As an iPhone-wielding traveler, I understand that it’s never been easier to take and share photos. You no longer have to be one of the lucky few immortalized in print; you can simply and instantly post your shots to the 3×3-grid world of Instagram. And while travel provides myriad opportunities for interesting compositions, the most popular subjects of travel photographs are people — or more specifically, children. While these shots vary in type and composition, they tend to feature kids from developing nations or rural villages, children living in circumstances that the traveler has never confronted before. Documentation is important, of course, but photography (specifically as it pertains to children) requires careful consideration — and perhaps restraint — before the shutter is clicked.
When I lived in Thailand, I witnessed countless travelers from the West poke their cameras in locals’ faces and pose with child models at the base of Chiang Mai’s Doi Suthep temple. It was disheartening. Even more disturbing was seeing many of my Facebook friends change their profile pictures to shots of them huddled with children at refugee camps, orphanages, or schools in countries across the globe. While I could safely assume that the majority of those people didn’t mean any harm by taking and posting such photos, chances are, they didn’t think honestly about their intentions before doing so.
There are several factors at play when travelers photograph children of a different race, ethnicity, socio-economic status, and/or background — and consequently, these shots can often be damaging. For example, you’ll find that most pictures taken of children in developing areas reinforce negative views of their homeland — juxtapose the number of photos you’ve seen of the bustling and well-to-do cities of Nairobi, Kenya and Accra, Ghana with the shots from the slums of Kampala, Uganda and the remote, poverty-stricken villages in Zambia and Sierra Leone. On a micro level, tourists perpetuating the practice of photographing children can impact the communities they’re capturing, encouraging kids to drop out of school and beg for money from the tourists who snap their portraits.
In addition, photos of children in emergent nations can be considered “poverty porn” (i.e. media — written, photographed, or filmed — that exploits the poor’s condition in order to generate the necessary sympathy for selling products or supporting a given cause). These photographs gain attention for a reason — and many modern-day influencers are using these images to garner attention (and engagement) from their social audiences.
The bottom line is: if you take a photo with a child because you’re searching for online validation, social engagement, or positive feedback from peers, I urge you to reconsider. Before you click the shutter, ask yourself, Am I making the effort to challenge pre-existing stereotypes, or would these photos simply perpetuate them?
Ideally, as a photographer, you would exercise the same standard of judgment in all circumstances. But oftentimes, this isn’t the case. Say a traveler is dead-set on photographing the children in the remote Indonesian fishing village they’re visiting. Have they asked permission from both the subject and their parents? Consider a scenario closer to home. What if said photographer was visiting a museum in their city and wished to photograph a visiting school group? Would they have the gall to photograph these children without asking, or would they try to obtain permission from both the kids and their teachers? Chances are, the photographer would feel more intimidated to approach the school group.
Remoteness, poverty, and language barriers provide no excuse to act without first considering the ethics of photographing a child. Regardless of where you are, kids are kids. They need to be protected and respected, especially in a world where identity is exploited regularly and few (if any) restrictions exist for content published online. Always ask yourself what behavior you’d be comfortable exhibiting in your home country, and act according to those standards wherever your travels take you.
While many travelers are good-natured and seemingly well-intentioned, I’ve noticed that adventurers with a DSLR, a GoPro, or even a smartphone often project a sense of unbridled entitlement. Those traveling without the proper cultural introduction (and language assistance) of a location fixer or the direction of a partner like a non-profit or charity organization are often oblivious to cultural standards and societal best practices. The reality is that leaving one’s home country shouldn’t be an excuse to act irresponsibly or disrespectfully, the same way that buying a plane ticket does not entitle you access into people’s lives — whether that’s through a portrait, a conversation, or inclusion within a community.
If you’re faced with a situation where you’d like to take a photo of a child, remind yourself that a few boxes need to be checked. Ideally, you’d first focus on connecting with the people themselves, not capturing their likeness. If you’re planning to be in the area for a while, invest time in getting to know the local residents — participate in their economy, learn their names, ask how to pronounce and use simple phrases. When appropriate, it’s important to facilitate a genuine connection first and consider your photos later. If you have met these conditions and would still like to take a photo of a child, ask permission (both from the child and from an adult). If no adult is present, or if there is a significant enough language barrier to bar comprehension of your question, reconsider the shot or snap it in a way so that the child cannot be identified. When in doubt, ask. Simply photographing a child and walking away objectifies them and conveys that this human being is only as important as your photography aspirations.
In an effort to reconcile my own point of view with past photographic behavior, I’ve read a lot of articles about the ethics of photographing children while traveling, and I’ve found that it all boils down to respect. One line that has stuck with me reads: “There seems to be a perception out there that poor people are less deserving of privacy.”
As I acknowledged above, many of the travel photos that we see of children on social media are taken in rural, developing, and often poverty-stricken areas. It shouldn’t need to be said that travel and respect go hand-in-hand, and that children should always be granted the right to privacy. Traveling in areas that are less socio-economically stable than the ones we came from does not give us license to record, document, and disseminate snapshots of a life that we don’t truly understand and have not lived ourselves.
At the end of the day, responsible travel photography has — and continues to be — a vehicle that can educate, delight, and unite individuals around the world. But before you embark on your travels with a point-and-shoot or an iPhone, pause to consider what types of photos you’re looking to capture, why you want to take them, and whether those photos will do more harm than good. If we can do this, our photos will be better, truer, and more fully depict those we seek to represent.
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