On photographing people

Evan and Sacrifice Simon laughing in Mlimba Tanzania

1. One morning in Cameroon

Recently a man asked me to take his picture. He’d been watching me photograph Evan with Giftus, an acquaintance. When I didn’t hear him, the man asked again. You could say he insisted.

He gave my lens a thumbs up while his other hand held breakfast, a plastic plate of warm savoury donuts, called puff puff, and beans stewed in palm oil. I’d just finished eating the same, another nail in the coffin of my weight gain in Yaounde, Cameroon’s capital and our home for six sedentary weeks.

What the man wanted felt significant, because in Cameroon few people have asked us to photograph them when they see our camera(s). I wondered why he’d felt comfortable. Maybe he felt that I wasn’t aiming to photograph him, so the pressure was off.

Giftus with Evan

It happened fast. I missed doing many of the things I aim for when photographing people. These include getting their name, taking multiple photos if they’re comfortable, and sharing the photos with them in a practical way.

Yet the gap between what happened and what could have made the moment a good way to start this very long article about photographing people.

1.1 A very long article

In over 13,000 words, I share how I think about photographing the people I meet while travelling. It’s the longest article I’ve ever written. I didn’t expect to have so much to say, and I didn’t know a shorter way to say it. So here we are.

To keep you entertained while reading through the usual explorations of my travel experiences, neuroses and contradictory thoughts, this article contains nine sections and lots of photos—mostly of people.

I love many of these photos while also hoping to improve my principles and techniques through further reflection and practice. It was the same with photographing the man I describe above. Despite his mug being on my blog and my interaction with him starting this post, I don’t have his name or any way to send this to him. Here he is:

Thumbs up for warm clothes in warm weather

I was excited to take his photo. He was one of Yaounde’s many motorcycle drivers, a demographic that had been catching my eye daily. I’d gawk at them, hoping that their outfits were a facet of Cameroon I’d remember after I’d left. They wear heavy jackets, gloves, scarves and hats in what feels to me like sweltering heat.

1.2 Why think long and hard about this?

After taking one photo, I immediately turned my attention elsewhere. The man was free to eat his breakfast and maybe even break a sweat in the process—he was bundled, and the puff puff were hot. The interaction was fine, casual and unremarkable.

Other times, however, the choices people make when they photograph others hurt feelings and further entrench both power imbalances and unrepresentative stereotypes. I’ve done this, still do. I see others do it. I’ve had this done to me. I think these negative outcomes are largely avoidable, but not without the uncomfortable process of first seeing them and thinking about them. Writes The Maasai Association about how they’ve come to feel:

“When you visit a zoo, for example, you’ll find that every animal, whether a lion, giraffe, gorilla, zebra, hippo etc., has a name. If you talk to the keeper s/he will present that animal to you by its name. Why can’t a photographer name a Maasai if s/he can name a wild animal? A Maasai is not less of a human being.”

This article doesn’t have simple lists of good and bad. Rather, it outlines how I try to think about the situations I’m faced with. You’ll notice a common theme: insights and misadventures in trying to think more about the people I share these situations with—the people I am photographing.

And when I do share some insight I’m proud of, know that I often fail, and have to remind myself to return to following the insight I’ve excused myself from, “just this time.”

I’ve previously written about photographing people, after children used my camera in China in 2015. The breadth and depth of this article, years later, is the result of a few years travelling on my bicycle in different African countries. The continent is in many ways ground zero for intrusive and demeaning photographic practices.

I’m neither a photographer nor a photojournalist. I am a tourist who likes taking photos and talking to people, and sometimes taking photos of people. While one section of this article shares tips that have improved my photos, at the end there’s a Further Reading section where I link to other’s work that reflects their skills and insights, which I think far eclipse my own.

I’ll be honest: one effect of thinking more about photographing people has been doing it less, and sharing less than that.

In a zeitgeist where the success of one’s “exploration” (aka tourism) is often seen as proportional to how many candid, beautifully composed photographs of people result—and are then shared online—I have sometimes worried that this lessening is a sign I’m “doing it wrong.” Trying to think broadly about what it means to do right has been comforting, and hopefully not (too) bias ridden…

I also wanted to write in appreciation of everyone who has let me take their photo over the years, whether I know you so well or hardly at all. Thank you!

