Whether you ask for permission or not, do tourists have a right to wander through villages taking photos of people?
We pulled up at the side of the road so the driver could have a quick toilet break. It was as good a place as any. There were a few shops to buy drinks and weird-flavoured crisps in, there were some good views down over the mountain valleys and we had a chance to explore village life.
Mountainside villages intend to be very simple. Roofs will be thatched or made of corrugated iron, chickens will be kept behind rudimentary bamboo fences. Outdoor taps will be used for showering under and the shaded area under the stilted houses will be used for working or relaxing in.
Very little is hidden behind closed doors, and subsequently it’s pretty easy to pull up by the side of the road, wander around the village and pry into things. And, of course, take some photos of the villagers.
This is something I don’t feel comfortable with. Wandering around, effectively on other people’s property, and sneaking down the gaps between people’s houses to see the view on the other side feels like an invasion of privacy to me. Yet most tourists seem quite happy mooching about, getting a taste of village life and taking a few snaps for the album.
If people came to my street and did this, I’d find it suspicious if not outright intrusive. If I was in my back garden and someone showed up with a camera, then started taking pictures of me, I’d be outright furious.
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So why is this seen to be OK when we’re on holiday?
Conventional wisdom says that you should always ask people for permission before you start taking photographs of them. I’m not sure this goes far enough.
How would you feel if someone walked down your street and asked to take a photograph of you? You’d probably either ask why they wanted the photo or acquiesce and then feel incredibly awkward while it was taken. Chances are you woudn’t be happy about it even if you did go along with it.
These villagers, whether they’re in Laos, Peru, Fiji or Togo, must have similar feelings.
I asked for permission before taking the photo of the girl in the top right corner of this post. But I regret taking it now. I had no right to saunter through her village, poking my nose around where it probably wasn’t wanted and randomly taking photos of things.
Sure, I bought a drink and a packet of crisps at the village shop, but does that make everything OK? It’s probably great for the village that buses stop there and people spend money on snacks. But does that investment in bottled water and treats really give the purchasers a licence to do as they please in the village? I’m not sure it does.
And next time I’m in such a situation, I won’t be asking villagers for permission to take photos of them. My camera will be staying in my pocket.