Why Travel Photography is becoming endangered: Ethics of Travel Photography

Morning washing on the Ganges, India
Travel photography is more than just good timing these days, but do ethics play a part?                    (click to enlarge)

Ethics of Travel Photography?

(updated 2012)
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.

Hand harvesting rice from a padi in the Philippines
Would you pay to have this lady stay like this until you got the right shot?

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.

Blacked out riot photo from Tibet
Blacked out riot photo from Tibet: it was simply not morally or ethically right to display peoples identity in this situation through a photograph

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.

Black & White photograph of the Taj Mahal
It’s not ethical to edit people out of an image, but is it ethical to pay them to leave too?

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

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65 Replies to “Why Travel Photography is becoming endangered: Ethics of Travel Photography”

  1. Totally agree! especially about moving details in a photo around.. tweaking a little here and there.. i mean, this TOTALLY changes the meaning of a shot. It is actually fake/ bogus .. bottom line – deception. You can make a photo dreamy or help paint a story you want to share but you cannot create an alternate reality. People who have sight depend solely on what they read and see, so each and everyone of us, whether professional or not, need to work ethically. Use photos but link, attribute etc. Never ever tweak photos to suit your will!

    Great write up. Cheers big ears;)

    1. Totally agree from a journalists view point. The recent Obama on the beach “alone” photo as an example. The second person was removed and now the photo looks like he’s in deep contemplation. It was not good to do this, as it gave a false perception of a person, and place due to manipulating the image.

      When it comes to removing this like, say a fly on a cream cake not noticed during the shoot. I’ll freely admit that if it spoiled the image I would clone it out. If asked, I would say yes. I do think there are differences in this area. Would I change the color of the cake, no. Sharpen it. Yes.

  2. Very interesting article here!
    I personally never paid for any photograph or set up anything for a better shot.
    I completely disagree with this practice and don’t understand why a photographer would set up a scene to show something to the world that doesn’t even exist in the first place?

    And yes, I do feel travel photography is becoming endangered, not only because of these big names that are able to pay for a perfect shot, but also because everyone has a DSLR nowadays and many publications just settle with a basic shot for cheap.

    1. After reading though everyone’s comments I’ll put my view in here to you. I think the point made about “what is travel photography” is valid. But ethics should not be brushed aside just by saying something like that. Too many people like that “way out” these days.

      A pro photographer paying for a perfect scene for a magazine. I think you are right in saying we, as photographers, know that the magazine added creative flare to this. But does the general public? If someone came on CNN tomorrow and “exposed” a travel magazine for this, you’d bet the public would be outraged.

      Photo Art is another topic, HDR etc. Manipulation. I think we in the digital age are finding the rules are changing beneath our feet.

  3. This is an interesting post. I have to admit, it’s a hard debate to decide on. Photographers stage photos all the time when they’re in North America. It’s a normal and respectful aspect of photography. So what’s the difference if you’re doing it while on the road?

    Unfortunately we’re in a world that’s focused on commercialism. One could argue that staging a photo in India is no different than staging a photo in North America. Does that make it right? Personally, it feels a little off- especially if said photo is being used in conjunction with a story. If you’re writing a story about the poverty of a third world country and you staged the photo that you’re using with the story- then you’ve defrauded your readers. This is of course, my personal opinion on the matter.

    As a travel-photographer I could not bring myself to stage a photo. I like to capture the moment. If my timing is right, great. I couldn’t look myself in the mirror if I knew I had staged everything to be ‘just so’.

    1. Valid points, especially your note on commercialism. If someone offered a traveler $5,000 to get a photograph of an old woman in India eating a Kolka nut with a Cola, hat on. Then, I think most would take the money. But the difference here, I think, how it’s portrayed afterwards is important. A news item, such as it is, or an advertisement.

      I think capturing poverty anywhere in the world doesn’t need a set up. But, I can see it happening with ease. It’s that thin veil between travel photography, and photo journalism. Perhaps the two are merging? I’ll be writing about that soon. As it’s off topic. But, yes as you say. There’s nothing quite like capturing a moment if the timing is right. Even if it does take all day. The reward can be great personally.