We met this man in Uganda. We were all taking the ferry across Lake Kyoga. He was offering the service of taking photos and then printing them on the spot with this printer he’s holding.

On that note, if I’ve taken your photo without sharing it with you or used it in a way you don’t like, please contact me so we can talk about it or leave a comment. Same goes for my writing about you.

While some of the following discussion is about what I try to avoid, thinking about photographing people goes beyond a finger wagging flavour of deontology. There’s plenty of awesome consequences to aspire to. Photographing people with their consent, participation and feedback can be a positive experience—for all involved. I think.

At least that’s how I felt that morning after breakfast.

1.3 Karen and Dionne, puff puff chefs

From the thumbs up guy I turned my attention to Karen, to hand her a printed photo. It showed her frying the puff puff, one reason for the popularity of this breakfast joint she runs with her sister Dionne each morning except Sunday. They pack up when they sell out. This tended to be around 9 AM, which in February was early enough to escape the sun that baked Yaounde for hours until the metal roofs were cooled by afternoon rainstorms.

There were exclamations and laughing. Karen passed the photo around to the customers that wanted to see it.

Karen frying breakfast puff puff

Dionne asked if I had a copy for her too. I didn’t, and there wasn’t time to go back to the printing studio because we were leaving the city.

Though he’d giggled with the rest at seeing Karen’s photo, the man I’d just photographed didn’t ask for his photo to be printed. For all his insistence on being photographed, he didn’t seem to care about the result.

It reminded me of another thing I’ve learned about taking people’s photos: individuality plays a large role. Often just when I think I’ve teased out a norm of a neighbourhood or a family, contradicting evidence surprises me. It’s only in writing this article that I’ve realized that this isn’t learning, but relearning: I already knew that people I know have individual quirks.

That’s enough preamble. Expect the whole article to take over an hour to read, or click to the section that interests you in the Table of Contents to jump to it.

Table of Contents

2. The golden rule

3. The platinum rule

4. Paying for photos

5. Sharing online

6. The other type of sharing

7. Thinking broadly about success

8. Tips from an amateur

9. What matters now

10. Further reading

2. The golden rule

You’ve probably heard of it: that how we want to be treated is a decent guide for how we should treat others. This is what I was raised on, my mom would gently remind me as she drove me to some activity or another in our Ford Windstar minivan.

I generally don’t like being photographed without my consent. Through this lens it follows that I should ask before taking photos of others. So usually, I do. I say, to the extent possible through language, tone and body language, “hey, is it okay if I take your photo? If it’s not, that’s fine too.”

I loved the busy Angolan bus station scene this roadside mural depicted

One day in Angola I pulled over to photograph the above mural. A car immediately rollicked onto the unpaved shoulder, halting in the cloud of dust it had kicked up. A man jumped out, exclaiming “I’m going to take your photo AND PUT IT ON MY FACEBOOK GROUP!”

This time, it was actually pretty funny. I’m chuckling now remembering it. Many feel compelled to photograph me because I appear before them on a bicycle laden with strange bags. Usually my photographers don’t tell me what they’ll do with the photo, leaving me to wonder, and I do wonder.

But this telling instead of asking leaves less room for real consent. It puts whoever is on the receiving end on the back foot instead of equal footing. Setting boundaries now requires more assertiveness. I for one can find this hard to muster. For example, take this time where my awkward laughter belies a lot of discomfort when I was suddenly held tight by this man—definitely telling instead of asking.

No consent on this occasion in Kyrgyzstan

So when I say I ask, I mean I ask. There is such an important distinction between hoping for yes and feeling entitled to it.

My coercion is limited to eye contact, a gentle tone, a gummy confident smile and an offer to share the photos with them if I think that will sway them. Come to think of it, this is still coercion, perhaps just muzzled.

Sure, there’s practicalities to consider. It’s not always possible to get everyone’s permission, especially if there’s a lot of people around. It’s also not always appropriate or necessary, though I lean on these excuses far more than I need to. We aren’t reliably our own best auditors.

Just a sec while I stop the donkey race to ask if I can photograph the contestants. Lamu Island, Kenya.

