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Thoughts about travel photography involving people

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Jan 11th, 2015, 10:10 PM
  #1
rje
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Thoughts about travel photography involving people

I'm trying to be a good web citizen and do as we are supposed to do - keep threads on topic. As a previous thread called "A sociological question: Are the people of Vietnam unhappy?"
http://www.fodors.com/community/asia...am-unhappy.cfm
has changed into a lively discussion about travel photography, I'm starting this new thread here.

Below are the last 2 posts from the previous thread:


kja on Jan 11, 15 at 9:37pm
Again, speaking of cultures where a premium is placed on accommodating others, a more active way of signaling displeasure than mere nervous laughter would be to ask to take pictures of the photographer, the assumption being that doing so would show just how offensive it is. Only works if the initial photographer is, in fact, offended, though....


rje on Jan 12, 15 at 12:54am
kja,
What's all this about "displeasure" and "nervous laughter"? What do you imagine is going on? Many people love getting photographed, and I've never found any place where they love it more than Asia.
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Jan 11th, 2015, 10:18 PM
  #2
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BTW, anyone new to this discussion may want to go to the link above first to get up to speed on what has already been written.
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Jan 11th, 2015, 10:29 PM
  #3
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(Reposting my last response to rje, a response that crossed the action of newly listing it in this thread):

@ rje -- I'm sure many people do enjoy getting photographed. I'm also sure that many people do NOT want to be photographed.

My choice -- and I'm not saying it is the choice that is right for anyone else -- is to ask before taking a picture that features anyone. Some people have agreed, others have emphatically refused, and that has been my experience in Asia and elsewhere. And BTW, I am well aware that I take MANY photos that aren't intended to include specific individuals, but do. If they actually show a person clearly, I either obtain the person's permission or delete the photo. That's where I currently draw my line in this murky ethical area, but I'm sure there are MANY people who are, in fact, identifiable in the pictures I retain, even when they are NOT the center of attention. Again, I'm not saying where anyone else should draw a line.

As I said in my earlier post, I appreciate that YOU, at least, are aware of some of the ethical issues involved and have taken some steps to deal with those issues.

As I also said, NOT everyone IS sensitive to those issues. Some people seem to be willing to assume that reactions that COULD indicate acquiescence NECESSARILY indicate it. I just wanted to point out that there could be other interpretations of the behaviors in question. Laughter does not necessarily mean yes -- I've seen the relief in some people's faces when they laugh and say yes, but I put the camera down. Asking to take a picture of the photographer does not necessarily mean yes -- I've actually heard Asians explain that this is the strategy they use to "shame" the photographer into putting down his/her camera.

It seems to me that those who travel to cultures with different norms -- and especially those who travel to places where there are norms against saying NO -- might do well to at least consider the possibility that apparent agreement might not signal actual willingness.

I agree with your assessment that there are many grey areas here. It seems to me -- JMO -- that in ANY ethically grey area, it behooves us to pay particular attention to possible alternative interpretations of what we think we are seeing or experiencing.
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Jan 11th, 2015, 10:31 PM
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BTW, rje did not include an even earlier post, that could be relevant to understanding this discussion:

kja on Jan 10, 15 at 9:52pm
"BTW, in cultures where a premium is placed on accommodating others, I don't know that someone's after-the-fact laughter is really a sign that they are OK with it -- it could be the nervous laughter of someone who has no culturally appropriate way to say NO. Just something to consider...."
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Jan 11th, 2015, 11:06 PM
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Let me give you one example of where I was on the receiving end. I have 2 very cute young kids. Yesterday at ITEC in Vientiane they were playing near and with the large wooden sculptured elephants on display. A Thai visiting the exhibition grabbed them and got his wife to photograph him with my kids. I was not impressed.
I don't know if you are aware that smiling and laughing is also an expression of embarrassment in many Asian countries - Lao and Thailand in particular.
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Jan 11th, 2015, 11:13 PM
  #6
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OMG, Vientianeboy -- how incredibly inappropriate!!!