      1. I am an American living in China with my Chineses photo journalist husband. Recently he was hired as a “fixer” for a French outfit from the ARTE network who were filming a “documentary on Hainan Island” for their iglobal island series. These men were exactly as you described: They knew nothing of the language or culture, asked my husband (who refused) to stage un natural shots or since it was film, have the locals say things contrary to their ethics and culture. They made rude comments in English to Rechard and in general were total Neanderthals. My husband, being a journalist himeslf was disgusted. We sent letters to the director and received a small apology and explination that these men were “freelancers” and not permanently employed with ARTE.
        We support your comments 100%.

        1. That’s a very harsh predicament to be in. Getting a job as a fixer and then having to do and witness things you do not agree with.

          Sadly I see such behavior in many organisations. All paid expense trips seem to bring out the worse in some people. For someone like ARTE to behave in such a manner is not good considering what they promote.

          I don’t buy “freelance” either, it’s a cop out many organisations use these days to avoid responsibility. Obviously I don’t know the intricate details of their contracts. But if they were there filming, then I don’t think freelance is the correct term. They may be independent workers not on permanent contract. And, in this case is sounds as if ARTE was footing the bill for their fees, and if so, should take responsibility for those working for them.

          I see this type of thing getting worse.

  4. Interesting question. I wouldn’t consider myself a travel photographer (can’t afford to travel too much) but a street photographer. As is the case with most street photographers, I have similar issues with staging a photo. Street photography is all about the justaposition and the candidness, and in a way, documenting the atmostphere of a moment in time. Any staging of a shot is, in crude terms, pornographing the scene.

    Streetphotographers are usually purists at heart. The most respectable shooters use a prime lens and film.

    Why am I saying all this? I guess I am trying to answer your question of whether staging a shot is ethical, with more questions:
    – Is using a zoom lens to compose and crop out elements from a shot ethical?
    – Is cropping in post-processing ethical?
    – How is cropping different than removing things from a scene?
    – Is simple photoshopping (with curves, levels and colour saturation) ethical when these simple changes can dramatically change the mood of a scene?

    From a streetshooter’s perspective, any form of cropping and image manipulation is unethical. But then like I said, I am a purist. I recognise that for every person who disagrees with staging a shot, there is another who will disagree with photoshopping. With real life, different people all have different levels of ethics. Why should travel photography be any different?

    1. Some very good points. And, I really like the term “pornographing the scene”.

      I particularity enjoy street photography. It’s something I feel is hard to stage. Capturing a moment from life that tells a story with expression subtlety and emotion is a wonderful feeling. And the results are instant. Almost like snipers. Waiting all day for that perfect shot.

      A long time ago I would have considered myself a purist. But I realized that it was a mixed bag of opposing actions. A photographer I met 10 years ago condemned anyone using digital. And, even today in places like the Philippines where old school cameramen still exist, digital is frowned upon as being fake.

      I realize some of this is a lack of understand from their part. But, at the same time, when they take their film into the darkroom. They too can begin adjusting tones, saturation etc. Is this the same thing? I think so.

      At the end of it all, I think you said it all with travel photography being no different when it comes to other parts of life and ethics. But, at some stage accountability needs to come into play.

  5. The article you written here, I can relate to it from a photographer’s perspective.

    It’s very sad & disappointing when commercialism and competition resulted in the true meaning of photography, capturing the moments and not deliberately staging or preparing the shots.

    The future of travel photography may not be the same, hopefully, there would still be genuine photographers who still want to capture the moment and not fighting for some prize or fame.

    How travel photography would change or turns out in the future, hopefully it is for the better.

    Thanks for sharing this great article you wrote up!


    1. Hey there. Competitions are by their nature competitive. I know many high end photography competitions insist on no manipulation. Many asking for the original RAW photography as evidence. I think at this level, untouched photography will remain as is.

      However, with big magazines and the like. It’s all about the money. Largely though sales and exposure. They’ll take the best, at the best price. Rarely, if ever will a big magazine’s ethic be queried outside of journalism. Inside, I think we are seeing more cases pop up. And, to me. This is a good thing.

  6. I don’t think you can lump all photography together. In fact, I think “travel photography” is such a broad term that it is almost impossible to define.

