Ethical Photography & Travel Writing

Ethical Photography And Travel Writing
Disclaimer: This column is aimed at other white people who want to travel ethically and addresses the process of decolonizing our minds in a way specific to the experience of whiteness. It is not meant to speak for or over people of colour/ locals.
I recently came across my journal from four years ago when I first arrived in the Dominican Republic for a communications internship with a nonprofit. I’d finished my journalism degree a year prior and since then had been interning and working for publications as both a (very amateur) writer and photographer, along with a couple restaurant jobs and lots of immature soul searching. I was eager to move to DR and finally put my passion for telling underreported stories into action. I was going to start a blog of course and I even had arrangements with an online magazine to write a story for them. Skimming my journal entries from those first few weeks, you bet I thanked God out loud for not letting that happen. I had journalism training, I had basic photography skills, but I had only just begun the process of decolonizing my mind. However unintentionally, I was still centring my experience. Over and over, we see stories through the White Gaze, perpetuating the harmful narrative that anything outside of white, middle class, and “First World” is some sort of exotic other. It’s dehumanizing and we gotta do better. Storytelling is a powerful tool that shapes our whole world so telling someone else’s story should be seen as a sacred act. When done well, storytelling can bring about positive change that may never be achieved otherwise. Used irresponsibly, it can affect entire global communities’ wellbeing (think the stories Trump tells about Muslims and immigrants) and can even end people’s lives. In journalism school we learned about our responsibilities to tell stories objectively, to fact check, to research, etc – all important skills but it wasn’t enough. What was missing from my training was the same thing missing from the rest of society – a critical look at how privilege and systems of oppression impact the stories we tell. A couple weeks after I arrived in DR, I tuned in to the discomfort I was feeling and decided against publicly writing about my time there. Over the next few years (three of which I spent living there), I learned to flip the narrative I’d absorbed growing up as a white chick in the United States. I challenged myself to view local culture and customs as the default and the ways of foreigners, myself included, as the strange other. This stuff should be basic, but unfortunately it’s still not for most of us. It’s an ongoing process and one I won’t claim to have mastered, but I’ve definitely learned some powerful lessons. So, since this column is aimed at my fellow whities who travel, here are a few things I’d recommend considering before documenting your time abroad – whether it’s for a Facebook album or group, a blog you share with your family, or even an article you want to publish in Nat Geo. Some of it is drawn from my own experience, some of it is drawn from things I’ve observed, but it is all rooted in listening to what locals/ people of colour have already been saying. If this speaks to you, I hope you’ll take the next step and seek out those voices yourself (in a respectful and non-intrusive way, of course!).

Your super awesome writing/photography/multimedia skills do not automatically qualify you to tell someone’s story.

As I already mentioned, we’ve got to develop an understanding of the power dynamics at play, dynamics like colonization, imperialism, capitalist exploitation, and white supremacy. Dynamics that have resulted in that very moment of you, on vacation, holding a camera up to someone who may work their whole life hoping to get a visa to wherever you just came from (just as an example). If you haven’t already put a good amount of effort into understanding these systems of power, chances are your version will fit into the narrative that has fuelled oppression for centuries. If that sounds dramatic, it’s because you’re not there yet. It doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t photograph/video/write about your experience (keep reading!), but it means you should hold off on sharing it publicly.

Ask permission before taking pictures or publishing anything about someone local, or their space/belongings. If that someone is a kid, get their parent/ guardian’s permission (as well as the kid’s).

Mechi has already written about this, but it’s worth repeating. Yeah, that means that adorable but unaccompanied child on the street should not be on your photo roll. We are talking about people, not props to your vacation story. In the case of people’s space or belongings, often this may involve people’s livelihoods, so don’t just whip out your camera in the souvenir store without asking the vendor first – you should also really buy something or shoot someone some cash for their time (I hadn’t even thought much about this until Mechi brought it up for this post).

Consider whether your photo/ narrative is telling a story, or is it just appealing because you find it “exotic?”

I started using this little test to flip the narrative: imagine some rando snapping a picture of you doing some everyday shit, like laundry or the dishes, then going back to wherever and putting your face on their wall, or – worse yet – making some sort of profit off this image you had no say in being part of. As Mechi has pointed out to me, living as a local in an international tourism destination is kind of like being a celebrity with the paparazzi after you all the time, except they didn’t choose the public spotlight and likely don’t have mansions and multi-million dollar bank accounts as consolation prizes.

Make sure your subject has agency.

Part of this is asking permission and offering compensation to photograph or write about someone. Beyond that though, give them accurate information on where and how you plan to use their image. Hold yourself accountable to avoid simplistic, single stories. So often, especially in the international nonprofit industry, foreigners come in and take photos that fit into either of two stereotypical narratives: poor and hopeless (aka poverty porn), or smiling and saved. Both are used to tug at the heartstrings of rich/white people so they’ll appease their guilt by throwing money at a cause. Problem is, they’re incomplete, dehumanizing images that only serve to maintain the cycle of inequity we’re already caught in. Instead let your subject take the lead in their own representation. This will take more time, but it is the least of what you owe this person for putting their image in your hands.

Avoid trying to educate people back home on “what it’s like” where you’re traveling.

It is entirely possible to share your experiences – for example, “today our electricity went out for a few hours and my neighbour showed me how to make a candle stand up on a saucer” – without making generalizations or jumping to conclusions about what it’s like to live there as a local. And remember, statements romanticizing poverty or an unfamiliar way of life can be just as harmful as repeating negative stereotypes or making disparaging comments. The fact is you just don’t know what it’s like. You could live there the rest of your life absorbing everything you possibly could about the culture, language, politics, etc. and being broke the whole time, but you still wouldn’t fully know, because you had the privilege of choosing that life. So when someone back home uses your experience to jump to a conclusion – because they will – choose your words carefully. It’s helpful to start sentences with “based on my experience so far, I’ve noticed a lot of people…” or “Well my language teacher told me…” etc. And never say “all [insert nationality]…” As Mechi often says, you have not met all the people in the country!

If you do choose to document other people’s lives, go at it with a learning mindset and get ready to be called out.

This goes back to holding yourself accountable. We’ve all been brainwashed by society. It isn’t necessarily our fault that inequity exists, but we do need to take responsibility to work toward ending it. This is our only real burden. It means recognizing that we will make mistakes regardless of our intentions, and that the discomfort we experience in these moments pales in comparison to the reality of oppression. It means recognizing that we have learned certain subtle messages from a society that values our voices over others, so we need to shut up and listen to those other voices – no matter their tone – when they bring anything to our attention. Think of it this way: getting called out is always an opportunity to learn something new, and sometimes it’s an opportunity to repair harm that wouldn’t exist had that person stayed quiet. This doesn’t all mean never telling these stories. Sometimes they do need to be told, but we should think carefully about our place in telling them. Whenever possible we need to look for ways to amplify voices instead of speaking for them, and meanwhile commit ourselves to staying accountable to the process of relearning just about everything we thought we knew about the world. It’s an immense privilege to be able to travel willingly, so we must handle it with extreme care. We will all be better off for it. ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Rebecca Leisher considers herself a jaded idealist who is passionate about understanding the world, her place in it, and how to make it better. After growing up on an island near Seattle, WA with a dream to travel the world telling underreported stories, her focus shifted to literacy education because she believes everyone deserves the opportunity to tell their own story. She is immensely grateful for the experiences, lessons, and worldview she gained living in the Dominican Republic, and hopes that collectively we can shift the travel narrative to prioritize justice and equity.

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