And thanks for adding to our understanding of the potential meanings of smiling and laughing in Asia.
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Jan 11th, 2015, 11:24 PM
  #7
rje
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kja,

I think your point that "it could be the nervous laughter of someone who has no culturally appropriate way to say NO" is just that.
It COULD be. But in the situations I described, it wasn't.

I wrote earlier of my various experiences when people found they were being photographed, and laughed, and I wrote to explain that those reactions were clearly not nervous laughter, but were joyous.

When photographing, I try to read people's reactions, and never want to make a person uncomfortable. If it was ever nervous laughter, I would stop right away. Happily, so far this has never happened.

As I wrote earlier,
"I'm quite aware that people in some cultures are uncomfortable saying no. Or are afraid that it will end up losing them potential business. But when after-the-fact laughter is accompanied by smiles, waving, and encouragement to continue, including bringing their other family members into the shot, followed by friendly goodbyes, even someone who was just referred to as reeking of cultural supremacy can tell it was not a problem!"

(the last part of the sentence was a response to someone on Fodors who had made a cheap shot describing my actions as "reeking of cultural supremacy"!)

It's just that it is frustrating to hear people here saying that it is wrong to photograph people when I've been welcomed so often in Asia for having done just that.

I treasure the happy memories of people I've met through photography who I never would have met otherwise. I've been invited (along with my camera) into private religious ceremonies, festivals and cultural events in Asian countries where I was the only westerner, and it was an honor.

Sometimes I feel that rather than being "accommodated" that I'm accommodating them, by taking so many photos I never would have taken normally, because the local people keep asking for me to take more, and I'm trying to please them!

But as I've written previously, I agree that there are far too many people who take photographs of people indiscriminately, with no regard for local customs or the wishes of individual people.
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Jan 11th, 2015, 11:28 PM
  #8
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Vientianeboy,

That is terrible.
And unfortunately people like that give all tourists and photographers a bad reputation.

On a happier note, when I was in Vientiane in October, I was invited by teachers into a school, where the children laughed with delight as I took photos, along with he teachers. A good experience for all.
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Jan 11th, 2015, 11:46 PM
  #9
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@ rje -- I don't believe that I said that it was wrong for you, or anyone else, to photograph people. i don't believe I've spoken in any way, shape, or form about the specifics of YOUR actions, except to explicitly commend you for your attention to the relevant ethical issues. As I understand it, all I've done is to agree that there are important ethical issues at play here and to point to some of the potentially relevant considerations.

You seem genuinely concerned about the ethical issues at stake. I would respectfully suggest that we might more effectively promote sincere consideration of the issues by focusing less on what YOU do and more on potential disconnects in cultural communications about what is / is not acceptable. Things like learning that "smiling and laughing is also an expression of embarrassment in many Asian countries," as Vientianeboy just told us. JMO.

Of course, if your goal is to find out what people think about YOUR actions, then you might want to start yet another thread... ;-)
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Jan 12th, 2015, 03:21 AM
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"reeking of cultural supremacy"
I made this comment because you were talking about US laws which have no relevance in Asia whatsoever. So I do not see why you even bothered to mention them.
rje, sorry but I would regard it as totally inappropriate for you to take pictures in a school without the express permission of the parents. Note that this is no reflection on you, however it is reflection of the age in which we find ourselves. I am amazed that you regard this action as appropriate though. Those teachers have a lot to answer for and if this were my school I can tell you now that it would not have happened. In a Western country you might well be reported to the police.
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Jan 12th, 2015, 07:13 AM
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I said practically everything I had to say on the other thread, but since I started the discussion, perhaps I should say it again here.

When I started traveling - long term travel in Asia, that is - I took photos of people without thinking too much about it. But the more I have traveled, the more I have seen the number of travelers, and the number of cameras/smart phones etc. increase, and the more I have thought about it, the less comfortable I am about taking photographs without prior permission. (Or, possibly, post facto permission, since digital photos can be deleted. If you think you just have to have that candid shoot first, then ask, and be willing to delete if the answer is no.)

It is true that there people who are eager to have their photo taken. I have had people in India drag their family into a group and practically order me to take a photo. But that doesn't mean that all, or even most, of the people in India want to have their photo taken, never mind in Asia as a whole. (Quite likely, not even all of the family, from one or two facial expressions!)