    If you are trying to engage in photo journalism, then I think your job is to take photos of what exists. You are trying to record what happened. In some cases, I might be necessary to pay to get access to something. Even the case of the exhumed child I could see if you wanted to get evidence to prove that someone was tortured or murdered.

    However, much (most) photography is just art. It is trying to make a pretty photo. In that case, I don’t think it is a big deal if you move stuff around or pay for models. You are trying to create a scene that will make a good image and not trying to record reality.

    Ansel Adams did TONS of stuff to his images in the darkroom. If he did the same stuff today in Photoshop, people would probably accuse him of manipulation.

    I sure as hell know that many of the photos in National Geographic don’t come from just walking around waiting for stuff to happen. They don’t just take photos, they MAKE photos. (and by that I mean setting up a shot, not taking stuff out in Photoshop)

    1. I agree with the majority of what you are saying. Travel Photography is indeed a broad term. These days with change in global media, photographers are becoming more than just their original job description.

      There’s a draft sitting here that I’ve written about travel photography vs photo journalism and the difference. The lines are blurred in many regards across both industry’s. And, it’s becoming more so.

      The exhumed child is journalism. I think he was right. The arguments against have many “cop outs” I see in day to day life. Many which prevent things from getting done. Or evoke other debates (religion). At the end of the day he revealed something to the world that previously had little exposure. Yet, it didn’t help him in getting discredited by many of his peers.

      National Geographic setting up ideal shoots? I can well believe it. And, I think that the majority of their readers do not care. They want good imagery. And, that’s what they get. I do wonder though, if a news agency did do an article on a National Geographic shoot as an expose; what would the public reaction be?

  7. I’m a begginer photographer and is very dificult to us.

    Just I can……

    Your article is GREAT!!!

  8. But, there is a big difference between setting up a shot, paying attention to lighting and composition and manipulating the circumstances.

    We’re talking about photogs that manipulate their shots and go beyond the edges of of what is acceptable ethically.

    Yes, we’re in a digital era and a lot of photographers ‘improve’ their shots in photoshop. I think there is a fine line between being an artist and someone who pumps out over manipulated shots (whether by staging or by editing) to earn a fast buck.

    Extreme staging/manipulation devalues the artistic nature of photography.

    1. But why??

      The vast majority of professional photography is done in a studio or for weddings. That is all staged. Almost all photos done for fashion magazines is staged. All food photos are staged. Your graduation picture was staged.

      Almost every photo normal people take on vacation involves standing in front of something famous: that ‘s staged.

      Matthew Brady was staging shots during the Civil War.

      I am not sure why it is unethical if your goal is just something artistic? Models are used all the time. Is painting a picture with models unethical?

      Again, none of what I’ve mentioned above is photojournalism, which is different. The circumstances where you are trying to document something are pretty small. I’ve taken about 70,000 photos while traveling, and I would never say that I’m trying to capture something as news or as a record of an event.

      1. You’re 100% right, a lot of photography is staged. But in my opinion there is a difference between commercial photography and artistic photography- albeit a very fine line.

        Personally, I couldn’t be proud of a photo I’ve taken if I knew I had manipulated and changed everything. I’m an ‘in the moment’ kind of girl. There is a power that emanates from a photo when it’s captured spontaneously and artistically. If I staged everything, the spark isn’t there. It’s fake. It’s actors playing a role.

        In my mind travel-photography is a lot like photojournalism. By manipulating the subject, you’re manipulating the true nature of the situation. As a travel photog/blogger you’re posting your photos for everyone to view. In a way you’re participating in photojournalism and there are ethical rules that should be followed.

        1. If that is your preference, that’s fine. The post was about ethics however. It is a huge leap from “this is what I like” to “that is unethical”.

          I don’t consider myself a photojournalist just because my photos are public. Wedding photos are sometimes public. Movies are public. Anything in a magazine shot in a studio is public. None of those are photojournalism.

          To me, manipulating a situation would be causing a car crash, in order to take photos of a car crash. Not feeding someone to take photos of someone starving.

          Asking someone to stand or look at you is a totally different thing.

          In fact, you say capturing someone spontaneously is artistic, if it isn’t they are just actors. But actors are artistic!!! All art is staged. Paintings are staged. Movies are staged. Plays are staged. Music is staged. All art is staged! That is what makes it art. Having an idea and bringing it to life.

