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Photography While Abroad

Taking photographs while engaged in global learning activities, or just travelling, is a great way to visually document your experience and create mementos that will allow you to share your stories with others, and revisit your time abroad for years to come. 

The photographs you take have the power to either perpetuate stereotypes and harmful power dynamics, or could break down stereotypes, and bring more nuanced, complex stories to the wider world. Even if your intention isn’t to cause harm, the images you take and the accompanying stories/text you share may be contributing to stereotypes. 

To that end, we’ve outlined 4 photography principles that we hope will help you take thoughtful and creative photos while traveling abroad. 

These principles were originally developed by RADI-AID (external link) , in collaboration with Barbie Saviour (external link) , as part of their “How to Communicate The World: A Social Media Guide for Volunteers and Travelers (external link) ”. We are using the same principles, though we have adapted and expanded the content to better fit the context of global learning at Toronto Metropolitan University. Our adapted content also draws from the following resources: 

If you haven't already, don't forget to check out our resources from Step 2: Making Your Decision. You'll find important information about Financing Your Participation & Budgeting and Identity Abroad

Key takeaways:

  • Ask yourself, would you be comfortable with the same picture taken in your community?
  • Learn about ideas like ‘white saviour complex’ and other ways power informs the images, reinforcing harmful power imbalances and stereotypes. 
  • Who and what is the centre of the photo? Is it always you? Are you simply using other people and places as your props?
  • Don’t fall into the stereotypical tropes of “poverty” that demoralize and deprive dignity of others

When taking photos abroad, ask yourself if you would be comfortable taking the same picture in your own community. In most cases when traveling, you are not a member of the community and will lack an understanding of what is acceptable representation to that community. 

According to RADI, “Promoting dignity is often ignored once you set foot in another country, particularly countries that are part of the global south. This often comes from sweeping generalizations of entire people groups, cultures, and countries.” 

Do the photos you take, and the stories you share, make you look good at the expense of other people’s dignity? Especially in the global south, there is a tendency for photography to promote “the white saviour complex”. RADI defines this as “a term tied up in colonial history where Europeans descended to 'civilize' the African continent. In a postcolonial context, the white savior complex is still highly discernible on social media, often in the form of portraying oneself as the hero of the day, while handing out crayons or candy to children in the countryside of an unnamed African country…. This is in many instances perceived as both patronizing and offensive by the people you write into your story as those being saved.” 

The people whose homes and cities you are visiting are not attractions, or props to be used as a way to increase your social media presence. Put yourself in the shoes of those whose photo you are taking - if it was you being featured in that story, would you be proud to be represented in such a way? These questions are the minimum standard for deciding whether or not you should take the photo. 

Finally, when posting photos to social media, avoid using terms that demoralize or further propagate poverty stereotypes, such as “poor”, “impoverished”, “desperate” or, on the flip-side, “feel-good” rhetoric that suggest your presence is in someway directly responsible for “empowering” or “improving” communities you visit. You have the responsibility to make sure that what you write and post does not deprive the dignity of the people you interact with. 

Key takeaways:

  • Understand your own intentions and reflect on how those shape the way you present your experience
  • Are you sharing photos that accurately capture your experience, or consumable touristic images that reinforce dominant perceptions of place?
  • While your intentions might be good, that doesn’t mean that the photos you share automatically are 

Why are you travelling? Why are you doing this specific international activity? Is it for your own benefit? Are you trying to gain experience? Are you trying to learn more about other communities? 

According to RADI, the reason you are abroad can “affect how you present your experiences and surroundings on social media, for instance by representing the context you are in as more “exotic” and foreign than it might be.” 

Why you are sharing what you are sharing? If you’re travelling for a vacation, are you only sharing photos that promtoe how lucky you are to be abroad? Are your photos mainly tourist locations that clearly identify where you are? If you tried to learn about locations based only on photos on social media, one might think that all European cities are full of cobblestone streets and gothic churches, Australia is only dusty-red roads, kangaroos and koalas, and locals in Thailand only eat in large outdoor food markets or from street vendors.

While there is nothing wrong with sharing your vacation experiences, what message your photos are sending. What are the scenes, people, foods and activities that are missing from your photos? Could your photos be misunderstood? What is the impact of that? 

If you are abroad to work, study or volunteer, are you sharing photos that accurately capture that experience? Are your photos showcasing your work or learning environment and experience? What about the people you are working or learning with?

