Words and images by: Marianne Elliott
Today I was processing these portraits from a trip I made to Papua New Guinea when I was working for Oxfam. They got me thinking about how much I love to photograph people and about what makes a great portrait, but also about the ethics of photographing people who I don’t know and who I may never see again. Can travel portrait photography avoid exploitation, and be genuinely respectful?
I don’t have all the answers, not even close. But I have thought quite a lot about the questions, and I’ve come up with a few guidelines for myself, which help me take photos in a way that feels respectful.
1. Ask permission
Not everyone agrees with this, but if someone’s face is going to be recognisable in my photo then I like to ask their permission before I photograph them. In fact, ‘May I take your photograph?’ is one of the first phrases I learn in many languages. If I’m taking photographs for my website I try to make it clear that the images will be shared with others, usually saying something like “May I take your photo so I can show people what Afghans/Gazans/Timorese people really look like?”
Most people say yes, but some decline and I always feel quite empathetic. I’m not sure I would agree if the situation were reversed. This policy means that it’s harder to get ‘unposed’ portraits. But not impossible. Sometimes if I’m with a group of people for an extended period of time I can ask their permission to photograph at the beginning and then over time take photos of them relaxed and unconscious of the camera.
2. Don’t take a photograph of anyone in a situation in which you would not want to be photographed
I’m not a photojournalist for good reason. I know that I would not want to be photographed as I learned that a beloved family member had been killed, as I wept in grief or gaped in shock. I wouldn’t want to be photographed jostling for food from a UN truck to feed my starving family. So on those occasions when I have been witness to that kind of suffering I’ve left my camera in my bag. Or, if it was my job to capture images I’ve either photographed the scene without any recognisable faces or waited until people feel ready to be photographed, on their own terms.
3. Allow people to present themselves as they choose
I’m guilty of breaking this rule myself, but only when the delightful policemen who had been making me laugh for five days in a workshop suddenly became rigid and stern for all their portraits. I took the photos that way, so they could have those prints for their own walls. But then I joked and teased and basically tricked them into smiling for the camera as well. I can’t say I regret it, because I love those photos and the memories they represent. But I do generally try to allow people to choose how they want to present themselves in my portraits. If nothing else, it generally means they are more relaxed and comfortable, which makes for a good portrait.
4. If at all possible, provide people with a copy of the photo
This is harder if you are passing through places where there is no postal system. But whenever possible I try to make copies of my photos to either deliver or send back to the people in the photos. This isn’t essential for your photographs to be respectful, but it is a simple gesture of gratitude which might count for a lot in places where it is very difficult for people to obtain photos of themselves (despite, perhaps, being photographed by travelers all the time).
That’s it really. I’d love to say that I don’t take pictures of children without their parents’ permission (and perhaps that is a guideline I should adopt) but for now it simply wouldn’t be true. Every where I’ve traveled children approach me asking to be photographed and love to see themselves in the display of my digital camera. I generally oblige them. I simply apply the same guidelines to children as I do to adults.
How about you? What is your approach to taking portraits when you travel?
About Marianne: I’m a human rights advocate, writer and yoga teacher. Zen peacekeeper. Change-maker. Instigator of radical acts of kindess to ourselves and others. Creator of the 30 Days of Yoga course. Practicing Buddhist (trust me, it takes a lot of practice).