THE BLOG

How Not to Be an Obnoxious Tourist With an Intrusive Camera

04/03/2013 07:07 pm ET | Updated Jun 03, 2013

Do you ever take photographs of locals when you travel? Do you ask first or sneak a quick photo before they look? How would you like it if the tables were turned?

Imagine you are in the local neighbourhood café with the kids on a regular Saturday morning. A mini-bus pulls up outside, eager tourists spill out flailing at their backpacks and lens caps. You are the subject of their attention, so are your kids.

This is not a prospect that appeals to me. If I were brave enough, I'd demand they deleted the photos, particularly of the kids.

Yet so many of us do this. We travel somewhere exotic, where the locals look different and we take photos of them. It could be local kids playing on a beach in the Caribbean, or an old fellow watching the world go by in a market in India.

Some of us stride right up and take the photo, some of us shoot from the hip 'subtly' and some of us shoot from afar with our telephoto lens. It doesn't matter, chances are they know they are being photographed and they probably won't like it.

In Ethiopia, a country I know well, the Lower Omo Valley is a fascinating anthropological melting pot of tribes set in a stunning Great Rift Valley landscape. Body decorations, clay lip plates and extended ear lobes are all common sites. A very small number of tourists and photographers have visited this area and the affects have been in many cases disastrous. Some locals believe having your photograph taken is akin to having your soul stolen. You may not subscribe to this viewpoint, but contradicting it in their faces is not exactly supportive. Others set a price on the cost of a photo (around $0.25 per photo) and woe betide anyone who doesn't pay up -- I've seen old village ladies take a swipe at tourists for taking photos without asking and paying first.

In essence what you have in the Omo Valley, in the Andaman Islands, in the North of Thailand is a human safari.

This doesn't mean that visiting these places and being interested in local cultures and people is wrong. Far from it. Try putting the camera down for your visit, ask questions, show interest and be respectful. And if you are a keen photographer, it isn't necessarily always wrong to take photos. I recommend reading this advice from photographer, Terence Carter which makes strong moral and technical arguments for asking permission first.

* Ben runs specialist adventure tour operator, Tourdust.