Sustainable travel has really been my focus over the past few years, and it’s really made a difference in how I choose to act on my adventures. I’ve definitely had to rethink some of my behavior and why it might not be acceptable and how I can be a better citizen of the world. This hasn’t always been easy, and I’ve definitely had times where I’ve been tempted not to abide by some of the rules that sustainable travel suggests.
One of these is always asking permission from the subjects of your photos. I’m the first to admit that I didn’t follow this rule when I was first beginning to travel. I figured that it was okay if I took pictures of everyone and everything—and it didn’t really matter. Who could be offended by having their photo taken?
It wasn’t until I started digging into sustainable travel and realizing that it was a lot more complicated than that did I realize that maybe I should change my habits. In Europe, it was a lot less offensive to take pictures of other people. Since they had similar Western values and took pictures of everything too, I didn’t really think all that much about it. However, once I began traveling to the Middle East and Asia, I realized that there is a reason that you shouldn’t be snapping with abandon.
Some areas are superstitious, and even believe that having someone else take your photo can take away part of your soul. You’re giving a part of yourself to that other person, and when it’s a tourist that you will never care to see again, that can feel invasive and inappropriate. Even if this isn’t the case, you can sometimes be intruding on a special event or moment that you weren’t supposed to be there for. It’s so tempting when you see something exotic to you to pull out the camera, but the truth is that this is others’ lives, and it’s important to respect that.
Recently in Thailand, I saw two young monks lounging in the doorframe of a temple. It was such an idyllic scene, and I was so tempted to aim my lens at them and snap a quick picture before they even noticed. However, I couldn’t help but stop myself. Sure enough, as soon as another traveler raised her camera and tried to capture the moment, they ducked inside. Part of it was I’m sure they were shy, but another was that they clearly did not want to be the subject of a photography session.
I’ve been in that position before too. I remember when I was in Tokyo for the first time, and I noticed a young girl blatantly pointing her smartphone at me for a picture of a foreigner. I wouldn’t have minded if she wanted a photo, but it was the fact that she felt like she had to take it in secret that made me feel a little weird—like I was an object instead of a person.
I’ve found that it never hurts to simply ask. Even if you don’t speak the language, most people will get your hand motion of clicking and can tell you yes or no. While you might miss time tempting shots, the truth is that you will probably feel guilty about them when you look back. Also, asking for permission is likely to give you a lot more smiles than you would have had if you were taking pictures secretly.
How have you changed your behavior as a traveler in order to make the world better?