          1. If you’re posting photos and using them to tell a story on your blog, it’s a form of photojournalism and there are ethical parameters that should be followed.

          2. Why can’t they just help illustrate a story, rather than tell the story? That is what photos are usually used for, just to bring some color and help explain what is in the text.

            In fact, I can’t help by notice that the avatar you use in your comments appears to be a photo of you ….posing for the camera!!! :)

    2. I’ll refer to the recent Obama photo on the beach where one person was removed with the oil rig in the distance. Great photograph that depicts what many, many people were thinking of at the time. However, it was manipulated. Should it be a front page news photo, I don’t think so.

      Likewise with the Iceland volcano shots in HDR that a news agency released. It was blatantly obvious that they were cranked up. But, they still went ahead with it. Why? I think they were pushing the boundaries of what people will accept these days.

      Turn on the TV news channels and it’s all fancy graphics and dramatic scenes. As we move from old school media to new, so too the news agencies try to keep up. I don’t blame them for trying. But I don’t think manipulating journalistic photography is going to do it.

      Then again, glossy gossip shows and magazines still sell well. And they, I can most certainly say, would have no qualms about publishing any photo. Touched up, or not.

  9. I have to agree with one thing in this debate:
    As long as the definition of “Travel photography” is not clear, it will be impossible to come to a conclusion.

    The beautiful shots in brochures for travel agencies can be seen as both travel AND commercial shots I suppose, most are of course staged and photoshopped.

    I personally consider travel photography more like photojournalism. I would probably try to tell a story, one that already EXISTS (poverty, living conditions, culture, whatever) and staging a story to pass my point is like cheating the viewer.
    If the pakistani vendor is sitting behind his stall in work clothes talking on a mobile phone, why should i stage the scene, make him wear rags, look dirty then try to do a story about the poor work conditions of these villagers?

    1. Is the iconic photo of the Afghan girl from National Geographic unethical?

      That is the most iconic travel photo in the world. The story behind that is the photographer found her, had her sit down, talked to her and asked her to pose.

      There was nothing natural about it. He didn’t catch her in a moment where she was going about her business.

      People love that photo. It has become part of our cultural history….and it was totally staged.

      Does it really matter?

      1. He had her sit down for a portrait. He didn’t find her in a nike outfit and ask her to change into more traditional clothing to ‘stage’ a photo to fit his story. He found a girl in her natural circumstances and asked to take a portrait. That’s the ethical way to do it.

        1. Sitting down and posing is manipulating the image.

          You just said that you have to do things spontaneously. That photo was not spontaneous.

          You set a very strict rule of manipulating an image, which pretty much means no models, no posing, not even really knowing there is a camera around. It would also mean no flash, no filters, no photoshop, no nothing.

          That means almost everything is unethical, ie bad, immoral, naughty, evil, etc.

          1. I said ‘extreme staging/manipulation’- which ties in with the examples that Daniel has given.

            I’ve been a portrait photographer, used models etc. It was a commercial en devour. As a traveler I tend to stick to spontaneous photos. I don’t use filters and rarely use a flash. That’s my personal style. I’m not saying that everyone should follow what I do.

            I’m saying there are limits in staging. If you stage too much you risk misrepresenting your subject or story.

            As I said, Daniel’s examples are perfect. That’s exactly what I’m saying. He’s just more articulate than I at this point in the day.

          2. Hmm… this is really interesting. AS for the famous NG photo- he asked her to engage – yup that’s posing and since I wasn’t there I can’t say 100% but I am willing to bet that he put her in front of a green wall and very well could’ve asked her to raise her hood over her head, knowing the contrast between red & green would bring out her eyes even more. There is nothing wrong with that. It made for an amazing photo and it was it’s own moment in time, if you will.

      2. I understand your point Gary,

        That photo was a portrait, of course a portrait is always staged.
        But what if famous photos like the Tienanmen Tank man photo was staged? What if the girl burned by a Napalm strike in Vietnam was staged? Would it really be ethical to stage something to (for example) show the horrors of war?

        I know this is considered photojournalism and not travel photography, but the line is so blurry and the definition of travel photography is so vague that we can’t come to a real conclusion.

