Travel Blog Ethics – How not to destroy a life

by Dave from The Longest Way Home ~ March 18th, 2010. Updated on September 15th, 2012. Published in: Travel blog » How to guides ....
Refugee children from the Philippines waiting for food

A flash flood refugee in The Philippines hearing that there is no more food today (click to enlarge) Does this image help the situation, or not?

Impact of ignoring travel blog ethics

In travel blog ethics we looked at some of the who’s and how’s. Now lets take a look at the outcomes of how ignoring travel blog ethics can affect & destroy lives.

The following are 3 brief real life situations in order of severity: (names changed)

3. (Asia) “A group of friends were teaching English for a year. “Jen” wrote weekly updates in the form of a travel journal. One entry read similarly to this:

“The girls have really gotta stop eating all that BBQ. Susan couldn’t even fit into a size ten yesterday at the mall!”

Sufficed to say, the ladies were none too happy at having their weight gain mentioned.

Jen was asked to take it down. She didn’t as she felt it was her personal travel journal. For the remaining 6 months she was socially snubbed by the others.

Ethically Jen believed she was right to publish her journal, and the true facts of the day. Doing so cost her two friendships, a host of bad rumors and a not so pleasant remaining 6 months of teaching. Maybe she was right, but it could have been written in a different way.

2. (Africa) “Josephine” & “Simon” were at a expat party, and basically got it together. Josephine published photos of them at the party on her travel blog. Simon’s wife saw it. That summer there was a divorce.

While Simon should not have been fooling around on his wife, Josephine’s actions of blogging about it published it all to the world. Rumor has it she knew he was married. Was she ethically right or wrong?

1. (Tibet) As we sheltered in a hotel during the Lhasa riots 2 years ago I saw people accept huge sums of money from global news corporations for photographs & video from the chaos filled streets outside. Some accepted, others turned them down.

During this time the Chinese Army were doing house to house searches looking for people identified from CCTV and online news footage. No trials, just prison for that person, and their whole family.

The hotel lobby was filled with locals glued to the internet news sites.

Trust me when I say the look in the eyes of these people of sheer terror will teach you all you need to know about ethics in a heartbeat.

The world turns to slow motion as they jam their faces to the screen and panic as someone that may look like them is shown on a street. It’s not just their lives, but the lives of their whole families that are in jeopardy.

Even those conscious about the media, still uploaded photo’s to their personal travel blogs. The general comment was,

“no one will see it, it’s just for friends and family”.

Sorry, search engines pick up everything these days. As do people specifically looking for things like this.

The outcome

As for me and a few others? A few of us refused the money on offer 2 years ago. It would have been a blessing to me, but a sentence to hell for others. It’s not in me to do that.

The BIG ethics question

Which is more important to travel blog ethics, to publish the plight of a people or refuse and hopefully save a life from prison or victimization?

The destruction of lives through blogging

I don’t want a “Tibet” debate here. But I know of several personal bloggers, and people who uploaded their videos from those days to Youtube. Nothing was censored, faces were visible.

International media have already reported on the rounding up of hundreds of people from those days. Many people have not been seen or heard from again since then.

Now, two years later, I am still being emailed repeatedly by various organisations asking for these photos, un-edited, high resolution and uncut. I still refuse. Months after the riots, the Tibetan Government in exile confirmed to me, and asked for them not to be published for the safety of others.

Right or wrong, bystander or rioter, the images from that day showed the efforts of some who believed in a cause to the world. To others they were a sentence to prison.

People sheltering during the riots in Tibet as a tank closes in

People sheltering during the riots in Tibet as an army tank closes in (click to enlarge). People’s faces & bodies blurred to protect their identity

Travel Blog ethics, who’s responsible?

In a word, you. Imagine yourself traveling in a hot country. You see a man sleeping on a bench in a lane way as the power is out, and there’s nothing to do. You photograph him, and publish it on your blog. You leave the country.

Meanwhile unbeknown to you, back in the country several months later. The son of a business owner is browsing and stumbles on your post. He recognized the sleeping man. The next day the man is fired for sleeping on the job.

You’ll never know. But, your travel blogging actions may affect others if you don’t exercise caution first.

A question to ask yourself before clicking that publish button: Can this photo, or written piece, detrimentally affect any person involved in it?

