Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Let's Talk Appropriate Travel Photography Subjects

I love taking photographs when I travel. And I have always tried to take photographs that capture things beyond the typical tourist sites. Images that will help me remember the flavor and essence of a place, as well as images that I think I can use in my mixed media art.  As I've become more mindful of my photography, though, I've begun to think consciously about what the appropriate bounds might be for travel photography subjects. I have always taken photographs in historical cemeteries, for instance, and I read with interest everyone's comments on my scavenger hunt post featuring a cemetery (see them in this post).  One that particularly intrigued me was Sian's comment about what might be out of bounds for photographers in which she said "I would never take pictures inside a church, for instance." It really made me stop and think because I had just taken the picture at the top of this post, which is one of my favorite images from our recent trip to England. It's taken inside the church in Chipping Campden. I like the colors and the composition and the feeling it evokes of an old English country parish.  I was quiet and respectful in the church and dropped some money in the donation box for the "Church Visitor Guide." And yet, I still did feel a little sense of questioning the appropriateness of taking this picture, even before I read Sian's comment. I had a similar sense of unease about these photos:
I took both of these photographs when walking out of town towards the hiking trails in The Cotswolds. I like how they capture English country life in ways that are both very different (we don't wear school uniforms her and don't have fancy horses on such fancy streets), yet oddly similar (hairstyles and attitudes seem very similar among all teenagers; there are lots of horse ranches here) to my life here. But, perhaps I felt a little queasiness because I was taking pictures of children. Would I feel any different if I were taking pictures of children in South American, Asian or Central American villages, I wonder?  The one last group of pictures that got me wondering about appropriate bounds were these:
These were all taken walking around Cambridge. It was graduation day for St. John's College, and I was struck by the beauty of the young men and women in their graduation robes. And I was touched by the love and care of parents helping their children with their regalia. Especially since the "children" are so clearly standing on the cusp of adulthood. But I confess to feeling a little bit like a voyeur, as if I had stumbled upon scenes of quiet intimacy, even though they were being played out in the crowded streets of town.  On the other hand, that very thing is what give these photographs their power, at least in my eyes.
And, just for good measure, a photograph of family intimacy taken inside a Church (the Chapel at Kings College).  So, do tell, what do you think? What are the appropriate bounds for travel photography? Do they vary depending upon where you are, what your intentions are or how you act when taking them? I'm really very curious and will take no offense if you suggest I've overstepped.
{This post is part of an occasional series ("let's talk") encouraging a discussion of certain topics, in which I really am seeking people's opinions and input.}


Anonymous said...

wow, we took a zillion pix inside churches when we were in Europe (mine were mostly of the amazing pipe organs). I think a photo of an actual funeral would be pushing out of bounds, but so far i dont see anything objectionable in your pix. It's not like you ran over and interrupted what they were doing; it's likely they didnt even notice and i know if they had noticed and objected you'd have deleted the pix immediately and apologized. We have had random people take pix of my kid (when she was dressed as Minnie Mouse at d-land these cute teenagers wanted her pix). So i think you are ok.

Mariana in CA

Unknown said...

I love to "people watch" and that comes into my photography too. But I always feel a bit weird when I am taking photos of people where you can identify them. I'm not sure I would want people taking pictures of me and my family where you could identify us and then post them out on the internet or wherever, unless I was specifically asked. Now, I'm sure that has happened... it just happens in a tourist-y place. Even if I'm focusing on my own family, I'm bound to get a few (or more) people in the photo in the background as well. It's part of the territory. So it really is something I see-saw back and forth on. If I'm specifically taking a photo of a group of people or person because that group of people or person "speaks" to me for some reason, I try to get it from behind or at an angle where it's not very identifiable. Like the group graduation photos you had above... it was mostly from the back of them. Church's... if it wasn't during a service, and they were a historical building or purpose, I don't think I'd have a problem photographing inside of them... unless there were signs telling me not to. Same with other areas like graveyards or memorial sites. Some of my favorite, poignant photos are from the Oklahoma City Bombing memorial site...such a tough topic! Thanks for making me think a bit about it today!

Sian said...