One of the things I enjoy about Asia is that there is so much life on the streets, and of course, that life is very tempting to photographers. But when I thought about it, I realized that people were out there because they had no choice. They couldn't afford anything else. Would you walk into a barber's shop in Europe or North America and a take a photo of a customer being shaved without permission? How about the kitchen of your favorite restaurant? Your neighborhood coffee shop? If the answer is no, why would you do it in Asia? If the answer is yes, I'd be interested to know what happened when you tried it.

I don't find the "long lens from a distance" argument persuasive either. That just means that your subject doesn't know what's happening and therefore can't complain. Sort of cheating...

I am also decidedly uncomfortable about the school/village visit idea. I find them too much like human zoos. I have only done two school visits, one in China with the Smithsonian back on my first Asia trip, and one in Turkey on a Rick Steves' tour. (I am trying to forget a truly horrible village visit with OAT on my second Asia trip.) Both times, I was thinking how much I would have hated that experience when I was a kid. And indeed, in Turkey, there was a young boy giving us looks of absolute hatred as we processed in. Even if you are invited in as a solo, enthusiasm may be less than universal.

@Vientianeboy - I would be interested to know why you didn't just tell the Thai guy to stop, and remove your boys? I think in that situation I would have done so, so it may be another cultural difference.
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Jan 12th, 2015, 01:20 PM
  #12
rje
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Apologies in advance, this is going to be long!

Look, I understand the urge to want to protect people in the countries we visit from what we believe to be the worst behaviors and influences of the developed world. I share this feeling, although I sometimes worry we are in this act being patronizing. But I too cringe at the behavior of boorish tourists insinuating themselves into the lives of people with less resources than we enjoy. And that goes for some non-photography tourist activities, some of which thursdaysd mentions, so let me talk directly to her for a second.
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thursdaysd,
I agree completely with you about your unease with the "human zoo" group tours of places like villages. And sadly, on top of being invasive, it is not even an authentic experience for the tourists who go. The tour operators almost always have a liaison who make sure the village people act in ways that will please the tour groups, often having them don ceremonial or festival outfits they would not wear otherwise.

Also, you asked:
"Would you walk into a barber's shop in Europe or North America and a take a photo of a customer being shaved without permission? How about the kitchen of your favorite restaurant? Your neighborhood coffee shop? "

Your example of the barber shop must be based on the photo link I posted of the barber shop I photographed in Mysore. I didn't walk inside and photograph, and never would. But this was different, this was an open-air barber shop. I was just walking down the street and saw it. As I photographed, the people there turned to notice me, and we all smiled at each other. I did talk to them after and they shared some interesting information about their lives. As I've said, photography provides me with a wonderful way to meet people. Since I photograph with respect and friendliness, I usually get a similar response back. Would I just walk in and start photographing? No, that would be in my opinion bad behavior. I photographed from about 20 feet away, so as not to intrude on the people clearly visible in the bright illumination. As you know, much of Indian life plays out on the street, and while you correctly cited poverty as one reason, another is heat! Stores often don't have doors or windows or even fixed walls closed, so as to allow breezes in. Life is more public there, and the people know they're being seen. Partially as a result, the people there are among the most open of all countries I know to being photographed. Do some people not want to be photographed? Of course, and they are usually very easy to recognize! I'll write about this below.
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(Getting back now to my missive)
I think some perspective is needed when absolute rules against things like photography of people are advocated.

The history of public photography and concern about the possible effects goes back farther than many may realize. The New York Times published an article back in 1884 about this very subject. Back then, the recent invention of the portable Kodak camera had some people worried that images of their faces would be used without their consent. They were right to be concerned, because these images turned up in advertisements, some of which even claimed the subject was a spokesman for the product! Happily, laws soon were written to protect people from this practice.

But the Victorian attitudes of this time went further than being worried about their images being used commercially. Victorian society was very rigid, and the possibility that citizens might be seen in moments when their public mask was lowered frightened people. At that time it was considered untoward to express emotion on one's face in public. A great deal of legal opinion followed, deciding that for the greater good, people could not object to being photographed in public places where they should have no expectation of privacy.

