The Critical Question: To Shoot or not to Shoot

Travellers and tourists love to take pictures to document their travels and take back memories of the richness of their experiences and share them with their families, friends and audiences. The more I travel, the more I see examples of insensitivity in click-happy tourists. Sure, we all have our moments of absolute certainty that we could be the next National Geographic photographers, and so we absolutely must take that one ‘heart warming’ picture.

Now I strongly believe that pictures speak volumes about the photographer and his skill. And, a good photographer (and a sensible, rational human being) is made not only by his pictures, but also by how he shoots. So I flinch every time I see a tourist trying to take what is obviously an intrusive and insensitive picture, very often it is a scene of great poverty in a third world country.

During my trip to Nepal, I was shocked to see a tourist (of course armed with his fancy DSLR) standing extremely close (or right in front of the face) of an elderly woman of the Gurung tribe offering prayers and prostrations at the Bodhnath Stupa, a major pilgrimage site in the Kathmandu Valley for Buddhists. As this woman performed her ritual, all the while chanting, this guy would not stop pointing his gigantic camera at her face from very close. The woman did not object and ignored him as she continued, but it was clear to any onlooker that he was being a plain jerk.

Another time, I was walking down a rickety village road, close to the Bagmati river in the valley and I was absolutely appalled to see a bus full of Japanese tourists had stopped on the side of the road to gather around and click pictures of poor village children bathing in a tank under a single tap. This group of 15 people gathered around the tank from all sides, taking pictures and videos, as the children shuddered, trying to cover themselves and were downright frightened of these strange people. Some might argue that they were in fact bathing in the open and it was not a big deal. But their every day activity suddenly became a spectacle. The poor may not have bathrooms, but they still have the right to their modesty. I wish I could have said to them, “Would you like it if a group of people were to storm into your bathroom as you took a shower with massive cameras?”

Shootornot

I wish travellers would understand that the ‘subjects’ in photographs are more than that, they are real people, with the same rights as us, even when they belong to poor or backward communities in third world countries. During my stay in Bodhnath, I spent several hours every day around the Stupa and would have loved to photograph the old tribal women as they performed their rituals gracefully, but that would need me to distract them from something very special and private. It did not feel right and I could not do it.

There is so much we experience on our travels, in terms of culture that we simply cannot capture its essence in pictures- sights, sounds, smiles, acts of kindness and the hospitality of strangers. Would it then, be such a loss, if we did not take that one picture that invades someone’s privacy and choose instead to witness it with our eyes and keep it in our memory?

This post has probably been longer and more personal than my usual posts, because I feel strongly about the topic. Lack of respect and insensitivity towards locals by tourists make me angry and sad at the same time. I would like to know your thoughts on this, so please leave your comments below.

For more posts from Nepal, visit the Nepal Travel Blog.

8 Comments

  • Yana says:

    What I have been doing now is when I’m taking photographs of people while travelling I use a polaroid camera so I take two photos and give one to them and keep one for myself. They are taken with permission of course.

  • Ami says:

    Your post, my sentiments, EXACTLY. I’ve been appalled so many times when I see some photographers getting invasive with someone going about their daily life. And often I’ve stopped myself from clicking a pic or approaching someone for permission, because I didn’t feel it was right. I believe most professional photographers do seek permission or make conversation with the people they want to click, whereas some (not all) hobbyists just want to capture something exciting – and more importantly, stereotypical – to show off back home.
    Ami recently posted…Yucatán days on the Mayan RivieraMy Profile

  • Great post, Natasha! We were travelling with a National Geographic photographer on Myanmar and every time he approached someone for a photo he would ask their permission first. Then he would make conversation with them, and sneak photos from different angles – in between his arms, down low, etc. Sometimes he would throw his lens up and snap before asking permission, in order to get the perfect light or composition, but then he always went up to the person and showed them afterwards.
    Jazza – NOMADasaurus recently posted…The Backpacker’s Paradox – Traveller vs TouristMy Profile

    • thebohochica says:

      That’s just good manners, isn’t it? It’s a shame how often people forget they still need to behave in a certain way when they’re travelling.

  • Ryan Bolton says:

    Agreed! As a photographer myself in many developing countries, it’s about making a genuine connection with the subject first. It shows way more in the final photo.

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