Neither is the golden rule a panacea. Instead of being a prescription, I think of it as a lens through which to view each given situation:

What if it was my portrait being taken, what if it was me in the crowd. What if it was my face wrought in a strained expression, atop a body clothed in whatever I was wearing for work or home, an outfit I might not want to be photographed in unless I knew and trusted who wielded the camera?

One glamorous scene Evan is allowed access to, now for public consumption. Angola.

2.1 Who might see

At first glance the golden rule’s finger-waving at our conscience seems to be countered by ignorance as bliss: if I remain unseen by who I’m photographing, their feelings are unaffected and therefore irrelevant.

I suspect a lot of people take photos of me without my knowledge, based on extrapolating the number of times I’ve caught them in the act.

As for me, well, I’m neither travelling the higher road nor more successful concealing my camera. Sometimes I take photos of others when I think they can’t see me. Accordingly, sometimes I’m caught before the shutter clicks or after. Generally, people are not that pleased. Perhaps they feel duped or snuck up on, annoyed or violated. Rarely, they smile in realization.

I’ve also felt all of these things, as well as bafflement as I wondered “you weirdo, why didn’t you just ask me first, have you no social skills?”

Evan cycling through sand only slightly faster than these women can walk. Kenya.

So I do this less nowadays, in absolute frequency and also in proportion to how identifiable the person is. If they’re far away or otherwise unidentifiable, I am more likely to take their picture, but less likely overall to take their picture.

There is one more complexity: when I’ve been seen taking photos without asking, it’s often by a third party, not the person I’m photographing.

Unfortunately this also has the potential to be icky. The person who has seen may, like I likely would, suspect that my camera will turn on them as soon as their back is turned. They might also go and tell who I photographed, as is their prerogative especially when it’s their neighbour, friend or family member.

Caught photographing this man behind his back in Palawan, Philippines.

I prefer to get to know my photographer a little bit before being in their photo, even if it means just exchanging names and greetings. But I’m pretty chill about being asked without any preamble, because that already feels so much better than not. It also feels better than being asked after the photo is taken. I’d prefer this asking of forgiveness instead of permission to be kept in the confession booth.

2.2 The golden rule’s other applications and its limits

The golden rule sometimes also guides my response when asked. I can find it terrifying to ask a person to be in a photo. When I’m rejected, it can sting a little. So when I’m permitted or even met with enthusiasm it’s a thrill. In return, I try to be enthusiastic when I’m asked. Maybe they’ve also had to scale the mountain of their shyness to arrive at this moment.

One other cool application of the golden rule is that it’s a way to interpret another’s behaviour. Take that man by the mural in Angola. Maybe as far as he was concerned, obviously I’d want to be photographed by him and immortalized on his Facebook group because that’s what he would want.

Same, perhaps, for the guy who posted my photo on his Facebook right after he took it, which I found out about by another man in the same Turkish town showing me my own photo on his news feed. This was a strange feeling.

Being shown my own picture an hour after it’s taken and shared on Facebook. Turkey.

Using the golden rule to give someone else a momentary benefit of the doubt can do a good job of tempering a knee-jerk reaction that quickly assumes the worst motivations for what we interpret as bad behaviour.

And yet we are sometimes, in some ways, very different. The golden rule isn’t enough by itself, because it leaves us painfully naive about how others want to be treated whenever their wants are different than ours.

Enter the platinum rule, introduced to me by my friend Katie during a campfire in South Africa. She argued it was superior to the golden rule if we were to choose just one to guide our treatment of others (luckily, we don’t have to choose just one).

Katie with Evan the night she told me about the platinum rule. South Africa.

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3. The platinum rule

The platinum rule resonates with me because of the humility and curiosity it kindles, but it’s not really about me at all. It asserts you should treat people how they want to be treated. “Wait a second!” it makes me think, “unless I ask you or you show me, maybe I have no idea how you want to be treated, or even wrong ideas.”

Here’s a light-hearted anecdote before things get grim. When my hosts foisted liver on me after my first day cycling in Turkey, it’s the platinum rule that compelled me to choke it down, smiling as my gag reflex kicked in. I suspect we’ve all been in situations like this.

This was distinct from the golden rule, because if I was hosting someone I would not want them to feel obliged to eat food they didn’t like. But when travelling, unless I know otherwise I assume I may offend my host if I don’t eat what is offered.