If you are volunteering, or engaged in a community project, are you the most relevant person in this setting? Should the photographs and stories you share center your role and thoughts? Do they draw attention to your actions as a ‘savior’, as highlighted above? Can you instead take photos that demonstrate collaboration and engagement between people without certing you as the one leading an action/activity?

Think about whether the photos you take only portray locals as performing a more passive or receiving role. Good intentions, such as raising awareness of the issues you are seeing, or raising funds for the organization you are volunteering with, is no excuse to disregard people’s privacy or dignity.

As stated in RADI social media guide, “Because social media platforms often facilitate self-promotion, the social media user has the duty to reflect on the purpose for publishing a photo, e.g., is the purpose of publishing the photo based on self-promotion, raising awareness, and/or other aims? The ethical photographer and social media user critically examines these motivations and strives to make ethical decisions with respect to online publication.”

Key takeaways:

  • Elevate the voices and experiences of locals that they want you to share
  • Respect someone's decision to not be photographed or enter into conversation with you. Are there reasons communities might be unwelcoming of your gaze?
  • How can photography be an opportunity for you to learn and develop relationships? 

Photography and social media are all about storytelling. You can tell stories that confirm and perpetuate stereotypes of the places you visit, or challenge those assumptions by telling stories that other visitors are not. Use your platform to elevate the voices and experiences of locals by sharing the stories and photos of their lives that they want you to share. 

How? By forming relationships withn and asking locals. If you want to photograph somoene, ask them what kind of stories from their life, hometown, or country they would like to share with the world. 

Remember, however, that no one is obliged to speak to you or share their experiences. The people you approach don't owe you anything. At the end of the day, you are a stranger and a visitor in their community. Recognize that many places, especially in countries in the global south, but also in over-touristed cities like Venice or Barcelona, there is a long and often exploitative history of outsiders documenting people and places as “exotic” subjects. Why should people share their stories and images with you, especially when the benefit would mainly be for you and your community or family back home? 

This is also why it is important to research the history, culture and current social, economic and political status of any place you are visiting. If you are visiting a community and are witnessing moments of social or political unrest, do your best to inform yourself as much as you can through your own research and learning from your local connections. Before you post photos or make commentary about social change in places you are not from, it is extremely important to understand the complex nature of the issue at hand. It is important to consider how to balance a desire to raise awareness about a local issue while ensuring you are informed by those participating in social movements.

Remember, these principles aren’t meant to be restricting. As the Center for Global and Intercultural Study at the University of Michigan explains in regard to taking and sharing photographs while abroad, “If you can keep these things in mind, you will be able to focus on the artistic and social aspects of your capturing. And you likely will value your memories captured on film more fully if you are confident that you interacted responsibly.” 

Do & Don’t Checklist for Photography & Social Media While Abroad

1. Do: Be obvious you are taking a photo, ask for consent and indicate what the photo is being used for. Make sure to include people’s full names and some information on their background when sharing photos. Be particularly mindful of scenarios where your position of power may inform a conversation about consent to your benefit.

a. Don’t: Disguise your camera so that you can get as close as possible to a sacred site and take photos of the site and the individuals using the space without their permission or knowledge.

b. Don’t: Decide to join in on a community game of football with the local kids and then snap a bunch of pictures of you teaching them how to shoot the ball without asking their parents for consent or considering if the same thing would be appropriate at a local school where you are from.

c. Don’t: Show up to a local rally about women’s rights in the community you are visiting and take photos of specific individuals without asking consent. Consider in moments of political and social unrest whether by taking an identifiable photo of someone you may be identifying them for others who may cause harm to that individual.

2. Do: Take respectful photos that share true aspects of your experience (as a learner!), ensuring to respect the dignity of everyone in your photos, while highlighting the role of those you visit as leaders, collaborators and agents of change. I.e. They are the protagonist of their story, not you!

a. Don’t: Take photos where you or your friends always appear as the centre of the story, portraying yourselves as teacher or leader. For example, leading a workshop, sharing material resources/gifts, or in any situation where you are the focus of attention. Highlight and actively capture the learning  that you are doing instead. 

3. Do: Take photos that may raise awareness about an unknown side of a community or place.  Use your photo to challenge the dominant touristic stereotypes and/or raise awareness about global issues that impact the places you are visiting (many of which you may be implicated in as a visitor and thus have a responsibility to understand and address as possible).

a. Don’t: Only take photos of the standard tourist experiences or destinations. If you do want to share photos from a “highly instagrammable” place or experience, consider including some information on the local and global issues that may affect the activity you're engaged in or the place you’re visiting. For example, the impact of climate change and forest fires in Australia on wildlife.