my advice is always: 1) ASK FIRST. Hand gestures in lieu of foreign language skills is always better than nothing. 2) Offer something in return. The most vile of behaviors are professional photographers who will likely sell their shot for a nice price and yet never offer their subject a dime. Offer something. Ask a local guide what a decent "tip" would be and offer it. In other words, invest in your craft. 3) Accept no gracefully and don't demand too much if told yes. Figure out your shot beforehand and be creative with what you've got. Don't impose on your subjects by asking them to pose one way or another or to do special things for your shot. Figure. It. Out. They aren't there for your benefit. And if told no, smile, say thank you - leave a compliment - and walk away. Too shy or uncomfortable to ask? Work on that. Or don't take the picture.

I am told no often, and I completely respect that no. Then I go off and find something else. Because their image is not mine for the taking. Especially if they don't want to give it.

This shot was taken from a van on my way to Panajachel in Guatemala. I was stuck in traffic and chatted up the couple. After a bit, I asked for their photo in exchange for 10 quetzales (less than $2) as it was all the change I had. They happily accepted. I was allowed one shot and that was it.

The bonus wasn't getting the picture, but the fun conversation it took to get them to finally accept, because in the process we broke the barrier between traveler and local, and came together as people.

Happy travel and photographing!

Photography during travel