Although familiar with it in this context, I felt uneasy when the platinum rule was formally stated to me by Katie as A Real Thing. It was easy to focus on situations where applying it led to gross outcomes (for me). If it advocated that I should let someone assault me because they wanted to slake their lust, then no thanks and goodbye forever platinum rule.

A sign advocating for the end of violence against women. Kenya.

Can you see how we’re already getting into awkward territory here, even if wants are set aside and the bar is lowered to basic human needs and rights?

So many humans are forced into situations that hurt them in the process of fulfilling others’ desires. Although we live in a globalized world that’s connected like never before, we often feel disconnected from the people our decisions affect, and therefore unaccountable. When we are connected to them, it’s so tempting to frame our wants as needs and their needs as wants.

It’s easy for me to say that it would be nice if everyone respected everyone else’s needs (at least) and wants (at best) unless doing so hurt the person doing the respecting. It’s far harder to live this, if we even want to try.

Pretty sure he was trying to tell me something that I didn’t listen to. China.

Individual desires are important. I do not believe the world is so utterly zero sum that anyone getting what they want must always trample on someone else to get it. However, I do think it is important to keep in mind overarching structures of power and privilege when parsing our wants from our needs, and then deciding how to fulfill them. This is very relevant in life, in travel, and while photographing people during tourism.

In my experience I’m more likely to feel entitled under “I just had to get that shot” thinking when I’m around certain people and not others. Funny how they are often the ones far down the world’s list of beneficiaries of the platinum rules that rule.

3.1 Imagining Akwi, last name unknown

Maybe it’s a woman named Akwi with a humble (oops, humble in my view) market stall between one town and another whose names she knows and I don’t. Akwi, who might prefer if I use her last name as well, minds her children while selling vegetables at this stall. Maybe she wishes she had better market access enabled through smooth tar roads, more efficient farming through irrigation, and higher yields catalyzed by, say, I’m not a farmer, more pesticides and GM crops.

That she doesn’t have these things as her norm is exactly what makes her a compelling photographic subject for me. Pretty gross the use the word “subject” in this context, actually. Akwi is novel and inspiring—an entrepreneurial working mother (I assume until I catch myself that her husband oppresses her) who reaps what she sows with her hands and then sells it, “against the odds!” I fawn. Maybe I even think I’m doing her a favour by photographing her.

Maybe Akwi just wants me, my camera and my mental travel photography checklist to leave her the hell alone. How’s that for female emancipation?

It is difficult for me to relate to her reaction. What’s the big deal? I want her to see me as an individual, entirely separate from the collective history and present of my culture and people and colour, separate from everything and anything that led to me coming to her stall with my passport, whiteness, privilege, camera, and the rumpled bills that mean nothing to me that nonetheless will buy me plenty of onions with the dirt of her garden still on them.

And yet I want to photograph her not just because I know her (first) name and have been a one-time patron of her stall, but because of what she represents, some sort of simple life ideal that seems romantic and exotic to me because I don’t have to live it day after week after decade.

The platinum rule has me respecting her and the feedback she gives me even when I don’t understand and can’t empathize. In knowing how little I know, the rule has me trying to better understand what she does want and need in this situation, and what my role is—and is not—in that.

As the train pulls away, these three woman from a community near the tracks rush at one more chance to sell their dark honey. Tanzania.

Bani Amor quotes Jamaica Kincaid, who writes:

“Every native would like a rest, every native would like a tour,” Jamaica Kincaid expertly explains in A Small Place, “But some natives—most natives in the world cannot go anywhere. They are too poor to go anywhere. They are too poor to escape the reality of their lives; and they are too poor to live properly in the place where they live, which is the very place you, the tourist, want to go—so when the natives see you, the tourist, they envy your ability to turn their own banality and boredom into a source of pleasure for yourself.”

3.2 The Venn Diagram of everyone’s wants

If there is a bright side, it’s that it can be basically effortless to give others some benefits of the platinum rule while photographing them, even without sacrificing the photographer’s wants. I’ll give an example, even though it would be better to ruminate further on why my photographic wants are as they are in the first place.

I disturbed two women resting in their living room on a hot Gabonese afternoon. The door was open. I wanted to know if there was a place nearby to buy vegetables so we’d have something to cook for dinner that night. No, they said, there was not. They shuffled off to the rear of the house. I didn’t know what was going on. They returned with a few onions and half a green pepper, which they gave to me. I was touched.

