photographs lying on red bench
Printed photographs that were delivered to a family in the hills above Nanyao village in Yunnan, China after the 2018 Spring Festival. Kristen Gianaris, Instructor.
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Put the Camera Down: A Guide for Navigating and Practicing Travel Photography Ethics

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Kristen Gianaris

Living in a hyper-digital world, many of us try to capture in images our travels, experiences, and the people we meet without ever thinking twice. While we fully support photography on our programs, we also challenge you to think mindfully about how and what images we are taking. What power does an image hold? What does ethical photography even mean? How can you respect the lives and dignity of the people you photograph? Dragons Morocco Program Director and accomplished photo journalist, Kristen Gianaris, shares with us the importance of sometimes putting your camera down.

The Yi people, one of China’s largest ethnic minority groups, trace their lineage back to an empire that spanned what is presently considered the Tibetan plateau all the way down to Northern Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand. Most often settled on the slopes of mountains and tending to their farms, a number of Yi people can be found in the foothills surrounding Lijiang, a city in China’s Northwestern Yunnan province.

women standing under tree in bright clothing

A group of Yi women dressed in traditional clothing for the 2018 Spring Festival celebration. Nanyao, Yunnan, China. 2018. Kristen Gianaris

It is the Spring Festival of 2018 and I am instructing a Where There Be Dragons semester course in China. As we wind through the forest after a lesson on animism and transcendental writing, the path down the mountain leads us to a clearing in the grove. Just beyond the small waterfall where trees were decorated with prayer flags and Dongba script colors large rocks, we came across a group of couples picnicking in their Spring Festival best. Their clothes were adorned with traditional cross-stitch embroidery and they smoked handmade tobacco in long golden engraved pipes. We exchanged rounds of New Year greetings exclaiming “新年快乐!” (xin nian kuai le; happy new year in Mandarin) and shared good wishes for health and prosperity. They pointed up the mountain, perhaps double the distance from where we hiked, to motion toward where they lived. Although most of China’s ethnic minority groups celebrate their own new year, the Yi, among others, have also adopted the Han Chinese 15-day holiday. They would make their way down the mountain a number of times this week for various gatherings and community events.

The celebratory spread laid out during nature’s golden hour was nothing short of picturesque. The brightly colored traditional clothing and the way the sunlight beamed through the tree branches would set the stage for any documentary photographer’s dream images. I removed my camera from around my neck and stashed it in my backpack. Admittedly a bit disappointed, I reminded myself of the importance of putting the camera down

The Past and Power of Photography 

In 1826 Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, a French inventor, took the world’s oldest surviving photograph. Now, less than 200 years later, an estimated 1.72 trillion photographs are taken per year. That number is expected to increase by approximately 14% each year moving forward. 

A Yi woman smokes locally grown tobacco out of a hand-carved pipe. Nanyao, Yunnan, China. 2018. Kristen Gianaris

Since their invention, cameras have been a close companion of travelers and photographs have served as a way to peak interest in travel around the world. While early 19th-century photographs provide documentation and historical knowledge about how landscapes, monuments, or other artifacts appeared at that time, their role in further orchestrating colonization and racism is unmistakable. Yvonne Vera, a Zimbabwean novelist wrote, “In Africa, as in most parts of the dispossessed, the camera arrives as part of the colonial paraphernalia, together with the gun and the bible.” Colonizers strategically positioned their cameras to tell stories that intended to dehumanize people of color and glorify European powers. The role of photographs during this time was to facilitate the ‘othering’ of people of color and create propaganda suggesting a need for their assimilation. From mandating ID cards to archiving images of people of color for “racial studies,” and lack of consent, photography’s early relationship to power points directly to the violence and harm embedded in the narratives told. 

Friendship and a Moroccan salon. Rabat, Morocco. 2020. Kristen Gianaris

Although in some ways the landscape of 21st-century photography has drastically changed, an uncomfortable power imbalance remains. Despite greater access to cameras around the world, the field of professional and published photography remains dominated by white male-identifying artists and documenters. The types of images that inform our imaginations of the people and places that we might be less familiar with remain unsettlingly limited; thus, often ingraining potentially harmful stereotypes or biases. It is important to also note the multitude of ways that photographers intervene with each photograph and help shape its truth or influence. From content to composition and framing, edits, publications, and even the incorporation of artificial intelligence, the trials and tribulations associated with photography persist with perhaps greater impact than ever before. As the world becomes increasingly connected to visual media and the number of photographs continues to rise, there is a growing need for ongoing research and education surrounding the impact of visual media. As well, I urge an ongoing exploration of the visual landscape through a lens of ethics. 

