There was a time when the art of capturing faraway places for public consumption was solely the preserve of a professional in possession of some weighty photography kit. And the process of choosing which images saw the light of day in print had input from a whole team of people. But now pretty much everyone has access to some kind of camera that accompanies them on their travels, and the rate at which they reach a much wider audience is immediate.
In fact, for many, the whole point of travel now is to seek out the perfect scenes to frame for their social media feeds, inspired in no small part by the social media images that have gone before them. But it’s worth bearing in mind that in different parts of the world you will encounter a vast array of situations, people and responses to your camera, some of which might be totally unexpected. In addition to this, the stories you choose to tell folks back home can have wide-ranging impacts. Here we look at some of the situations in which you may find yourselves on your travels and speak to some experts on the dos and don’ts of responsible photography.
On inspiration: Feast your eyes on good photography
Luscious travel images come at us from many directions these days. Everything from photoshopped adverts to your mate’s badly shot Instagram. There’s a sameness to much of the imagery out there while some of the best travel photography is copyrighted and not so widely shared. It’s worth seeking out the good stuff, however. National Geographic is a good place to start and they have a page on their website listing all their photographers plus a very active Instagram stream.
Chris Coe spent over a decade working as a travel photographer before founding the Travel Photographer of the the Year competition. He noticed there was a disconnect between what photographers were shooting and what was getting published so he and his partner Karen created the competition as a platform for showcasing experience-based imagery to a wider audience. Now in its 17th year, the TOPTY team has helped launch the careers of many photographers and has, in no small part, shaped the of genre travel photography as fine art.
Categories like ‘endangered planet’ allow photographers to think more deeply about what they’re shooting and why. He says: “Our travel has an impact. As photographers, we can use our creative process to go way beyond point-and-shoot to show the best of travel but also sometimes the worst. We should take pride in the imagery we create but we also have a duty to do this in a responsible way which respects both humanity and nature.”
"Categories like ‘endangered planet’ allow photographers to think more deeply about what they’re shooting and why" says TPOTY founder Chris Coe © Jasper Doest/www.tpoty.com
On portraits: “Don’t sneak pictures of people”
Travel is a wonderful opportunity to meet new people and learn about different cultures – but don't hide behind the lens. If you want a person to be the subject of your image, you need to interact with them. We recently spoke to travel and portrait photographer Lola Akinmade Åkerström for our podcast on responsible photography. She says “Proper acknowledgement is the foundation of every exchange. You need to acknowledge the people you wish to photograph and avoid sneaking shots.”
Many of her best images were captured while spending time with the people she meets. “Be open to learning about people and their lives if you want to them to open up enough to give you a photo. Show people that you appreciate what is important to them. Spending time observing and even participating in their daily tasks communicates respect.” She says. "The moment you ask someone for a portrait, the interaction no longer becomes about what you want and becomes about what they are willing to give you of themselves."
Lola suggests getting to know people before asking for a photo © Lola Akinmade Akerstrom
On landscape: Be respectful of the landscape – and landowner's wishes
In a recent blog post, landscape photographer Paul Reiffer recounted a depressing instance he’d witnessed in the lavender fields of Provence. Hundreds of people had descended on the rolling hillside to get their insta-portraits among the purple flowers. There were even outfit changes and a team of stylists in some cases. Cars were badly parked on verges and the edges of the fields became trampled. The landowners, who’d spent the earlier part of the year carefully cultivating their crop, hung a huge banner from a nearby tree saying "Respect our work please". Paul says “As photographers, we have the privilege of capturing some of the most stunning locations across the planet. But we must also take responsibility to look after the world in front of our lenses.”
On Instagram: Beware the #tigerselfie
In December 2017 Instagram introduced an automatic pop-up alert when hashtags including #tigerselfie and #koalacuddles are either searched or used. (The full list of hashtags that trigger the alert hasn’t been made public.) The official warning reads:
“Animal abuse and the sale of endangered animals or their parts is not allowed on Instagram. You are searching for a hashtag that may be associated with posts that encourage harmful behaviour to animals or the environment.”
The warning was devised with the express intention of reducing the impact of such images. Wild animals are wild and, while exploitation for tourism has a long history, they shouldn’t be exploited for Instagram likes. You can do your part by not engaging in photo-based exploitation and capturing animals in their natural habitats instead.
Instagram now has an alert pop up for a range of hashtags that might be associated with illegal trade in animal parts © Jason Edwards/www.tpoty.com
On wildlife: “Let the animals come to you”
Wildlife photographer Chris Weston is often asked: “How do you get so close to the animals?” But the truth is far simpler: “I let the animals come to me,” he says. The secret is to learn a little basic animal body language if you hope to capture animals in intimate settings. In order to see animals in their natural environment, he recommends you go with an expert. Locals are often the best – the people who know the area and who’ve lived alongside the animals since birth. They’ll know where to go and when. “Remember that you are a visitor in their land and you must abide by their rules.”
The rules for photographing animals are not so different from photographing people. “Have respect for the animal and its wishes. If you were repeatedly photographing someone and they told you to go away, you would. It’s the same for the animals. You are the one who’s asking for something. The animal is the one who is giving the favour.”
Wildlife photographer Chris Weston recommends learning a little bit of animal body language © Chris Weston
Don’t contribute to the overtourism of a place
Overtourism is a word that is increasingly entering common usage and Instagram is no small contributor in this. Places like Jokulsarlon glacier beach in Iceland have gone from being secret places to almost visual clichés. When I visited Jokulsarlon on assignment for Rough Guides a few years ago, I shared a piece of ice at sunrise with at least seven other photographers.
Popular selfie spots like Trolltunga in Norway have seen a huge increase in visitor numbers leading to lengthy queues to capture the once-peaceful spot. Chris from TPOTY says “With every photo, you need to ask yourself 'Why am I taking this? Is it for me or is it for someone else?'” He goes on to say “We’re damaging these habitats with the sheer volume of people. Seeking out more unusual locations will challenge you to use your own creativity. Not merely copying other visual references you’ve seen a hundred times before will result in better photography.”
Rough Guides photographer Diana Jarvis jostled for space with seven other photographers to get this peaceful-looking shot © Diana Jarvis