They say a photo is worth a thousand words. Therefore, while you’re traveling in a new place, it is customary to take photographs and videos along the way. Visual imagery can capture time and space unlike any other form of documentation, and we encourage all students to archive their experiences. However, this privilege does not come without its own set of moral obligations and questioning of media ethics.
Privacy & Consent
All over the world people value privacy and personal space. Conversations and laws around privacy and consent are only increasing as our world becomes more digital and social media focused. However, when traveling internationally, sometimes our understanding and respect for privacy shift because we are in a new place and excited by the experience. Travelers tend to forget or all-together dismiss the idea that the people they meet abroad care about their privacy too.
As a study abroad student it’s important that you respect the privacy of the people you encounter. In addition to thinking about basic privacy concerns of the individual be sure to also reflect on the privacy considerations of their cultural group. Remember, in many locations there may be a long and complicated history of visitors using photography in ways that were exploitative or harmful to an individual or a cultural group.
Before you take your photo or video ask yourself:
- Who is in your shot and have you asked for and received their consent to take their photo/video? Would they like you to share the photograph with them?
- Are you being respectful of people’s privacy and private property?
- If there are children in your shot do you have the consent of their parent or guardian?
- Do you know the local laws about photography and privacy?
- Are you putting any individual or animal in danger to get your shot or because of it?
- Is photography allowed in this location?
- Are you being respectful of cultural practices and important cultural or historical sites?
Stereotypes & Stories
In addition to respecting the privacy of the individuals and cultures you encounter while traveling, it is critical that you take time to reflect on the impact of your photograph or video. You will use these photographs to help tell a story about the people you’ve met and the places you’ve visited. You may share them on social media, with your school or with your Great-Aunt Edna and soon the images may have a life of their own far away from the additional context you could provide verbally.
Your image could become someone’s first encounter with new places and cultures. As a result, it is your responsibility to tell complex and truthful stories through your work rather than take images that may potentially stereotype people and places or sensationalize cultures or experiences.
With that in mind you should consider the following prompts before you document and share your experience:
- Have you spoken with members of your host community to understand when and how they suggest you take photos of local people?
- What is the context of the photograph or video you’re taking? If you were narrating a story with this image, what would it say?
- Are you telling an authentic story with your image or are you contributing to stereotypes?
- Is your image/video complacent or complicit?
- Is your photo/video a truthful glimpse at reality, or have you staged it to fulfill your own goals?
- After taking the image/video, are you manipulating it to change the story?
- Have you positioned yourself as the “hero” of the photo and story it tells?
- If you were the subject of this photo, would you feel comfortable with it?
Questioning Media Ethics: A Real-World Example
To provide some perspective on the ethical principles of photography and videography while traveling, a colleague recently shared the following story. This exemplum demonstrates the importance of maintaining consistent ethical standards, independent of location. (Names and locations have been altered to protect privacy.)
James, a professor from a university in West Africa, recently visited a partner institution in the United States for the first time. During his visit, James was taken to many traditional sights and tourist destinations so he could learn about American culture. While visiting an aquarium, James captured some incredibly creative shots of an unknown child marveling at the dolphin tank. Alarmed at a stranger taking their child’s photograph without permission, the parent of the child reacted negatively towards James and his camera.
After apologies were made and the parties had separated, James asked why the parent had reacted the way they did. He explained that when tourists visited his country, they always took pictures of children without asking. Because he had observed this from American travelers, he assumed that this was an accepted and customary practice by Americans in the United States.
James had a valid point. If visitors did not respect privacy and cultural practices in his country, how would he have known to act differently when visiting theirs? If Americans don’t go around taking photographs of random children in the U.S., then why would they feel compelled to take photos of children in other countries? What story were they telling?
Ethics & Actions
The minute you leave your home (domestically or internationally), you become a diplomat for your area. Your words and actions reflect who you are and how you expect to be treated. They also reflect your community and its values. Ultimately, the images you capture and share say as much about you and your values as they do about the place you are visiting. Make sure you think carefully and act ethically the next time you pull out your camera.
To learn more about ethical photography, you can check out the following resources:
- Ethical Photography: A Guide for UM Students
- Ethical Photography & Global Service: 4 Principles, 4 Examples
- Ethics and Photography in Developing Countries
- How To Communicate The World: A Social Media Guide for Volunteers and Travelers
- TED Talk Don’t Misrepresent Africa
- Voices: The dilemma of photographing developing Africa when studying abroad
- Volunteering Abroad? Read This Before You Post That Selfie