Confinement. Part of a series of photographs from Kristen’s experience during the Covid-19 lockdown. Rabat, Morocco. 2020. Kristen Gianaris

Ethics are moral principles that generally guide the decisions we make. In photography, ethics guide artistic and storytelling practices from start to finish. The ethics of photography cover a wide spectrum of considerations and principles, ranging from respect for an individuals’ privacy to the responsible portrayal of subjects. A photographer’s ethical guidelines and values feed into the stories created through film or digital media and help us to better understand the lens in which the subject was both literally and figuratively viewed from. 

Ethics are subjective and often debated based on personal beliefs. However, there are agreed upon norms that set a standard for a subject’s privacy, protection, and respect. In order to maintain an ethical standard, it is critical that we consider the ways our visual technologies create disproportionate impacts on certain communities and potentially propagate harmful narratives of people and places. One way to approach the art and practice with deeper intentionality and thought is by developing an ethical framework to guide our work.

Put the Camera Down  

The Yi families welcomed us to sit with them in the forest and we graciously accepted. Our student group formed a circle and began kicking a jianzi around with some of the men. Meanwhile, I sat with the women chatting and gazing out at the nature surrounding us. Eventually, I asked if I could take out my camera to create a few photos of the women – they agreed. Before sunset, we bid our farewells to the Yi families and continued down the mountain while they went up and back home. 

Printed photographs that were delivered to a family in the hills above Nanyao village in Yunnan, China after the 2018 Spring Festival. Kristen Gianaris

At the conclusion of the Spring Festival holiday later that week, I went into town to print the photographs of the new acquaintances we made. A few days later, this time solo, I hiked beyond where we went with the students and continued up the mountain in the direction where the families pointed upward. Along the way, although far and few between, there were a couple of houses or people tending to their fields. Each time I passed someone, I would stop and pull out my envelope of photographs to ask for further directions. “Do you know these people? Can you point me in the direction of where they live?” I would ask while sipping a cup of tea and eating a piece of fruit generously offered by my hosts. I repeated this process as I continued up the mountain until at last I reached a group of children playing at the start of a small village. Once more, I removed the photographs of the Yi families. This time I was guided from house to house in the village delivering photos, sharing meals, playing with the children, and even helping to feed someone’s chickens or till the soil. Pleased by the surprise delivery, the families invited me to take more photos.

A view from Kristen’s hike up the mountain to deliver photographs after the Spring Festival. Yunnan, China. 2018. Kristen Gianaris

This wasn’t the first time that I printed photographs and set out on a mission to deliver them to their rightful owners. I once found myself riding atop a donkey attempting to track down two families I met several months prior in Cairo’s Manshayet Nasr, a neighborhood of about 5 square kilometers, home to nearly 300,000 people. For me, printing and sharing the photographs I take is a way to share the belonging of that photograph, extend my appreciation, and importantly, continue to develop relationships and meaningful connections with the people I photograph. 

Similarly, the idea of putting the camera down creates space for deeper engagement and removes an element of power in order to form more equitable relationships. Although it may seem contradictory to rid yourself of a camera in order to take a “good photograph,” setting this instrument aside fosters the possibility of building a relationship through learned empathy and respect. It has also led me to develop new skills, engage in new experiences, and gain different perspectives.

Putting the camera down and delivering printed photographs are just two examples of some of the guiding principles of my own photography ethics. My personal values surrounding learning and telling a more informed story behind each image make putting the camera down and delivering printed photographs a regular practice whenever possible.

Gongfu Tea Session. Kunming, China. 2018. Kristen Gianaris

Navigating Photography Ethics

Although worthy of critical discourse, photography is also a powerful practice which can positively bring attention to global issues, foster cultural understanding, inspire wanderlust, or challenge preconceived ideas. A well-composed image can capture the supposed essence of a place, its people, or a historical moment in a single frame. Photographs might serve as souvenirs or gifts, artifacts, expressions of creativity, a legacy for future generations, cherished memories, or a source of communication. Although this article serves to highlight a number of the trials and tribulations associated with photography, it is certainly not meant to steer photographers or creative travelers toward shelving their cameras for good. Rather, this article serves as a contribution to the conversations surrounding the ways we approach photography with thoughtfulness and intentionality to best determine the impact and outcomes of our work (be it professional or personal).