        What is travel photography? Any photo taken outside your own house?

        1. I don’t know what travel photography is to be honest. It is landscape photography, wildlife photography and a bunch of other things.

          The working definition most people seem to use is “brown people wearing ethnic clothing”.

          Most great news photos are not strictly speaking great photos. They are sometimes blurry and out of focus. The Tienanmen photo is a great example. If you were to stage that photo, you’d make sure the end result looked better. Many of the iconic photos from Vietnam are also of poor quality, but the moment that was captured was so powerful, it didn’t matter.

          That is why I make the distinction between photo journalism and non-photojournalism.

          I think the ethical limits for non-photojournalism photography is the limits of what is ethical, photo taking aside. Making someone look more miserable than they are is not a good thing, even if you don’t take a photo.

          1. Exactly, I agree with that.

            I would also add (my personal view) that if you want to use a photo to illustrate a story (as in telling a story, not just making the text more colorful), if the photo IS the story, then I find it unethical to stage it (fixed as they say).

            Yes, staging a photo is perfectly normal. When I wait for the golden hour to take a shot of the rice fields in Indonesia, I am staging my photo, but I am just producing a beautiful colorful photo the complements my text (and overlaps with commercial/stock photography).
            But if I want to show a story through my photos about whatever subject, I find it unethical to stage it as it distorts the reality.
            And by staging, I really mean fixing or adding something that is not there in the first place. Asking a person to look at the camera or waiting for the perfect light is different for me because, in the end, us photographers want to have a beautiful striking photo.

  10. Yup! I do self portraits because I seem to be the only person I know who can take my photo and not make me look fat! haha

  11. Great convo going on here and some very pertinent questions. I think a big question too is the ethics of only portraying an “expected” scene from any particular country…I mean perpetuating stereotypes most people have of places. This is more dangerous than photoshopping stuff out of photos, I think. Have a look at this wonderful piece showing different perspectives of the same people. The sad thing is that most people will only ever see the “dark” side:


    On another note, about post-processing. Unless you are shooting in RAW, you are post-processing. Just the camera is doing it for you.

    1. Interesting point about “portraying an expected scene” and perpetuating stereotypes. I think many of the big travel magazines do this, because quite frankly it sells.

      Nice link too. Where big players come in is where they’d do a photo shoot on this topic with proper lighting etc. This to me, is fine. It’s explaining a point about the differences. So long, as it was said that way. And not as an ethnic piece.

  12. so much to think about here. probably because of my disabilities, i don’t travel so much to places where the people are exceedingly scenic, as seems to be the case with brown faces/ethnic clothing, as referred to previously. i can’t imagine paying someone for their photo. i esp can’t imagine paying to dig up a body. alas, poor yorick. guess that’s why i stick with landscapes, for the most part.

    1. The person who paid to dig up a body, was a photojournalist trying to expose witchcraft in a place where young girls are being raped and killed. I think he did the right thing

  13. The more I read, the more I am growing disillusioned with freelancers making money in the travel industry. I keep reading about unethical practices that depress the hell out of me. Does one really need to be unethical to make money in this field???

    1. I think we are seeing a change in the times in this industry. People are doing whatever they can to keep or get a job. The thing that worries me is that it may well change how we all take photographs when we travel.

  14. The other issue here is that travel photography encompasses pretty much all types of photography – in the moment, street photos, portraits, landscapes, details, etc. In order to have a complete portfolio of a certain place you have to pose some of it.

    I can tell you as a working, professional photographer you can walk around and say you’re not going to pose things and occasionally you will get lucky. The reality is that when you see a scene and you wait around to catch the right moment, you have already posed it.

    Yes, the moment came and it happened and you recorded it but most likely you chose where to stand, your perspective & maybe even the time of day.

    To me photography is all about being in the moment but I am not naive enough to think that my own perception doesn’t skew the photo in it’s own way. Of course, it does – it’s my photo and the way I saw things at the time.

