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Why Consent Matters when Including People in your Travel Photography

You may have noticed that in each WanderBig.com article containing images of other people, I place the statement “[Images of indigenous people shown in this post were taken with enthusiastic consent and appropriate compensation.]” in the leading paragraph.

Why? Because normalizing consent is a low-effort way we can make the world a kind, safer place for everyone.

The Link Between Travel Photography and Consent

Consent matters in almost every way that we engage with other humans, and yet, we generally only think of consent when it comes to expressions of sexuality. When it comes to travel photography, asking for consent to photograph and compensating subjects isn’t just good manners or an essential part of being a sustainable traveler, it is a matter of dignity and respect for the personhood of others.

Often, if we’ve not had the opportunity to be educated about the effects of colonialism and the way in which having privilege can unconsciously teach us that we can impose our wishes on those who have less power without consequence (like taking their photo with asking), or using their bodies for pleasure without consent (like posting a photograph of a person who didn’t give consent to gain clicks, views, or social media likes).

Those of us who have the opportunity to travel are privileged compared to individuals who depend upon tourism (i.e. us) for their livelihood. Care for these people and the cultures and communities they represent requires that we work to grow more aware of our impact as travelers and make changes when appropriate.

Two western tourists use professional equipment to photograph an indigenous woman in peru.
Two western tourists use professional equipment to photograph an indigenous woman in Peru.

Why I Include a consent statement when sharing my travel photography

You might wonder why, if consent was given and compensation was provided, I choose to include an explicit statement with my travel photography that consent has been granted. The answer: normalization.

Many travelers simply have not yet had the opportunity to be challenged to consider how taking a photo of someone without consent might be a personal invasion, and how sharing it for gain (whether financial or social) without compensating the subject is a form of exploiting other humans.

The more we talk about consent the better. The more we have conversations about what it means to set boundaries for ourselves and allow others to set their own boundaries, and have those conversations across a multitude of different topics, the easier it will be to understand and respect the concept of consent.

I also want to normalize asking permission for photographs here in my own minuscule slice of the travel blogging world. If all travel bloggers adopted a policy of stating whether consent was granted for photographs that have been posted, we could both normalize the practice and inform new or uninformed travelers.

Two women pose in traditional peruvian clothing
These women support themselves and often entire families through the money made from posing with (or for) tourists.

A History of Non-Consent in Travel Photography

Western travelers have a millennia-long tradition of traveling the world with a belief – whether explicit or buried in the margins of our unconscious – that the places we travel to should cater to us. In many ways, the hospitality industry has developed has fostered this belief (not surprising, as it was formed and shaped by the influences of western colocalization).

The effects of colonialism on the hospitality industry in the Philippines, and the problems it has created for the people, the country, and the culture are just one example (read more here).

Even as Westerners began to seemingly shift travel to include short-term mission trips and service projects, the power dynamic inequality was reinforced and perpetuated – after all, does a week in an orphanage actually benefit orphans or does it make Westerners feel good? Are buildings constructed by high school-aged volunteers safe and well built enough to benefit villages, or do kids actually reap the bulk of the benefit, via curated college applications?

Even now, in the 2020s, it’s not unusual to see a photography “exhibit” entirely comprised of a white photographer’s exhibition of photographs taken of brown and black people’s bodies, usually set against a backdrop of poverty, with no statement of consent or compensation. Sometimes, if you look closely, you can even see in the subject’s expression hints to their true feeling about being photographed.

Responsible, sustainable travel acknowledges the complexities of travel and the way that tourism both benefits and challenges local economies, communities, families, and individual humans. This can be a complex thing to navigate, but one of the easiest ways to enter the complexity and advocate for equality is by not photographing another person, particularly indigenous persons, in a place where you are in a position of power.

A man pulls meat from a clay oven in peru, photo taken with consent.
If you are very uncomfortable asking for consent to photograph indigenous people, book an Airbnb experience or a workshop. You’ll have up-close access to great photos and clarity about permission to take photographs.

How to get consent before Photographing Indigenous People

You might expect that it could be awkward to ask for consent before photographing people, and at first, it kind of was awkward to ask permission before taking someone’s photography. But quickly, I realized that people appreciate it and almost always say yes. Even though yes is the most common answer, asking matters. Asking gives the other person a voice and a choice. Asking is entering a kind of relational connection, and relational connections are where so many of the most meaningful travel experiences occur.

Even if there’s a language barrier, it’s easy to make eye contact with your potential photography subject, point to a camera, and say “ok?” while making a quizzical expression with your face. This way of communicating with a common word and universal facial expression can be an easy way to bridge the gap between languages when asking for consent to photograph.

I enjoy landscape, food, and macro photography more than a typical shot of people going about their day. Because of that, I really didn’t bump into internal conflict about consent and travel photography until my trip to Peru. In cities like Lima and Cusco, it’s not uncommon to see traditionally dressed women in city squares. Based on US law, many travelers might think that these individuals are fair game for photography without compensation- but this would be an incorrect assumption.

People don’t usually dress up in traditional costumes and go to a public square because that’s how they enjoy spending their free time. For many people, it’s their only way of making a living or providing for their family. For those who are unable to work labor or service jobs due to disability or childcare responsibilities, the earnings from posing for photos in traditional heritage costumes may be essential for them to survive. Even if you have the “right” to photograph an individual in this context without consent or compensation, would you really want to?

Exception: My travel photography ethos has one exception to my personal rule about asking consent before including indigenous people in my travel photography: public exhibitions. When I stumbled upon a music and dance-filled parade celebrating Andean cultural heritage, in Chile, I happily took photographs and shared them.

Similarly, when I joined churchgoers in northern Romania for a mountaintop festival to celebrate a monastery’s birthday, I took photographs of the performers and gathered crowds after checking in with my host to make sure photographs would not be taboo. Although these larger public gatherings feel as though they release some of the burden to get consent for travel photography, I personally still avoid photographing individual people without their specific consent, even in this context.

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