I wanted to take their photo. My camera was ready. They protested, but it wasn’t an outright no. Didn’t I understand that they were in their leisure clothes? I hadn’t noticed, I thought they looked nice in what they were wearing. They went inside and changed while I waited. They both came out in dresses that covered their shoulders. Evan took our photo.

I learned what clothing might be considered Gabonese leisure wear. I got their names, which I wrote in a book I’ve now misplaced. Maybe this was some form of success for everyone.

With the Mesdames in their outfits suitable for photography. Gabon.

3.3 We already use the platinum rule

I know people who wouldn’t want to be photographed clothes they see as leisure wear, especially if that was the only photo I’d ever take of them, which I’d then use to represent them to whoever would see my photos. And these are my friends and family, they have to put up with me.

We already use the platinum rule for photographing people we know well. Everyone else on earth is someone we just don’t know well yet.

A classmate doesn’t want their face on Facebook so we omit it when we post albums that we’re excited about (back when we posted albums on Facebook). A friend doesn’t like candid photos, even though we think the ones we take turn out so well, so we don’t photograph them. An acquaintance becomes so uneasy with the idea of their face being photographed at all that it’s only begrudgingly that they let you photograph their hands holding eggs. You think they’re endearingly weird, but you don’t then hide behind a corner and photograph their face anyways, “because you just had to get the shot.”

He did not like photos but agreed to one of his hands. Canada.

No parent I know would want me to post or likely even take a photo of their child with snot dripping down their face, let alone of the child looking miserable and abandoned. And until proven otherwise, beware the person that thinks they care about a child more than the child’s mother. It would be similarly difficult to find people I know that would be alright with photos of their murdered relatives’ dead bodies being published—in the New York Times. And yet this happened a few months ago. Ken Opalo writes:

Underlying the current discussion (and no doubt fueling the expressions of outrage) is, of course, a long history of the Western press being callous about publishing images of dead Africans. And it is in that context that the reaction from Kenyans should be understood.

When we know who we photograph, we oblige and give them the benefit of the platinum rule. No, more, we grow to appreciate knowing them well enough to know what they like and what they don’t, even when what they want is quirky and different or we don’t understand why and disagree. Maybe especially in these cases. It’s like an insider’s secret.

No, most of the people I photograph while travelling won’t come to consider me their friends or family, or vice versa. Why not is a separate, complicated issue. However, many people agree that one touchstone of responsible tourism—now in vogue—is respect. Respect for locals, respect for the environment, respect for culture, respect for children, the list goes on.

But in practice respect is easy to pay lip service to and harder to do well in the diverse contexts that are, after all, a common goal of travel. Who writes the respect rule-book and who grades the tourists’ efforts and their effects after the tourist has moved on?

The platinum rule is one tool that helps me stay curious about what respect actually looks like to different people, and then hopefully use what I’ve learned.

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4. Paying for photos

I’m rarely asked to compensate people for their photo, whether before or—surprise!—after I’ve taken it. This has been true in every place I’ve been a tourist in.

Its absence means that payment ceases to cross our minds as a possibility. When it does happen the scenario catches us off guard, like when this man billed us after insisting Evan dismount his bicycle to mount his horse in Kyrgyzstan so that I could photograph him in this other saddle.

That was early 2016. In the following three years travelling, perhaps ten people have asked me to pay for their photo. This is a small proportion of the thousands of people I’ve met and several hundreds I’ve taken photos of.

To explain the rarity, I have little to say that hasn’t been said before: many people are shockingly generous when they want to be, and most want to be when they’re treated with kindness and respect. I uncommonly ask someone for their photo unless we’re chatted at least a little, often alongside somehow soliciting their services—buying something at their shop, taking a ride on their transport, staying at their accommodation.

If we feel we have agency, we can find all sorts of reasons to be excited about our photo being taken that have nothing to do with financials.

A man with a message for visitors to his home, Lamu Island, Kenya.

But imagine what it feels like to be subjected to hundreds of cameras every day? Even if every single one of their owners first shook your hand, said hello and asked permission—which they don’t—still, how would this not suck?

When I find myself in a place where many people are asking for money to be photographed, my first suspicion is that others before me haven’t treated them how they wanted. Maybe this is a bit of “you’re not in traffic, you ARE traffic thinking,” as I doubt my tourism impact has been all positive.