We've been thinking along the same lines on our travels, how nice is that? Two things about the Church thing - I think I've been guided a bit by my FIL who was a Cathedral Dean. He used to allow photos after a weeding ceremony was over but never during one when he was officiating. And that made me stop and think many years ago when we talked about it. Second, when we were away, we went into a beautiful little church and there were lots of folk taking pictures of a photo on the wall of church elders. Certainly they looked quaint and very unusual, but I would have felt very uncomfortable taking a shot purely because of the curiosity value. I mean, these were real people, you know?

Your shots are beautiful and I know how respectful you are in your thinking about this kind of thing. This is a great subject for discussion! As an aside, I know how moved you must have been by the graduation. Did you see one of the processions? When I saw my brother in one, the tears were rolling down my face. Something about them being at the end, yet at the beginning. Really emotional.

Great post!

helena said...

Interesting question - I tend to feel uncomfortable with anything that feels voyeristic - which I know is subjective.

15 years ago on a group holiday in Thailand we were taken to see a 'primitive tribe' who live in the forest and a hill tribe whose women stretch their necks with gold bands. In both cases some in the group took lots of photos but I took none of the 'primative tribe' and one of the women. I felt very uncomfortable being there - like being at a human zoo.

Since that experience I have been wary of photographing people doing 'their thing' in western cultures too - unless they are performing or part of a festival.

I don't take photos inside places of worship or culturally significant places as it seems disrespectful to others' beliefs. If they are available I buy postcards.

I know my responce will differ from many others but its how I feel.

Thanks for inviting the debate Rinda

Mary B said...

I think it is a shame that nowadays we have to think twice about taking photos. I love taking them in old churches and have done so without any qualms at all. I have also take photos of children playing in water fountains taken from a distance with the water distorting any features I can see nothing wrong. I also think all your photos are perfectly OK and give the essence of our wonderful land.
Incidentally I had someone question my taking photos of the Iconic metal and glass building that is in my scavenger hunt pictures, because it is now used as a children's play area, goodness me you can not see a single child in them and from the distance I was taking them it is impossible to even blow them up big enough to see even a vague shape of a child. I get extremely cross at this as you can see. the world has gone protection crazy and have really turned us all into scared people.

Deb @ PaperTurtle said...

Interesting subject to ponder, Rinda. I'm like Helena - I feel really uncomfortable taking photographs of people I don't know. But, if it is part of a display/performance I'd be very comfortable with it. Funny, I'm even a bit reluctant to take photos of people I DO know in certain situations, knowing that some of my family don't like having their photo taken anyway.

One thing that has bothered me is seeing people take photos at a funeral. If I close my eyes I can totally picture my great-grandmother's funeral - the whole thing - and I certainly don't need a photo to remind me.

So that's my input. Thanks for asking. ;o)

Cheri said...

Appropriateness may indeed change by venue and subject. For instance, in Lancaster PA we have a large Amish population. These farming people live very simply (no cars, no electricity) and in harmony with the land. But they do not like their pictures taken - it has to do with their belief in humility and denying self-vanity. Here's a quote from the visitor's bureau: "While you talk and mingle with the Amish, please remember that they are not actors or spectacles, but ordinary people who choose a different way of life. Please respect their privacy and refrain from trespassing on their land or taking photographs." So it breaks my heart to see tourists taking photographs that are, obviously, not welcome in that atmosphere. But if the Amish happen to be out and about in public, there is no law prohibiting photographing them. So I guess it is just a matter of respecting the people and what would be right under the circumstances.

I also believe there is a big difference between snapping a photo for your personal scrapbook album to give the flavor of your travel experience, versus one you intend to publish (even if you only publish it on your blog). For instance, if a child is recognizable in a photo, think about how you as a parent would feel if someone had taken that photo of your child and published it - without your knowledge or consent.

If you (as a stranger) were seen taking photos of kids at the elementary schools around here, you'd probably be reported to the police. I'm not sure where other cultures stand on that issue, but I know it is a real sticky wicket here.

Which doesn't say that I think any of your photos do or don't "cross the line" ... just some ideas to think about in deciding for yourself.

debs14 said...