    As far as editing. I say bring the photo to life the best way you can. This is what photographers have done for YEARS in the darkroom. The only difference? It’s a LOT quicker on the computer. There is nothing wrong with boosting colors, cropping out distracting elements, etc. It is your job as the photographer to bring the best out of your photo and guide the viewers eyes throughout the scene. You are in charge with how people see the photo and that is where the impact lies and that is honestly what makes the difference between a good photo & a great one.

  15. You know, I had never given any thought to that until I read your post. Now I’m a little freaked out.

    I had a friend who, 10 years ago, was able to fun some of his travel costs by asking travel companies what monuments/sites/etc. needed to be reshot due to being outdated. He was a bit lost when I told him the internet and digital photography has made that income almost impossible due to stock photography and the like.

    How is someone like me, an amateur, expected to get published? Will it be an act of God that I happen to capture?

    I almost feel like an old school journalist where my ethics are set really high.

    1. I think for the amateur looking to be a pro photographer the game has changed. Much like it has over the past couple of years for print media. One has to learn to adapt and find a niche once again. HDR is a prime example. Not everyone like it. But, a few people pushed it and have become relativity well known for it.

      There are other niches out there, they are created as the industry changes. The great problem is discovering them :)

  16. So many issues, and so many situations all of which can be different, but for me it comes down to what are you using the pictures for and what are you telling people.

    When it comes to manipulating the scene, adding things in or taking them out, it really depends on the purpose. If you’re creating an image for advertising, then not only will you likely set the scene but it will be conceived and on the client brief before you even leave home.

    If it is at the other extreme, a travel photo designed to show an environment or scene, then obviously asking someone to go and get dressed in clothes that depict a different period, and something which they wouldn’t be normally wearing is wrong if you don’t say afterwards that you set it up, or that simply it’s a depiction of another time. But asking someone to pose is fine – it’s then pretty clear what’s been done. I’d also say it’s fine, for example, to ask someone to put back on the hat they just took off so you can take their picture. Or if some guys are sweeping the street, you ask them while they’re having a break if it’s ok to take their photo, and they start again briefly to allow you to do so.

    In any case it’s polite where at all possible to ask permission to take the picture, and while you might ask afterwards if you think the behaviour will change once they are aware (even if they’re doing nothing wrong – the camera makes people change)’ you have to be confident that it won’t upset them or make you’re not discovered.

    I do try not to stage images in my wildlife photography, but I do feed birds in my garden and I do put perches in convenient places that I know they will use. I just don’t do things like pick up insects and put them on a light table, or work in zoos or with captive animals (other than conventional pets and farmed animals, and then only where conditions are humane).

    When it comes to things like HDR, I don’t see the issue. It’s a technique to allow the camera to see a scene in a way that is much closer to the human eye. Just because it requires a ‘workaround’ to make the technology do the job doesn’t mean that’s wrong. And things like contrast adjustments afterwards is fine too – the digital process does flatten the image somewhat and most need a little ‘pop’ to improve them. Unfortunately that leads to allegations that everything is manipulated. To me there is a difference between manipulating and simply optimising.

    Finally, adding and removing post production. If you’re a news photographer in Iraq and you’re ‘shopping in extra missiles to an aerial of a dogfight and passing it off as news, then you deserve everything you get and shouldn’t ever work again as a photojournalist.

    If you’re putting pictures of elephants on to beach balls then people are going to know it’s artistic licence, but it’s also important to tell people that you used trained animals and took the images in a studio in California. I’ve got far more issues with how those elephants are kept and used than I do with the post production.

    Tell the truth. And consider when you take the image, why you’re taking it and what you’re going to use it for. Your problem is not that travel photography is dying, but that it’s not possible to tell the difference between a genuine scene of a woman rolling tobacco in a factory in Cuba, and another that’s been set up and taken using a refugee in Florida.

    1. Good insights into the industry.

      “it comes down to what are you using the pictures for and what are you telling people.” I think this is the key thing that’s coming out of all this. Yet, how many people actually do this. Including the “big” publishers?

      I just scanned a travel magazine and don’t see anyone saying this. Then again, maybe it’s just presumed. In which case, the majority public will not realize. Which, maybe the whole point.

      Much like selling on U.S.A. based blogs now requires a disclaimer, maybe photographer will be asked to do the same too.