Then there’s a decision to be made—double down on listening to and speaking with people, probably without a camera. Or go somewhere else, where hopefully we can pass through without leaving our share of ill will there as well.

You’re not in traffic, you are traffic. Uganda.

4.2 Expectation vs expectation

I’ve felt icky after the majority of the few times I’ve paid. Not because I paid, but because I wanted the photo for what the person looked like, not who I’d gotten to know them as—because I saw them more as objects than people.

This was definitely true when I paid three girls for their photo because their Karamojong outfits and sinewy bodies were something “I just couldn’t resist” photographing. I don’t have a good idea of how the experience made them feel—empowered? Objectified? Jaded? Non-plussed? Who knows.

For a fee, these three young women stopped cutting branches off trees and posed for a few photos, in Karamoja, NE Uganda.

The context is important. I felt that if I didn’t get a photo of Karamojong people, my travels through this region of Uganda would count for less.

Had I been motivated by genuine curiosity, we could have asked for permission to sleep in one of the Karamojong enclosures—manyattas—dotting the landscape. There, perhaps we could have had a conversation with a family and asked about their individual attitudes about being photographed.

We did not ask to enter through the thorn bush fences of a Karamojong manyatta in Uganda.

I no longer see photography in the context of money as right or wrong. I used to feel put off or even betrayed or judgemental when someone asked me to pay for their photo. I have found it very helpful to re-frame the interaction as one expectation pitted against another, no more or less than that.

Here is what I mean: I’ve arrived at the interaction with the expectation that our exchange should be authentic based on my definition of authentic (not to mention the pressure to do #authentic things these days whatever the hell that means) and therefore think the moment shouldn’t be cheapened with money, because according to me that makes it inauthentic.

It’s easy to think her sentiment is banal…when you already have lots of money and financial security.

I have probably ingested one too many “the best things in life are free” memes without realizing that this message may ring hollow for many people from less privileged backgrounds.

Your expectation, however, may be that you are rendering a service to me that includes your pose in front of my camera, and perhaps the time you’ve taken to talk with me.

Perhaps you’ve also been persuaded by people of influence in your community and government that tourism is a good thing specifically because it will yield economic benefits for your family. And here I am, yet another stinking rich tightwad.

How confronting it might be to ask different Maasai people what they really think of our presence as tourists. Kenya.

Further, you may also suspect that it’ll be not you but me financially gaining through my tourism, whether through directly selling photos of you or indirectly parlaying them to further my brand and influence until I am cast as a star in my own TV series with accompanying outdoor gear brand and perfume label: “Unwashed Feet, the new scent by MJ, The People Pleasing Bike Traveller.”

And just like I could ask you why you think you should be compensated for your appearance in a photo, you could ask me why I think you shouldn’t be. If you asked me to explain how this was different than paying a model, I wouldn’t have a great rebuttal on hand.

This would probably be a pretty interesting conversation for everyone and would be better over a meal and evening beverage.

I generally demur when people ask me to photograph them for a fee. This means I don’t take the photo. Nonetheless, my reaction to this request has changed. I’m neither insulted nor do I feel taken advantage of. Generally I feel mildly curious—about their attitudes, how they arrived at it, and my reaction to it.

4.3 I recently paid someone for photos

Payment for these photos came about in a different manner, and felt different.

This man stopped his motorcycle to see if we, while cycling, wanted to buy this pangolin from him for our dinner. “Cameroonian Meat!” he effused, meaning beloved food from the Central African forests.

The pangolin’s chocolate-coloured scales made scratching sounds as they caught on the woven plastic bag as he eagerly pulled it out. This took some effort, as the bag was securely strapped onto the back of the motorcycle and the pangolin wasn’t so enthusiastic about its eviction.

His whole attitude gave off an upbeat, slightly frantic energy, perhaps motivated by the likelihood that what he was doing is illegal in Cameroon.

And yet he had no problems with me taking photos. He held the pangolin up, down, upside down, cradled it, all gently while grinning. Neither did he expect anything in return for the photos, even when it quickly became clear we weren’t potential customers. This much was obvious by his body language and attitude, which I had to rely on given we don’t speak much French.

