Our code of ethics helps create smoother interactions and less conflict with the people who surround us daily. A strong ethical code is even more important when we visit US National Parks – as travelers, we represent not only ourselves but our home area or home country. Many travelers these days are focusing on ethical tourism. For those of us who are travel photographers, we have an additional responsibility – to practice ethical travel photography.

The impact of a photo goes way beyond the time and place in which it was taken, and so we need to consider our impact carefully.

What is Ethical Tourism?

Article 1 of the UNWTO‘s “Global Code of Ethics for Tourism” UN World Tourism Organization defines the basis and the outcome of ethical tourism:

“The understanding and promotion of the ethical values common to humanity, with an attitude of tolerance and respect for the diversity of religious, philosophical and moral beliefs, are both the foundation and the consequence of responsible tourism…”

Put more simply, ethical tourism happens when we approach other cultures with tolerance and respect, and tolerance and respect grow as we experience other cultures. It’s a virtuous circle…and we who are world travelers learn to appreciate this sense of tolerance and respect.

We live in a wonderful world that is full of beauty, charm, and adventure. There is no end to the adventures we can have if only we seek them with our eyes open. – Jawaharlal Nehru

Ethical tourism is also sometimes referred to as ecotourism: travel activity that considers both the local economy and ecology. The Oxford English Dictionary states that the first use of the word ecotour was in 1972, and ecotourism was first used in 1983. The ethical tourism and ecotourism movements have gained traction in the last few decades: some experts estimate that ecotourism and ethical tourism account for 11% of all consumer spending worldwide.

What Is Ethical Travel Photography?

Ethical travel photography, then, is just the extension of ethical travel. It is fundamentally about the use of our cameras and our digital images to respect, celebrate and provide education on other cultures and environments that are different to our own. Because of the permanent nature of photography and because of additional data contained in our photographic images, we as travel photographers must take extra caution to respect and protect other cultures and value systems.

Essential Guidelines for Ethical Travel Photography

Human ethics are rooted in respect for other individuals, other cultures, and other ways of life. Ethical tourism and ethical travel photography, then, must start with the idea of respect. If we do not respect the subjects of our photographs – whether they are people, wildlife or landscape scenes – then we are not acting as ethical travel photographers.

With that said, here are some essential guidelines for ethical travel photography:

1. Show Respect For The Laws

The most obvious set of rules to respect when observing ethical travel photography practices are local laws. It is incumbent on us as travel photographers to know the laws and regulations of the places we visit. As a photographer, not understanding the law can lead to serious consequences. A global story playing out right now is that of two travel bloggers who were arrested and imprisoned in Iran for flying a drone without a license. Some key questions may help travel photographers avoid legal issues while taking photos:

  • Am I allowed to take photos of public spaces?
  • What types of spaces are off-limits: government buildings, private residences, etc.?
  • May I take non-commercial photographs of people without their permission?
  • Are tripods (or other equipment like a flash, video cameras, etc.) allowed in the area?

Government buildings are an especially sensitive subject in these days of heightened awareness of terrorism. In the early 2000s, I was in Japan for a short stay and walking around the Nagato-chō district where most of the federal government buildings for Japan reside. I was nearly arrested for taking photos of the National Diet until I was able to show – with pantomime and by showing ID – that I was merely an interested tourist and a travel photographer.

2. Show Respect For The Rules

Those who are practicing ethical travel photography should also consider the rules and restrictions in and around major tourist destinations and landmarks. Many historical buildings do not permit interior photography, or where flash photography is prohibited. Flash photography can damage sensitive works of art, hence the prohibition. And sometimes photography is prohibited inside a sacred space like a church or temple because it is seen as disrespectful to those enjoying the space. The bottom line: even though local rules and guidelines may not carry the force of law, ethical travel photographers should still show respect for these guidelines.

As I’m writing this post I am on a tour of Greece. There was a cathedral I wanted to see…but without thinking, I wore shorts that day. The cathedral has a sign that says “Respectful dress required – no shorts allowed.” Several people entering the cathedral were wearing shorts, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Would I have gotten kicked out of the cathedral? No. But my refusal to enter was a sign of respect for the building and for the institution it represents.

3. Show Respect For The Land

In the effort to capture a stunning image, many photographers often wander off beaten paths or step past guide ropes or barriers. Doing so is unethical behavior and shows a lack of respect for the land where you are.

Earlier in 2019 California experienced a superbloom, leading to an overabundance of California poppies (Eschscholzia californica). Unfortunately, many thousands (if not hundreds of thousands) of these delicate and beautiful blooms were destroyed because of thoughtless and unethical travel photographers and Instagrammers.

Even if going off the beaten path doesn’t destroy plant or animal life, it can still be destructive. Delicate rock formations can suffer damage from repeated wear and tear inflicted by unthinking tourists. Those who climb on rock or dirt formations may degrade or damage the formation irreparably. The bottom line: stay within areas marked for public access and use. To do otherwise is unethical.

4. Show Respect For The Culture

Most Americans – and many other cultures across the world – are just fine with having their photos taken, even if it’s not their favorite thing to do. However, we need to recognize that this isn’t a universal cultural value.

Many in the Amish community refuse to allow their photographs taken. Part of this ideology stems from the belief that photographs of oneself are vain, part of it is to discourage tourists from treating the Amish like animals on display in a zoo.

The cultures of many indigenous people also have prohibitions against people photography. Some of these cultures believe that a photo captures or steals the essence of a person’s life force.

Another element of culture that some travel photographers may not take into consideration is the exercise of religious beliefs. As noted previously, many churches and other houses of worship have rules against interior photography. Even if that’s not the case, it is still important for travel photographers to respect others’ right to practice their religious beliefs. Before photographing someone in prayer or contemplation, consider approaching the subject to ask permission. Before photographing a worship service or devotion, avoid interfering with the ceremony.

5. Show Respect For The Subject

If you’re in a US National Park and aren’t photographing a landscape or flowers and trees, chances are you’re photographing animals. Animals deserve to be photographed with respect as well. A few things to keep in mind when taking photos of wildlife:

  • Do not disturb the animal’s natural habitat. They built their nest or den for safety and comfort. To change an animal’s lair is to potentially harm it or make it vulnerable to predators.
  • Avoid using bright lights, laser pointers, or flash equipment when possible. Many animals – particularly nocturnal or diurnal creatures – have very sensitive eyes. Bright lights can overwhelm or even permanently harm their vision.
  • Respect the space that animals need. Stay well clear of charging animals such as bison, elk or moose when visiting US National Parks.

6. Show Respect for The Story

Part of travel photography is story-telling: informing viewers about your destination and what you tell them about the places you’ve been and people you’ve seen. But as a travel photographer, you need to ask yourself: what story am I telling with this image? Some questions I ask myself when practicing ethical travel photography rules:

  • Am I showing other travelers respecting the rules of the area?
  • Am I being true to the person or place I’m showing – that is, am I editing or changing the photo to make it look substantially different than what the eye sees?
  • If I’m showing the darker side of nature (predator and prey, etc.) – is the image “tame” enough that I would feel comfortable sharing it with more sensitive family members or with younger people?
  • Am I sharing location information (either in the photo or via the metadata of the photo) that might allow poachers or hunters to locate rare or endangered species?

On Being an Ethical Travel Photographer…

Practicing ethical travel photography isn’t always easy, and you’ll find times when you miss out on shots for various reasons. That said – following the guidelines of travel photography ethics will also make for a more meaningful travel experience, and will help improve the image of travelers and travel photographers the world over.