The issue of publishing photo’s that can affect others

In the previous article many people commented and expressed concern about the legalities of taking someone’s photo and publishing it. I am not a lawyer, and even if I was, I couldn’t answer this for you. Why?

Photographic laws are different in every country. What’s legal in India, may not be so in the U.S.A. or U.K. or Australia nor France etc,.

The general consensus is that photographing a person as the main subject matter, and then selling it online can leave you open to legal action if written permission was not acquired first.

The issue of privacy is separate. Google Earth is a prime example as people went to court preventing them from using any street view photo that a person felt they were identified in.  I believe this was upheld in the U.K. and Google had to blur photos.

Ethics of Photography Resources

If you are really concerned or would like to know more about photography laws, then I recommend a podcast / website called PhotoLegal. It’s based in the U.K. But many things mentioned there can be applicable elsewhere. If not, then it’s still well worth downloading and listening to a few episodes to get an overview.

Somethings to think about concerning the ethics of blogging

In hindsight, have you ever taken a photo and now think that it might affect someone?

Do you ask yourself when writing a blog post if it will affect anyone mentioned in it?

Are you, for sure, aware of the photo laws in your country?

If you have any useful links / resources to do with photographic laws / rights, please leave them in the comments below so we can share resources.

Likewise if you’d like to read an article on photography, the law & your rights, then let me know in the comments too.

Coming Soon:

Why I might not be able to write here anymore …

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19 Great responses to Travel Blog Ethics – How not to destroy a life

  1. Francoise says:

    Excellent post!

    And might I add, very à propos with the red shirt protests going on in Thailand at the moment.

    Most of my own travel has been in the Middle East, including 2 stints in Syria, so I’ve always erred on the side of caution when it comes to photography, and what or who I point my camera at, for the safety of others and my own.

    Sadly, many travelers sometimes publish photos that do compromise the subject’s safety.

    Photos, especially unique, or controversial subjects (protests, violence, extreme poverty, etc.) are sometimes seen as “travel trophies” for these travelers trying to outdo each other.

    • -Francoise- Thanks.

      “travel trophies” for these travelers trying to outdo each other.

      Excellent point. Personally I don’t see why they bother, journalists and media will out do the average travel blogger 10 fold.

      Like you, in Iran, I sided on the cautious side for photos. What surprised me, was that everyone had a deep respect for photography there! Artists are held in more regard there than in any other country I’ve traveled. That said, numerous people were being picked up for photographing the old U.S.A. Embassy building. What’s so interesting about that compared to everything else Iran has to offer?! Which brings us back to your point above.

      If things turn bad in Thailand, I hope the people there take note of this post, the previous one, and the comment therein.

      -Caitlin- Few people felt sorry for the cheating husband at the time. But more through scorn on the girl who published it.

      Proof of the sleeping man scenario, just like this post, there’s a time stamp. Those in the know could also download the photo and look at the date stamp. After that, well, in some countries the “big” boss can just be spiteful.

      -waitinginthedark- I think about how a post, or photograph could affect people before it comes close to being published. I think credibility can be won or lost based on this, or at least dented/inflated. Glad you found it interesting.

      -agentcikay- Hi & welcome on board! Totally agree with the scenario of thinking about “would I want the same photo of me published on the internet” However there are some people who simply don’t care either way. Hopefully these articles will click with them.

      And yes, spontaneity can often be lost when stopping the moment to request permission. One can always ask afterwards. Link exchange done :)

      -SpunkyGirl- Glad you found the post interesting. It’s a great idea to hand out your card and get approval from a private establishment like a bar / pub before shooting in it. It gives you more freedom too!

      Nice touch with the homeless lady. One can capture great shots without revealing someones identity. Thanks for stopping by!

      -Keith- Glad you found the article helpful Keith. I might do a follow up soon with some additional info.

      -Nomadic Chick-

      The woman who was cheating with the cheater, she just lacks common sense or discretion

      Totally agree, personally speaking I think it was a good mix of both.

      Again, I’d love to bottle the feeling of experiencing how terrified those people were at having their images show up on line. It would make anyone, bar the most heartless, think and act twice.

      And I agree, being honest with your travel photo subject about what you intend to do with the photo from the start is the best start.