Today, as a group, virtually all countries recognize the right and desirable freedom to take pictures of people in public which are not being used for commercial gain or to deliberately inflict damage upon a private individual.

It is far easier to name the countries that do have restrictions, as they are quite few in number.

Even some of the few countries like France who have not made it an absolute right have room for exceptions, like the awareness that the right to one's privacy and own image is also not absolute and shall be balanced with the right to freedom of expression of the photographer.

And as one of the few governments to place restrictions upon photographers, I find France to be hypocritical, because it also claims to be a great lover of liberty.

The French government had actually banned Charlie Hebdo. They didn't like it when THEY were the target of satire. So they closed it down. That was when it was published under a different name. The staff were able to technically get around the ban by renaming the publication Charlie Hebdo. Seems ironic to me in a country who like to associate themselves with "Liberté".
(they also banned the burqa).

But even in France things look likely to change.
From the New York Times:
"Last year, France’s new minister of culture, Aurélie Filippetti, promised she would look into revoking Article 9. In an interview with Polka magazine, Ms. Filippetti argued that it was unacceptable to prevent professional photographers from sharing their vision of the world with future generations.

“Without them, our society doesn’t have a face,” she said. “Because of this law, we run the risk of losing our memory. This is even more unacceptable when you consider what’s going on online, where millions of images circulate without us knowing how they were taken and in what circumstances. Just to think that Cartier-Bresson or Josef Koudelka would have been prevented from doing their work is unbearable.”

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So, are things different in Asia?

Well, even an authoritarian regime like China has no laws requiring consent to take a picture of a person in a public place. I don't know the status of all countries in Asia, but a quick search shows that this is also true in India, Singapore and Taiwan.

In Japan there are limited restrictions. A commonly cited example is a photograph taken of a street crossing which was published in a Japanese magazine. The photographer was then sued because a couple in the photo were having an affair. The photograph was found to have harmed their marriages by infringing on their right to privacy, so the photographer lost in court! Wow.

Some people here obviously feel that their personal feelings are stronger than the law, and I respect your right to have such opinions. But I write all this in the hope not to be the recipient here of anger and condescension for doing something that most of the world considers valuable and positive.

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kja,
I appreciate you mentioning your awareness that I have given thought to the moral and ethical issues involving street photography.

The reason I've responded to you directly several times earlier was because every time I mentioned laughter, it was followed by your warning that in Asia laughter can mean discomfort and embarrassment. Even after I wrote that I was being careful to make sure that wasn't the case, and gave reasons why that wasn't so in the instances I cited. So I felt at the time like it was directed at me.

Anthropology shows that some reactions are universal. You're absolutely right that smiling and laughter can be cover-ups for embarrassment or discomfort. I'm sure you know about displacement, also common in animals, as when a cat frantically licks it's paw when something upsetting happens.

But I think anyone who makes the effort to use empathy and interest can read artificial reactions like those. We learn body language from an early age. Well, at least most of us do. Sociopaths famously don't, and are often unable to read the clues of facial expression or body language.

We learn from infancy to read these signals. The creases in the forehead between the eyes that show a smile to be false. The body that moves away from a gaze even as the face remains facing. The hands awkwardly revealing tension as they are wrung or moved into unnatural positions. The tapping foot. If someone is being polite, but inwardly hates something, most of us can usually pick up on it. And someone paying close attention, like a photographer, should be even more attuned. Any person photographing people will be likely to read these signs, since an appreciation for body language is part of why they're probably taking photos of people in the first place.

Your point that many people don't know or care is very valid, though.

BTW, if you want to give people advice on how to make photographers stop taking pictures of them, rather than suggesting the example of using laughter to shame, as you mentioned, it would be much more effective for people to use the technique of raising their hand, to indicate "stop", or to block their own face, as people already do all over the world. It appears to be a universal gesture. That technique will instantly ruin the shot for a photographer, so that will stop them!