I work at a school and we have very strict rules about what we can and cannot photograph with reference to our students and some parents flat out refuse to allow us to use their child's images in newsletters/prospectus etc. The problem is that a small minority of people have taken away the innocence of taking a photo of a child playing on a beach or in a playground. Your photographs are taken with sensitiveness and compassion and I don't think that any that you have shown would cause offence. It is usually pretty obvious when people don't want their photo taken too! I was recently one of those proud parents sorting out the cap and gown of a university graduate and I know I wouldn't have minded being snapped by a stranger. The only photo I wonder about is the one of the children in the playground, some parents may wonder why a stranger was photographing their child but again, your reason for doing so was simply to soak up the atmosphere of a culture so I personally see no harm.

scrappyjacky said...

Like Mary I think it's a great shame that these days we have to think twice about photographing day those photos will be of historical interest....and how sad if there were hardly any for our [great]grandchildren to see....I find photos of people taken in the early 20th century fascinating and of great historical interest...and am glad there were no taboos on taking them then. Though with the taboos in the UK today....I'm amazed nobody questioned you about taking photos of children!!
I love your church has a haunting poignancy about it...and definately evokes an 'old English' feeling....and at some time in the future will be of historical interest as well.

JO SOWERBY said...

usually in churches you have to get permission and in cathedrals you buy a photo license in the uk. this is normally because they have postcards for the key bits. however i had a similar problem on saturday when i visited a small church which had the most pre-raphaelite style mural painted on the church walls. i did take a photo and i also photographed the grave of benjamin disraeli for your treasure hunt!!
as for the children i am again surprised no-one stopped you we had an incident at our church picnic when a man was saying he was only photographing the cathedral but was defo taking pics of the lil girls. we had to stop him and he rather grumpy,
jo xxxx

GlorV1 said...

How wonderful that you get to travel and will have these amazing memories forever. The pictures are outstanding and I too wonder about taking pics in a church. Glad you were able to take them though, now we could see them. Thanks for sharing.

Amy said...

Rinda, this is such an interesting topic and one which I have been thinking about a lot recently - in two forms and one is what you have touched on here today. Cheri's second paragraph is generally how I feel on the subject - what adds context to your travels is one thing, and perfectly acceptable, however, I feel it is not my story to tell by publishing random photos of recognisable people.

My other recent issue, which ties in, is where I have had people use my photos and digital artwork without recognising me or asking for my permission ... are our blogs ours? If we post a photo in our 'space' does it automatically become the right of others to use it because it is on the internet? This is a big thing for me and it is certainly colouring my fondess for blogging and sharing in an open forum, it involves a whole host of thoughts on manners, identity, etiquette and ownership.

Abi said...

such an interesting topic because there are so many restrictions now on what is or isn't exceptable. In terms of taking pictures in a church,I think if it is done with sensitivity then it is fine especially if there isn't a service happening. I think the issue comes when people are perhaps in a quiet place with God and the flash of the camera could disturb that. I don't have any issue with photos of school children and think it is sad that we now have to be so careful. You have documented these in an artistic and sensitive way and I think they are a lovely and beautiful record of your time in England! xxx

Ginger said...

I find Amy's comment about whether our blogs are our own... I wonder about this as well... I know for myself if I am taking photos of people with the intent of placing it on my blog and knowing that might make the person uncomfortable, I will ask if they mind me taking their photo (I don't ask strangers though).

I thought I had read recently in our paper that in our city you are captured on video at least 5 times a day... albeit, these are not published videos, but you don't know for certain... I can think of a you-tube video at a mall where the security guards watched someone walk into a pool of water while they were texting... that video went viral and the news people showed it over and over...

I think the photos you have taken here are respectful... I don't find them offensive... and they show what you observed on your vacation.

Anonymous said...

You've posed a really interesting question Rinda. I think your photos are in very good taste and the people to my mind are not recognizable. I think that's the important part - that the people are unrecognizable. You know it's strange, last night we were watching TV and one of the shows had a part on it regarding a noted Street Photographer. Evidently they were common years and years ago and would take pictures of people and things they found interesting and there pictures are now a window into how things were then. How things have changed.

As for churches, if we do take pictures in them we do it flashless and only if they are allowed. We were in one beautiful and unusual cathedral in Vancouver (BC) a couple of years ago and the lady at the door told us as soon as we walked in that we were welcome to take pictures of anything there but to please not use the flash. If we see a sign or are told no pictures please then we don't take any but instead see if they have a postcard or two that will help us remember it. I know in St. Petersburg Russia you have to buy a permit to take pictures in some of it's churches.