A Yi woman Kristen met and photographed during the Spring Festival. After locating her village to return photographs to this woman and others, Kristen spent the day participating in farmwork with the families. Yunnan, China. 2018. Kristen Gianaris

In order to develop an ethical perspective, we must first determine the issues at hand. When traveling, there is often an added layer of cultural understanding that muddies the waters of our presumed ethics. What may be an acceptable approach from one’s own cultural understanding or point-of-view, could be considered totally unacceptable in another culture. In some parts of the world, photographs are considered inappropriate altogether, whereas in other parts of the world there may be more of an emphasis on the appropriate time, place, or clothing associated with a person being photographed. The religious, spiritual, or political status of places might also determine whether or not taking photographs is permitted.

Although at times “no photography” signs and verbal warnings help guide our understanding of what is considered appropriate, we are often forced to make these decisions without the presence of leading signs and clearly defined rules or guidelines. Putting the camera down is generally a strong first approach to practicing photography ethics as it creates space for us to learn and attempt understanding. However, there are several ethical considerations both preceding and following the click of a shutter such as the consent of subjects, edits to a photograph, intent of image use, and publication or sharing. 

Here are a number of ethical considerations and guidelines to consider when forming your own ethical approach to photography: 

  • Respect for Subjects: Obtain informed consent when photographing or depicting individuals, especially in sensitive situations. Be mindful of vulnerable populations, including minors, and marginalized communities, and avoid exploiting them for visual content. Avoid using images that misrepresent, stereotype, or stigmatize individuals or groups.
  • Authenticity and Accuracy: Maintain the accuracy and truthfulness of visuals, ensuring they do not deceive or manipulate the viewer. Clearly distinguish between documentary, editorial, and artistic representations, and avoid blurring these lines.
  • Contextual Understanding: Present images within their appropriate context, providing background information to help viewers understand the significance and meaning of the visuals. Avoid cropping or altering images in a way that distorts their original context or meaning.
  • Privacy and Dignity: Respect individuals’ privacy by not capturing or sharing images of them in private or intimate moments without their consent. Show sensitivity to cultural and religious customs regarding modesty and privacy.
  • Harm and Sensationalism: Avoid sensationalizing or exploiting traumatic or distressing events, such as accidents, disasters, or violence, for shock value or entertainment. Consider the potential harm that can arise from sharing graphic or distressing images, especially without appropriate content warnings. Be aware of your audience’s sensitivities and values when sharing visuals, especially in diverse and global contexts. Use content warnings when sharing potentially distressing or sensitive images.
  • Consent and Ownership: Clearly communicate the ownership and usage rights of visual content to subjects, collaborators, and clients. Obtain the necessary permissions and licenses for using copyrighted materials. Obtain explicit consent. 
  • Representation and Diversity: Strive for diversity and inclusivity in visual content, representing a wide range of backgrounds, cultures, genders, and perspectives. Challenge stereotypes and biases in visual storytelling.
  • Empathy and Empowerment: Approach visual storytelling with empathy, aiming to understand and convey the lived experiences of others. Empower subjects to tell their own stories and provide them with agency in the process.
  • Avoid Manipulation: Refrain from digitally altering images to misrepresent reality or deceive viewers, unless clearly labeled as creative or manipulated art. Use editing tools responsibly and transparently. Retain the integrity of the photo. 
  • Accountability and Transparency: Be open and transparent about your intentions, methodologies, and sources when creating and sharing visual content. Accept responsibility for any mistakes or misrepresentations and correct them promptly. Act with curiosity rather than conviction. 
  • Ethical Use of Technology: Consider the ethical implications of emerging technologies such as deepfakes, AI-generated content, and surveillance tools in visual communication.
  • Continuous Learning and Adaptation: Stay informed about evolving ethical standards in visual communication and adapt your practices accordingly. Engage in dialogue with peers, mentors, and organizations that promote ethical visual storytelling.

The spectrum of photography ethics underscores the complexity of the field and the need for photographers to continually assess their choices, consider the impact of their work, and strive to uphold ethical standards in the diverse situations they encounter. Ethical considerations in visual communication and representation are crucial in our digitally connected world where images and videos play a significant role in shaping public opinion, culture, and understanding. By adhering to these principles of visual ethics, individuals and organizations can contribute to a more responsible, respectful, and empathetic use of visual communication in today’s media-rich landscape.

Whether your goal is to be a great photographer or to simply have the proper tools to share your adventures, photography is a continuous journey of learning and self-improvement.

Kristen and a family whom she returned photographs to after the Spring Festival. Yunnan, China. 2018. Kristen Gianaris

Learn more about author, Kristen Gianaris by visiting her profile here.

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