It was entirely our decision to tip him, as a thank you for permitting us a look at what he was excited about—not to mention the confronting experience of seeing a snivelling, terrified pangolin en-route to the guillotine.

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5. Sharing online

Two anecdotes show what I’ve internalized about the relationship between taking photos and then sharing them online. The two had gotten pretty tangled in my head.

Until I wrote what you’re reading, I thought Jodi Ettenberg’s Instagram was defined by beautiful food, architecture and landscape shots because she didn’t take photos of people. Given that she’s thoughtful about what to share and how, maybe she does take photos of people, but often chooses not to post them.

I met Thane just after he’d moved away from Botswana after living there for over two years. He joked about how his Instagram followers might think Botswana has no people. He hadn’t posted photos of the people he’d met there because “they haven’t consented to being shown on social media,” he explained. He was referring not to strangers, but to friends and people he’d now known for years. In his view this closeness did not alone permit him to do whatever he wanted with their photos.

With friends and family, I often agonize over posting their photo. At least with them, I can let them know or ask. Kenya.

I found his handling of consent fascinating and intense, like it was something delicate and sacred (is it not?). Yet again, as with Jodi, I assumed this meant that he didn’t even take any photos of people in the first place.

Maybe it’s me, maybe it’s my generation, but instead of being obvious this felt epiphanic: choosing to ask someone for their photo and the subsequent decision to share it online are two completely separate decisions. Regardless of who is in the photo, regardless of whether they’ll have any way of seeing it.

I think if you can visit with that in mind, that pause, that extra decision-making step, you’re at a decent starting point for a solid photography philosophy in our online world. Teju Cole writes:

“A portrait is an open door. It can remind us of our ethical duty to the other.”

He’s speaking of duties more substantive than Instagram, mostly. And yet, when I read that quote I think of the moments I look at the portraits I’ve taken of people. I think of their names, what I know or remember of their personalities. Sometimes my ethical duty, small as it may be, involves not putting their portrait online based on who I see and connect with in the portrait.


The intersection of consent, photography, tourism and social media could be a fascinating niche for travel writing and photography. Imagine an Instagram account dedicated to sharing the conversations and photographic results (if any!) borne of in-depth conversations about consent in our online lives. These conversations would be reciprocal, as these are universal questions that all of us face, both the tourist and everyone the tourist meets.

I was so affected by Thane’s approach that I gushed to him in an email, vowing that I’d now start a crusade that saw me only photographing people after not only asking them, but discussing with them how exactly I might use their photo.

This hasn’t happened yet.

5.1 Whose lives I share, who reads about them

Ironically, this commitment to be more explicit and conversational while photographing people confronted me with something else I wasn’t doing. I write more than I share photos, but I haven’t been giving many people I write about a chance to see or comment on how I characterize them. Though I’ve started to change this, there remains too little overlap between who I give my website address to and who I write about on said website.

I started thinking about how powerful that would be: writing with the knowledge that the people you write about will see how you characterize them and the snippets of their lives that they’ve showed you. Yikes. Also yikes that this took me years to arrive at.

There I’d be, about to put on my pat-comment-anthropologist hat, “here is a young girl from X tribe, look at her traditional headdress, she is making Y dish for dinner, the typical evening meal that’s loved for Z reason,” and she sees it on my blog and comments “LOL WTF nice museum placard caption, PS we prefer pasta, you want to see real life follow my Snapchat.”

J J, would you say anything different about my blog?! Probably not.

That same accountability can be pursued whether blogging or posting photos on any online platform. Does the person in the photograph have a social media account that can be linked to? Do they want that? Can they be named in part or full? Do they want that?

The other day I started chatting with Vincent, who I hadn’t seen in a year since we attended a party together where we’d taken photos. “I shared your photo on my Facebook,” he said, referring to them. I thought that was so refreshing and important. I really appreciated that he opened the door for a conversation about it.

Here’s Vincent at that party, where he kept me company along with Fatuma, Beatrice, Christine and others who took care to make me feel at home.

Vincent. Kenya.

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6. The other type of sharing

There’s two ways I share photos with the people actually pictured in them. Both have become more interesting—and more complicated—after engaging with them.

The first is perhaps more familiar: passing the device around so everyone can see their likeness on the screen. As quick and low-maintenance as it is, I have managed to frame even this as less than straightforward.

