Photographing People in Poverty?
Pros and Cons
Slums, Townships or Favelas: disadvantaged neighbourhoods are increasingly visited by tourists. If such excursions are organised in a socially responsible manner, they may be beneficial for both, local people and tourists, creating win-win situations. Visitors can get a better understanding of the living conditions of people beyond the tourist attractions. But what about taking photos? Is it ethical?
Yes, if done respectfully
By Kim Geffen
When I started guiding in 1994 in the Townships, I witnessed an amazing exchange. I always asked my tourists to send the photographs back to me to send them on to those who were photographed. One local man stuck all of these pictures on his corrugated iron wall and when a friend of his asked why he has photographs all over of his white bosses, his answer was: “This is not my boss. These are my friends from Germany.”
Some people may have the impression that we go and visit as “voyeurs”. Nothing could be further from the truth. When we visit a Township, we always have a local guide of the community who represents his own people and helps us interact in a fair way. People in South Africa, especially the historically disadvantaged communities, want to showcase their culture – who they are and what they do. They want the world to know that what they have cannot always be bought with money. It allows the visitor to see things for how they really are.
Travellers coming to visit out of their own free will leads to heartwarming exchange which often heals misconceptions. It also makes way for an entrepreneurial life for many, who see tourism as a platform to be heard and to be seen, and to sell their arts and crafts.
Photographing as a tourist, we need to take into consideration what it means to photograph societies we may be invited in, but do not belong to. Respect for the person to be photographed also means asking for permission first, and when an individual declines to be photographed, pack away the camera and engage further with humility and respect towards that person. Children must not be photographed without consent of their guardian. “Do not photograph anything that you would not share with your mother” is a fairly clear guideline of moral boundaries. If a sense of suffering or sensationalism is perceived through the lenses, one should not take the photo.
When photographing, it is of utmost importance that we reflect compassionately who our subject is and how it would make us feel if we were photographed. Once a healthy energy and trust has been established, taking a photo has far more meaning for both the photographer and the person being photographed.
Offering the person to see how the photo came out is a way of “partnering” with the people, in the sense of “We have made a great team in creating a wonderful image”. Taking photos of humor with smiles and pride on both sides generates good energy.
Resisting the urge to have the camera (or cellphone) in hand at first contact with people helps to first engage and to also take ‘pictures’ through your eyes and without equipment. What we have seen in life may be recorded on a photo for a quick recall, but the circumstances experienced before and after the snap are truly what makes our holiday so worthwhile and fulfilling.
No, as a matter of principle
By Joseph Bird
Shortly after our very first tour in 2006 we implemented our No Camera Policy. Some press had been critical of people going to Dharavi and taking photos. When we saw the press coverage we could understand why: Taking photos was an invasion of privacy. We agreed. Given the welfare of the community and conducting our tours in an ethical and respectful way were at the centre our purpose for being in Dharavi in the first place, implementing the policy was a no brainer.
Whilst it might be considered somewhat strict to have such a blanket policy in place, our relationship with the Dharavi community is the product of many years of dialogue and based on mutual respect. We value this above all else.
Allowing even the occasional photo at the guides and communities discretion could be seen as intrusive, and lead uncertainty around what is, and what is not appropriate. For us, saying no circumvents this issue. Many guests have suggested they might seek permission from the subject directly, and have often found young children in Dharavi very willing to pose for a 'selfie', but just because the subject of the photo allows it doesn't mean other members of the community are not offended.
We understand that our guests want to take home memories with them, but we believe by being 'present' on the tour rather than behind a lens can be a better way to do this and we do provide guests with an online link to a selection of professionally taken approved photographs of Dharavi. They can also purchase postcards and books (100 percent of the profits of which go back to the community through our sister NGO ‘Reality Gives’).
For us, the appropriateness of the policy is evinced in the good relationship we have with the communities we serve. It's further borne out by the fact that recently one of our competitors have also introduced the policy to their own tours of Dharavi, and feedback from many of our guests. Recently a reviewer on the internet summed things up nicely: “At first I was a little annoyed because like others, I too wanted to capture my own memories of the tour, but I completely understand and agree with the policy. I truly enjoyed not being able to take photos in that I was really living in the moment rather than behind the screen of a camera. This experience is something I will never forget”.
Joseph Bird is CEO of Reality Tours & Travel in Delhi, India. Reality Tours & Travel won the TO DO! Award Socially Responsible Tourism in 2014. www.realitytoursandtravel.com