  2. Caitlin says:

    I don’t feel very sorry for the cheating husband and I’m sceptical about the sleeping man example (since there’s no proof of what date the photo was taken). However, you make some powerful points about identifying faces and people in law-and-order situations in totalitarian regimes. I will take care.

  3. You’re raising interesting thoughts on the responsibility each one has towards other people. Too often we forget (and I probably do the same) the impact that words or images can have, how these can be hurting or even putting some lives in danger. Thank you for reminding that writing, photographing or filming should not be a selfish act.

  4. agentcikay says:

    wow, first of all , great blog! only 33 huh;)
    secondly, this is a truly riveting and thought provoking piece. blogging ethics is important and I feel the best way to never be in a pickle is to ask first – do u mind if I take this photo. if the answer is yes, go ahead. no – well u know what not to do. However, i do admit it’s not always easy to ask for permission esp in the case of a shot where you are capturing the ‘moment’ with many people in it. I suppose if u ask yourself if i were in the photo, would I like to be snapped and put up in the public eye, is a good yardstick as to whether i should take the shot?

    phew.. long comment!
    once the again love the site. let’s exchange links!

  5. SpunkyGirl says:

    I love this series of articles. They are a great resource and reminder to myself as I blog more and gear up for my travels. In fact I’ve been putting the information to use already. This morning when I walked into the pub for St Paddy celebrations I made sure the staff knew I’d be blogging about the pub, I gave them my card and made sure it was okay to snap photos.

    I think it’s really important to keep other people in mind and not snap photos without care. When I approached the homeless woman this morning and asked to take a photo, I promised not to take it of her face, I told her it would be posted on my blog and showed her the photo afterward.

    Thanks again for the post and the reminders!

  6. Keith says:

    I found this post very useful as a new blogger. I will keep the cautions in mind as I photograph in the future.

  7. Scenario 1 and 2 are more a case of the inside voice being publicly shared, a common issue in the blogging world. The woman who was cheating with the cheater, she just lacks common sense or discretion. Ethics, aside.

    Now #3 is a doozy. Those pictures are certainly part of a larger situation – people *disappearing*. Selling those is like offering a mug shot. I admire your strength and bad, bad to others who were steered by greed, instead of humanity’s interests.

    I think Pam has it right, be honest on what you plan to use to cover your bases.

  8. marryam says:

    Thought provoking post, in this day of everyone’s-a-blogger. However, you cannot equate fitting into your clothes anymore with a terrifying crackdown by an army – Chinese, Mid Eastern or any other! One issue is a social solecism and the other’s a matter of life and death.

    a good read nevertheless.

  9. Susan says:

    Great post! Ethics is such an important thing to consider. You are right once in cyberspace always in cyberspace. Being ethical is a choice of oneâ��s character, but honestly I wouldn’t choose to read post that slammed someone else, by doing so is a glimpse into my own character as well.

  10. PLEXIMUS says:

    Amazing. I guess I never thought about the consequences of all the free willed imagery in societies that … well you know… you said it. nice job.

  11. ciki says:

    oh wow! I like re-reading one of my earlier comments on your blog! reminds me why i started reading TLWH in the first place. i.e. because it’s that awesome! Glad to know you Dave. Hope that 15 – 20 years down the line I am still TLWH’s top reader and commentor .. woohoo:P

  12. chocoloca says:

    Awesome post! I’ve yet to travel much and still rather new to writing blogs of my travel adventures. This post gave me new insights on travel blogging and photography. Something I wouldn’t really thought of until it hits me in the face. I’m glad to have found your site, specially this post. :)

  13. Zoe says:

    Thank you for this article. I have never blogged before but want to start a blog soon. To be honest I had never given a second thought to how photos could have unanticipated effects. Thank you for making me aware.

  14. Veronique says:

    Well I’ve written some pieces on my volunteering experience where I’m wondering whether it was a good thing to publish or not.
    Basically I didn’t agree with all the stuff that was going on at the children’s home where I volunteered. On the other hand I feel it was more me thinking critically than giving the place a bad name or something.

    I’d love to get an opinion on the matter though, if anyone could help me out with this dilemma please let me know at info@packedmybag.com

    Will not link the article here for obvious reasons… ;)