Ethics of Travel Photography?
How many travel related websites are there out there? They nearly all have something in common that we all like: Travel Photography. But just how did that travel photograph come about? And, are its ethics in question?
Over the years I’ve seen the travel photography and travel blogging industry change. And, I believe at the moment, the former is heading into serious trouble.
There was once a time when big commercial photography websites offered financial payment for specific photographs, much like hardcopy magazines. Though a few still do, most now scrape content from stock image sites for huge savings.
There are also another batch of travel / photography related websites that offer up competitions to enter. Some don’t even offer a physical prize, just an offer to name someone as the “best photographer” at the end.
How you lose your photograph by entering some competitions:
The problem here is that by submitting to these sites, one is also, more often than not, surrendering the rights to the photographs themselves. Meaning once you’ve submitted photographs, the website can then use them wherever, and however they feel. Including resell them without any payment whatsoever to the photographer (sample & a full list of companies exceeding copyright permissions, including some big travel / photography companies).
Are their ethics in doubt? Hmm, I would say no. It is after all, a business; and the small print is there. Though the above list also questions the legality of these to a degree, and their rights violations.
It happens in the hardcopy world too. Which brings me to perhaps two of the least talked about aspects of ethics, travel photography and travel blogs.
Photographers paying for photographs:
I’ve met, worked with, and have known quite a few professional photographers and journalists over the years. One of the lesser known aspects of photography that makes my stomach churn a little is the money involved. And, I am not talking about payments to the photographer here.
In various countries I’ve seen both international and local photographers pay for a photograph. We’re not just not talking about handing over 1 USD for a quick shot either.
I am talking about paying a fixer to arrange a local person to be dressed more “locally”, have things moved around for better framing, and have everyone come out at the right time for the best light.
These aren’t serious front page photo shoots either. These are freelance article shots, submission shots, sales and to a lesser extent for personal websites or blogs.
Is this ethics or business?
Prime example in ethics of travel photography by a professional photographer:
Here’s an example: Marco Vernaschi is a photojournalist who’s work is funded by the Pulitzer foundation for crises reporting. He used the money to pay a family to exhume their child’s dead body for photographs. (source)
Having lived in West Africa, I found Marco’s work to be disturbing, but very real. Without paying people to do these shots, would the stories ever come to the attention of the world?
Or, is it warping the basic fundamentals of journalism & photography?
Ethics of war photography : do you let someone die?
Can a man cover a naked child in blanked as bombs destroy her village? Huynh Cong “Nick” Ut’s famous photograph of young children running toward his camera with open mouths during an accidental napalm attack by South Vietnamese forces. He took the photographs. They wrenched home the sheer horror of war and the people committing it. The young girl in the picture, Kim Phuc, and Huynh Cong “Nick” Ut were reunited after 17 years in Havana, Cuba.
Tibet 2008 during the riots I became aware of media black outs and false reporting. Being right in the middle of the riots before they happened, as they happened and after they happened I was shocked to hear national Chinese news tell a different story.
I photographed buildings on fire, tear gas attracts, violent beatings, house to house searches and a giant army taking control. My photographs and video tell a different tale compared to Chinese state media at the time. The media said there was a small out break of violence from a gang and that no foreigners were there. It’s very strange to see media reports about a place you are standing in and as buildings collapse in flames outside.
Ethics of street children photography
Jacob Riis a reporter for the New York World hired a photographer Richard Hoe Lawrence to document homelessness on the streets to show public officals what exactly was happening. Not just people lives on the streets, but how some flop houses, saloons and police stations treated homeless people. The photographs were shocking enough to change many policies.
Words are one thing, but a photograph of a street child can make more of an impact
Having seen the same homeless street child in 2008 I photographed and wrote about the street children of Kathmandu. While another man had previously sat with the boys, read to them and fed them I couldn’t help but wonder what the world would think of their situation.