  17. Thanks for starting this very interesting conversation. I think one very important point has been overlooked in the many diverse ideas offered–whether staged, manipulated, spontaneous, journalism or art, good photography depends on the photographer’s eye. So no matter how much money you have, if you don’t have a good eye, you won’t be able to “buy” a good picture.
    (And, as a P.S. I think that this discussion of ethics may be a bit late–even Matthew Brady arranged things a bit.)

    1. Yes, a good eye will dictate a great photograph. Add in passion and you have a winner. I still see a problem for up and coming photographers that don’t have the cash to make the shot look like a pros set up. Then again, this is true in many industries.

  18. This is not a new topic that you have brought up, but it is an interesting and relevant one. Rarely is a image not manipulated in some way. I do agree that it does depend on what the photograph is for or in what context it will be used. All photography is staged in some way, whether it be waiting for that perfect sunrise or sunset, it is still a set up.

    The perfect picture is just luck and the artistic abilities of the photographer. When it comes to ethics in photography or in any artist endeavor it depends on the individual.

    An example would be something that happens to me on a regular basis. In the middle of taking a photograph someone when step into my line of vision. They always apologize for ruining my shot. But to me that is part of the moment or life of the photograph. That is what I am photographing … life. Now it I review this shot and there is a lone foot or something out of place in this image, I have no problem removing it with Photoshop.

    I know you are speaking of manipulation in a larger sense, but where do we draw the line. Ethics consists of the actions an individual takes on for ones self. It is an entirely personal thing. There is no half way in this issue. A little or a lot you are creating what your vision is. Perceptions vary from person to person. Different people perceive different things about the same situation.

    This still does not answer your original question, but I am an artist and this is my opinion.

    A little or a lot it is still manipulation.

    1. Yes I agree that the perception of a photograph from an artists point of view can be very different from say a journalists. This I think is where many people have conflict. I think it’s right not add elements to news footage. But then you have that line of post processing.

      The HDR iceland volcano ones as an example. As news struggles in this digital age, I think they are pushing the boundaries of what they can get away with.

      As for the professional or amateur photographer I think the game rules are changing. There is more artistic qualities involved here. But do I really want to see a cash happy amateur paying $10 for a village lady to pose?

      Not really, as the following week she’ll be asking everyone for $10.

  19. During my 11 years of constant traveling, I’m quite certain that I’ve never paid any money for any photograph. To me, it’s the same as paying the entrance fee to a tourist village (such as those scattered around Thailand) where visitors can catch a glimpse into the ‘real lives’ of a particular hill tribe.

    Pay $5 and right before your eyes you’ll find perfectly dressed villagers sitting in front of their perfect huts in a perfectly set-up section of jungle. At the end of the day, however, many of these villagers put on modern clothes and return to their homes in town.

    And these villages are not set up as historical, living museums. Visitors are led to believe that what they are seeing is the real life of the tribes people. In a way, this isn’t much different from paying for photos, except that the people/places to be photographed (or at least those running the place) are taking the initial step.

    1. Very valid points Earl. I know in the North of the Philippines they do this as well. People dress their grandparents in tribal gear and send them out to sit on the Rice Terraces for tourist photos. I guess if they didn’t though, then some commercial venture would.

      Likewise in Nepal, where commercial tour agencies arrange this. Many rich tourist types can be found discussing how great it was to see the ethic tribes come down from the mountains and earn extra doing this?!!

      Hmm, hate to break it too them but the ones I met are actually going to stage school in Pokhara! :) But the point is, they believe this. And, spend a lot of cash too.

  20. Great post and as the responses show motivating quite a discussion.
    It has been mentioned before: Travel photography is a very wide term to begin with. The motivation is very different, if you want to use the images in an advertising context or part of an article in a magazine. The one has the aim for portraying the destination in the best possible light and the other focuses on a specific aspect of it and focused more on journalism.

    Staging images to portray the “reality” is in a journalistic context unacceptable. I believe there is so much more space for actually trying to portray reality without staging it. Nevertheless, the moment you take out your camera people will behave differently. It depends on the photographer how much he can integrate to minimize this.

    I don’t think that travel photography is doomed. The whole industry of publications is changing and has changed over the last years and it will continue to do so.
    The challenge is to find new avenues of publishing unique travel stories. Your blog is just an example on how that is possible. People get a feel for the authenticity of the content as the author is authentic.

