Keeping the snapped happy

Should we seek permission from everyone we photograph? Jennifer Cox ponders the portrait problem

7 mins

As a child I was fascinated by tales of far-off tribes who believed that to be photographed was to have their souls stolen. As the youngest and smallest in my family tribe, the idea someone wouldn’t want to have his or her photo taken was incomprehensible. I loved being photographed.

But these far-off tribes-people were facing travellers – and we all know the central role photography plays in the travel experience. It’s not just a way of recording a physical moment; along with keeping a journal, it’s a way of processing the emotions that the sites, sounds and encounters of a journey provoke within us.

Also, it’s a trophy: that shot of you in the chaotic railway station in Bamako or at the trailhead up Kilimanjaro is every bit as triumphalistic as those grainy black-and-white photos of preening hunters with their dead tigers. It boasts: look what I did.

In that respect you can understand the tribal belief: images are powerful, not something to be taken lightly. So have we travel photographers learned to self-regulate by following a universal photo protocol?

I ask because last weekend I was chased along the South Bank by a Winston Churchill living statue that came very much to life when my visiting Australian friend took his picture then refused to pay. He was angry; I was mortified – and shocked. Surely my friend followed travel photography etiquette?

The Rules

Rule 1: don’t ever assume it’s OK to take someone’s photo.

Rule 2: if someone’s worth photographing, chances are they’ll think it’s worth paying for.

When I reminded my well-travelled friend of this, she argued that stopping to ask for his permission meant missing the shot. “And anyway, it’s only in places like Asia you pay to take someone’s photo,” she’d countered, indignantly, “where you’re the rich tourist and they need your money. This is England!”

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It seemed crass to point out that we’re feeling pretty poor in England right now, and any man impersonating a statue of Winston Churchill for a living was unlikely to be driving home in a Porsche.

But it did make me wonder: does extending courtesy and consideration towards photographic subjects operate on a sliding scale according to wealth, culture and location?

I’d travelled extensively throughout Asia with this friend; many times I had witnessed her respectfully asking Vietnamese market traders if it was OK to take their pictures, or relent with a smile and give money to madly bearded men on the backstreets of Kathmandu. I knew she would never have snapped and run like that if we had been in an exotic and less-developed location.

After I waved my friend off at the station, I slunk back to the South Bank and put some money in Winston’s hat – wondering as I did so: when it comes to nailing travel shots, are some souls cheaper than others?

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