Ethical Travel: Think Before You Shoot
Originally published in WildJunket Magazine Issue 5 (Winter 2012)
y pure chance this spring, I found myself on a hike with six middle-aged Dutch tourists in Morocco’s Valley of Roses (as a twenty-something American, such occasions don’t present themselves everyday). It was my last full day in the valley, and eager to make the most of it, I’d asked a young guy at my hotel named Hassan if it was possible to hire a guide.
“You could,” he said, “or I’m just about to lead a tour group on a walk through the riverbed. Finish your breakfast and meet us downstairs.”
I did as I was told, throwing back as many slices of bread and cheese and cups of sweet mint tea as I could manage, before meeting up with the rest of the group. While it wasn’t the adventurous mountain trek I’d envisioned, I was at least happy to be outside and talking with Hassan about the different plants and trees growing in the valley.
But I was soon distracted by one of the Dutch men, who seemed utterly incapable of walking five feet without taking a picture. Not that I’m not guilty of this myself – as anyone I’ve ever traveled with will immediately attest to – but it was what he was taking photographs of that distracted me so.
I’d only been in Morocco for a few days by this point, but it hadn’t taken me long to learn that Moroccans – no matter how generous and hospitable – were camera-shy, and usually preferred you to not take their photo. In some instances, I’d even experienced mild aggression; when photographing a train station sign one time in Marrakech, the man sitting below it – far outside the frame of my camera – stood up and yelled at me.
This was quite a change from other places I’ve traveled to, such as India, where kids would assemble themselves into groups, yelling, “Photo! photo!” before my camera was even out of my bag. But as travelers, it’s essential that we adjust to these differences, and respect the preferences of the different people in each country. It is, after all, their home we happen to be visiting.
So it came as a surprise when at one point in our hike, I turned around and saw Matti photographing local women who were out that morning picking the valley’s famous roses, slipping the blushing blossoms one by one into mesh bags they wore across their shoulders. He made no effort to get to know them, or to gesture whether or not it was okay to take their picture; despite the heavy-duty DSLR around his neck, Matti was a trigger-happy point-and-shooter.
When I expressed my frustration to Hassan, he replied, “Yes. He doesn’t ask, he just takes the photo.”
Finally, I watched Matti approach an older local man, dressed in a prayer cap and long dark robe, who was also out harvesting roses. Not only did Matti take his picture, but he had the man grab a handful of roses from his bag and pose with them.
It was this lack of respect that unsettled me – angered me, even. Picking roses was simply this man’s job – he wasn’t paid to pose for tourists. Perhaps to the point of exaggeration, I tried to imagine the situation in reverse. Namely, that of a Moroccan showing up at an office in the Netherlands or the States or wherever, and asking someone at their desk to pick their phone up and hold it for a photo. Obviously, it wouldn’t fly.
As visitors in other countries, we ought to show reverence – and that goes for taking photographs, too. There’s a lot of talk about the ethics of travel photography – about photo-editing and a little (or a lot of) post-production tweaking – but perhaps our biggest ethical decision should happen before we shoot: a decision to respect a place and, more importantly, its people.
That morning in the Valley of Roses, I realized it isn’t about creating the perfect travel photograph, that ideal shot we may or may not have in our minds – it’s about capturing the shot in front of us, and learning to trust that for that very reason, it’s the best one.
This article was originally published in WildJunket Magazine Issue 5 (Winter 2012).