    When I am out on assignment (paid and self motivated), I try to look for what is different and aim not to focus on the things everyone else has photographed before and take the risk of little adventure not knowing if the day will bear and useable pictures after all. Risking this, I found so many interesting places and stories that I photographed that it outweighs the risk.

    1. Indeed the whole industry is changing. What was hard to capture 10 years ago, most can do now with far more ease. The average tourist now carries a camera that’s capable of a lot. How they use it, and if they are capable of using it is another thing as you say.

      I think the commercial value will dictate the future of travel photography. I think it will be harder to publish, and take certain photographs in the future. Model release forms in India and or place like Cambodia will be chased more as more and more people get connected, and realize that they have rights too.

      High end players of the Photograph business will not struggle too much. Lower down the ranks many will. And so, again as mentioned, one must seek out new angles, subject matter and usage.

      I think if I have some to any conclusions here due to this discussion it’s that there are two side to this. The pro’s and the amateur. Both have different ideas, and ideals in the realm of Travel Photography ethics.

      But one thing nearly everybody shares is the agreement that the industry in-itself is changing. And, we need to change with the times too.

  21. Fascinating article – I’ve never, ever considered paying someone in order to get them to do something different in a photo. On face, it seems unethical, but also dishonest – not just to people who saw your photo, but to yourself as well. How could you look at the image and think anything but, “I fabricated this.”

  22. I just read this article (http://www.petapixel.com/2010/06/11/exploring-different-perspectives-of-poverty-through-photography/) and wanted to see what you thought about it. The author of the article is deliberately staging these photos, but for a reason.

    I used to be a photography purist – limited post-processing and all natural images. Over time however, my views have started to change. I don’t see the problem with cloning images to remove distracting elements, nor do I see the problem with seeing a scene and modifying it to get a better result. If someone is paying to do this, than that is their choice. I have never asked anyone to pose for my travel photography, nor paid them… and probably never will. That is because I like my photography to be spontaneous and real, and I admit that I’m shy to ask strangers to pose for me (especially if they speak a different language). The amount of times however I have seen the perfect shot go by before I lifted my camera to my eye is unbelievable. If I could go back and recreate some of these shots I would.

    1. I saw that article before. The text content is fine, though still not concentrating enough on one point. Personally, I don’t like this type of “staged” photograph. To be it’s just to fake. It would have been better to photograph these people genuinely at work, or school etc. It almost looks like a commercial for something, rather than a trying to make or prove a point. I think it could have been done better. Maybe it will in the future.

      The world of media is changing. I met a photographer 10 years ago who spat at the very mention of digital over “film”. Time’s change and film is dead aside from the few that like to work with it. The cassette or tape video is also dead. Maybe the tourism of 10 years ago is also dead, or dying. Being taken over or merging with tours, and package deals. So too perhaps for photography.

      In an age when everyone has a DSLR, perhaps the only way the pro’s have to hang on, is to cut off access, and stage the photo. What they capture will be beautiful no doubt. Did it really happen? No, not in the strictest of senses. But the illusion will make the world think it did. And so the job is done. And it will be called photographic art should anyone disagree. Agree with it, or not, it’s here.

    1. Depends on what images. Example: If I am photographing for an organisation, then everyone in the photograph signs a release form.

      If I think an image will be requested for later on, then I will have someone sign a release form.

  23. I have to chuckle about the subject of this post when you have an ad in the sidebar for Portrait Professional – Intelligent easy to use portrait editing software, complete with a photo of a beautiful girl “improved”. My opinion is that unless the portraits are sold as commercial model work, it’s not a portrait of the “real” person to be shared with family and friends.

    As a society, we’ve grown accustomed to the idea that everything can be improved. Whether it should be is a personal decision.

    1. I don’t have much control over google ads, other than to reject offensive ones. Interestingly if one is logged into a Google account at the time, they mapped one’s viewing history and adjust ads to your liking visa vi the content!

      There’s definitely been a huge turn around in how people perceive photographs over the past couple of years. What used to be taboo (eg. touching up photos) is not accepted as the “norm”. Old school purists seem to be counting their numbered days …

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