Taking photos is a part of everyday life for many people. It has never been easier to record our lives and most of us realise we need to ask for permission before posting pictures of others online. Yet whether we should actually be taking a photo in certain circumstances requires consideration too.
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A tour at Mungo National Park
We became aware of this issue in 2014, as we camped at Mungo which is a site of great significance in Australian indigenous culture. Mungo Lady and Mungo Man were discovered there; the remains of humans buried over 40,000 years ago!
We camped there in March over a scorching hot weekend. As it is a site of such significance, tours on Mungo’s ‘Walls of China’ are only conducted by qualified guides. Ivan was our excellent tour guide, and he took us to many sites and explained to us what they were. It is mind-blowing to look at a site of a fire and realise it is tens of thousands of years old! And we learnt about how plants were used, what was traditionally eaten and what other animals lived in the area too.
A case of disrespectful photography
As we commenced our tour, Ivan was chatting to us from a publicly accessible walkway. Another group of tourists came past, who were not on a tour but just hiking around themselves. Upon seeing Ivan one of them stopped, took out his camera, and snapped a picture of him. He was very close to Ivan when he took the photo, and he did not speak to him or ask for permission with any gesture.
Ivan looked a bit stunned, but recovered quickly and professionally and continued with our tour, and the happy snapper went on his way. But the incident felt awful. Ivan was treated like a cultural artefact – who, because he was an indigenous-Australian man, was an interesting part of the Mungo experience for this tourist – and not a fully functioning person who would like to be consulted before his photo is taken.
Why practice respectful photography
I think this is a quite common scenario for many tourists visiting exotic locations and seeing ethnic groups or other people very different to themselves. But it is a practice that is highly disrespectful. Some cultures do not allow photography and that must be respected. But in all cultures, being respectful means treating all others as equally human as ourselves. Every person on earth deserves to be asked whether they are ok with having their photo taken. If they do not know what the implications are of this action, an attempt to explain it must me made. If it cannot be explained because of a language barrier, then the photo should not be taken.
We are all different and unique, and we all deserve respectful treatment. There is no justification for taking someone’s photo like they are a walking exhibition, even if they are from a remote tribe that has never been in contact with the modern world before. This kind of behaviour only serves to separate people, as it assumes the photographer has rights over the other. It also assumes that because the people being photographed are different, they must be recorded and shown around to others.
Preserving and understanding other cultures is a worthy venture indeed, but it can only be done with their full coöperation and understanding. Taking a picture and broadcasting it or saving it for later is not understanding other people: it is simply a record of their most superficial layer. There is no deeper knowledge gained.
The Jarawa people are being treated like a human zoo
This kind of behaviour is happening a lot to the Jarawa people at present. They live on the Andaman islands in the Indian ocean, territory owned by India. They still live traditionally despite attempts to assimilate them and a road being paved through their island. This road is used to convoy paying visitors, who come to photograph the Jarawa people, as a human safari. A human safari is still occurring in 2017.
Instead of these people being respected and left alone, they are being treated as animals. And instead of every attempt being made to preserve one of the last hunter-gatherer tribes on Earth, poachers and tourism threaten their natural resources, and the Indian government is trying to coax them into living a modern lifestyle. It’s incredible to me that people can still be treated in this way, after so many centuries of colonisation and forced assimilation wiping out indigenous cultures.
Take photos of new friends and make lasting memories instead
So please, reconsider taking a photo of people just because they’re different than you. Make an effort to understand them and their culture, and at least an attempt to communicate and forge a friendship, however brief it may be. Learn some basic language of the people you encounter. Get involved if you have a little time, to really try to understand the people whose home land you are visiting (this is one of the reasons we are volunteering as we travel). All people are people just like us. How they look and live may be very different, but they have the same feelings and rights and you and I do.
Taking a photo of a friend who has invited you into his or her life is a far better memento than snapping a picture of a stranger because they are different. A friendship creates love between people and leaves the world with more understanding in place. A photo of a stranger creates distance between people, and only leaves more separation within the human race.
Please share this message if you also want to see more respectful practices in the world.