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Vientianeboy,

I attempted to explain before, but if I wasn't clear enough, the reason I spoke only about US courts to thursdaysd was that I was speaking directly to her (she is an American) about her dislike for being photographed herself. Frankly, your response to me was a bit combative and condescending, but I realize that is your style, and I try not to let it throw me.

And I understand your admirable and completely understandable concern for your children.
But I have to disagree with your opinion that school authorities letting me take photos was somehow wrong. They saw what I was doing and observed that it was harmless. In fact, they saw me portraying the young people of Vientiane as being hard-working students, and I'm guessing they were proud of this fact.

And why would I be worried about the police in a western country? You're a western expat, right? So you probably know that unless they were confused about the law that the police in most western countries would not intervene when I was invited to take a few harmless photos. I know that the western media has tried to whip up some fear about the dangers to children from adults. But this was supervised. I'm also well aware of the concerns regarding trafficking and abuse of some young people in Asian countries. But again I was well-observed by at least one teacher the entire time I was there, which was probably only 15 minutes. And as far as the kids hating me being there, the opposite was true, so I made sure to only stay for a minute or two in any one classroom, so as to not distract them from the more important reason they were there.

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Anyway, if anyone actually read all this, let me apologize for taking so much of your time.
And even if you didn't, I feel better having written about something I feel passionate about!
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Jan 12th, 2015, 02:09 PM
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oh, 'mother of god' this is way over the line..

who cares, do it or don't do it.. it's not the end of the world. if a person does not like it they will tell you.
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Jan 12th, 2015, 02:19 PM
  #14
rje
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rhkkmk,
It was a slow rainy day at work today.
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Jan 12th, 2015, 02:25 PM
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If, as you say, it is not OK to take a photo of a customer from INside a barber's shop, how can it be OK to take the exact same photo from OUTside? Especially if you think you are only able to do so because the proprietor can't afford AC.

And while it is good that you had a nice conversation afterwards, what makes you think you would not have had that conversation, and perhaps even a better one, if you had indicated that you wanted to take a photo before doing so?
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Jan 12th, 2015, 03:04 PM
  #16
rje
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thursdaysd,

Here's the big problem for street photographers of people - the very act of asking a person to take their photo usually guarantees a posed mundane photograph. People will inevitably pull themselves into a stiff pose and give you a big artificial smile. Not at all the result desired if you're trying to capture genuine human moments. Now a good (or lucky) photographer can sometimes get around that, but the majority of photographs taken after asking will be pretty boring and predictable.

And if I just walked into a barber shop and started taking photos, I'd have made everybody uncomfortable and interrupted their conversation. I think it is more considerate not to barge in on people like that.

Anyway, the conversation after is just the icing on the cake, because my primary goal is to take the best photos I can.

I'm a little confused as toy why you modified the inability of the owner to afford AC with the word "especially".
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Jan 12th, 2015, 03:27 PM
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We are so not communicating. Just because you want to do something ("record a genuine human moment") doesn't mean you should. If it is not OK indoors it is not OK outdoors. And if you get permission, take the posed photo and then wait a bit, then you can take the candid.

The "especially" is because you are effectively taking advantage of someone's poverty. If the barber could afford AC, and would therefore have an enclosed rather than an open shop, you would not, according to what you wrote, have taken the photograph.
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Jan 12th, 2015, 04:43 PM
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My last post because you don't learn or are unwilling to learn rje. The fact that you cannot see that parental permission is required before taking photos, regardless of what school authorities do or say, is a real worry. I can tell you now it would not have happened in my school in Vientiane.
"So you probably know that unless they were confused about the law that the police in most western countries would not intervene when I was invited to take a few harmless photos." Oh yes they would!
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Jan 12th, 2015, 04:47 PM
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thursdaysd, this actually happened so quickly I didn't realise what was going on until it happened. It was a mobile phone camera, of course. The kids didn't like it either. It often happens here, but not quite so blatantly. The kids are 4 and 6 and are half Lao. We often get asked if they are twins.
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Jan 12th, 2015, 04:58 PM
  #20
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rje wrote to me, "So I felt at the time like it was directed at me. " It was not.
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