In the “west” today a person can get into trouble for photographing a child. In Nepal it’s perhaps their only hope in letting the world know their plight. Government reports, NGO assessments and individual handouts are one thing. But the world can react with a lot help if they see the reality of what a child looks like after 4 years of huffing glue.
Taking responsibility for your moral and ethical rights as a photographer:
Is it always right to sell or publish photographs of people in war, on the streets or in some manner that might make a story? No. In Tibet many foreigners sold their photographs at a high price to international media organisations.
The result? Yes, more graphic news got out. However many Tibetan families were arrested for being shown in the footage. These were not just people involved in any crime. They were also people simply trying to escape who were deemed guilty just because they were revealed in a photograph.
This is one of the reasons I blurred out my photographs of the Tibet riots.
The problem the arises today is that many people take photographing and video for granted without thinking of the greater picture.
From amateur to professional we are at a cross roads in the ethics of photography and social journalism. Not just in vacation photographs or in situations whereby we might be able to help. We are also faces with people trying to propel themselves into the limelight.
What’s right in the morals & ethics of travel photography?
Is it ethical in the strictest form to go into a Pakistani market, pay a man to change into something a little less modern? Put some dirt on his face? Arrange his vegetable stall a little and wait until the sun is just right; before photographing him?
“Are we making something up? Or are we helping the world by portraying something that’s going to be more vivid and recognizable?”
Ethics would dictate it’s not right. But maybe it does serve a greater purpose?
What then if it was a professional photo-shoot vs travel blogger hoping to make a name for themselves?
If you are just starting out as a travel-photographer, can you even afford to do this? An aspiring photographer might need to if they ever hope to get it mainstream published these days.
Some of the big players out there can, and do pay. Some even add it to their expense accounts. A fixer comes in handy here for write off’s.
Are they helping to portray something to the world? Or just trying to cash in?
The cash happy amateur photographer with little ethics:
What’s worse is when there’s a cash happy amateur photographer with a DSLR doing this. They might not have the skill to take a great photograph, but they can sure pay for the right physical setting.
After that they click away and the law of probability says that at least 1 of their 200 shots will be excellent.
I don’t think such a photographer is using good ethics here.
“It’s also not a good feeling if one has the skill, but cannot afford to pay for the “perfect” scene.”
Many will argue that a really great photographer would never need to do this. And, that is very true. But tough times, and competition in a changing industry puts pressure on everyone. Including the pros. And, the ethics of travel photography.
Little by little such stories are leaking out.
As more and more people see money changing hands for the perfect photograph so to does the knowledge about image rights. Thus putting many an amateur travel blogger and photographer into dangerous territory without even knowing it. See my previous article about Travel Blog Ethics.
The final case on the future of travel photography ethics:
It starts with the argument of editing photographs. Many are disqualified from competitions & media submissions for doing so. But is it not the same thing if you pay to have things put in, or taken out physically?
Today, both media & photography peers condemn photographers and agencies that “photoshop” or alter images to convey a different meaning (source). But rarely, if ever, do you hear about staged or paid for photographs.
Show me the photo money
Money talks. And, the pressure is on. Already big corporations and hotels ban photographers from taking shots of their buildings.
Permits, passes and invitations are now getting more and more prevalent for any type of photography these days. A lot of these things take time, contacts, and money. Something the aspiring photographer must deal with.
Yes, the upcoming photographer can always go to Cambodia and snap a village market. But the photographer with cash, can also pay for the same under perfect lighting, set up and scene conditions.
Who will be more likely to get a contract or sale?
My prediction is that this will get worse. These things always start small, and grow big. And, it’s happening now in the world of journalism, media and travel photography.
Ethics of Travel Photography: things to think about :
How do you feel about paying for a photograph to be set up?
Have you ever handed over even $1 and then asked for someone to look more natural? Is this the same thing too?
Is travel photography becoming endangered?
This is an additional editorial featuring travel related articles, view points, conversational topics and helpful resources based on experiences from my journey