I have an issue with taking pictures of people when traveling.
In the past year and half going through Thailand, India, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam I’ve come across several situations of travelers snapping away at locals. Sometimes it’s in a situation that I find okay – like, say, with a tour guide who really makes you laugh (and you’re paying) or when there’s some type of display, gathering or performance.
But more often than not, it makes me uncomfortable. Like, really ,uncomfortable. Sure, I understand when you see something or someone different than you who’s intriguing that you want to capture the moment. People are always more interesting than things…and you see a lot of interesting people when you’re moving from place to place. But is it okay? Appropriate? Polite?
What if you go somewhere where people are part of the attraction – like a Thai hill tribe or artisan factory? (Interesting take on Thai hill tribes here.) What about the people just minding their own business working at a noodle stand? Or a group of students walking to school all in their matching uniforms?
I often see it as at least annoying, but usually invasive. Many times people are going about their daily lives, and while it’s different from yours, they’re not putting on a show for you. If I had tourists taking pictures of me while I walked from the train station to work everyday in Seattle, I wouldn’t have liked it at all and felt uncomfortable. I don’t want other people thinking that I see them as an object of amusement.
Take Luang Prabang in Laos for example – here is a place where the daily morning practice of giving alms to the monks is still very apparent. It’s one of the only places where you can easily see hundreds of monks walking through the city collecting food from the townspeople. It’s beautiful and and peaceful and so different from home. But it’s gotten to the point that while the monks are walking around, the streets are crawling with snap-happy tourists, many who don’t seem to think much about discretion. I saw travelers with huge cameras following the monks and crouching around them – or sometimes even standing above them which is considered majorly disrespectful – and shoving their lens into the faces of 8-year-old novices. Not okay.
It ruins a certain aspect of the practice and shows a clear lack of respect for the people living there trying to go about their normal lives. I visited during the rainy season, but I can’t imagine what it’s like in the high season.
Also…why, when you’re somewhere other than home, does it seem to be okay to take pictures of children? Would you ever see a cute, little kid at home and whip out your camera? No, probably not. It’s weird.
On the other hand, there have also been many times in the past 18 months that I’ve been the object of people’s viewfinders. Like in India, the land of staring and being too close for comfort, I even had someone thrust their baby into my arms and start taking photos. It’s natural to be interested in people who are different from you – who look different, speak differently, do things differently. It’s not necessarily rude or offensive, simply curiosity and genuine interest in other people.
But there still should be limits and awareness of other people’s privacy and anonymity.
What do you think? Where are your boundaries when it comes to taking pictures of people?