Captured photos look better when viewed through my camera’s electronic view finder instead of the display screen, especially when it’s sunny. But to see you have to go all the way, get your eye really close. This isn’t intuitive. People unaccustomed generally go about 80% of the way, which isn’t enough. When this happens, it is tempting to put my hand on the back of their head and coax the camera towards them with my other hand. “This way, you’ll see, you’ll like it.” But this scenario is too familiar from other contexts. I haven’t asked them if I can touch their head. So I just try to demonstrate myself as best I can.

I like looking at photos of me just as much as the next person…If they do indeed like it. Congo.

There are giggles and hands over mouths in shy excitement. It’s a nice moment. But why do I think that?

The excitement I feel when people—particularly barefoot kids—excitedly look into my camera has been tempered by reading National Geographic’s hindsight assessment of their stereotype-reinforcing coverage. They specifically note their past tendency to feature photos of indigenous people engaging with gadgets brought over by foreigners to photograph them, making a portfolio that generally included photos, much loved by NG’s audience, of indigenous people becoming allegedly enlightened and astounded by seeing said gadgetry for the first time.

Yes, some people have never seen their photo in a camera before, though less frequently than my grandparents’ shelves of old National Geographic magazines would have led me to believe. These magazines helped me form opinions that were hard to shake. The problem with these types of photos is that they’ve been read and continue to be read as a more progressive, intelligent people civilizing the savages.

I still happily pass around my camera so whoever wants to see or use it. But I’ve come to see it as a moment I won’t photograph. What these photos implicitly say—that business as usual is tourists coming and taking photos of local people—is also decreasingly representative of who is photographing who.

Congolese photographers show their work

6.1 Getting photos to people

The other type of sharing lasts longer than a moment, and takes longer too. Every month I spend anywhere from one to several hours sending photos to the people in them. Sometimes it takes me several months to check their names off my list, the type where other items reliably mushroom in place of those checked off.

I do this because at some point during travelling, it dawned on me that I could actually get most people their photos.

Because I have the time. Because for this, the internet is so awesome. Because I’m often asked to send the photo, and want to follow through. Other times it’s me that offers; then I really want to follow through. I do this because I love receiving photos taken by others that I’m in!

Performers in a NYE talent show that I was invited to. Congo.

I also do it because it’s an entirely reasonable thing to do. I’m surprised I’m not asked more often, and wonder why I’m not.

The other day I went jogging, trying to keep some of my fitness during an extended break from cycling. I neared a man walking in the opposite direction. He took off his backpack and rested it on the ground to unzip it and grab his weighty camera while motioning me to stop: “Can I take your photo?” He was a local wedding photographer. The first thing my friend Christine asked when I recounted the moment to her was “well did he give you a copy?”

I send photos by email and Facebook Messenger, but mostly by WhatsApp. They go to the number of who is actually in them, or to that of a cousin, sibling, friend, child; to whoever can receive them. I put the names and numbers into my phone, or into a notebook with the date, in their hand writing or mine. To this I add where I met them so the context won’t slip from memory years later.

Betty cut my hair in 2016. I remember her name because I wrote it down. Kenya.

WhatsApp is a free social media messaging platform that doesn’t use much data, has a global following and can be installed on a wide variety of phones as long as the phones are “smart” enough. It’s a cheap and easy way to send texts, photos, videos and voice messages to individuals or group chats wherever they are in the world.

Whereas my rich-country peers who don’t have it might be eschewing it in favour of Signal, which unlike WhatsApp is not owned by Facebook, elsewhere in the majority world nearly every family I have met has someone with one or more WhatsApp accounts. I’d like to switch to Signal, but WhatsApp’s ubiquity keeps me on it.

Although in each country we get new SIM cards and therefore new numbers, our WhatsApp number generally remains unchanged, like an email address. This is a big advantage.

However, my photo sending is far short of 100% successful!

Malvine had to remind me before I sent him his photos. We’re leaning against his taxi. Cameroon.

Very occasionally people tell me they have WhatsApp and if I don’t add their number immediately and check that it works, I find out too late that their number isn’t registered. I also have this problem sometime with taking a name and being unable to find my new acquaintance on Facebook. By that time we have long cycled away.

Through trial and error, mostly error, I’ve learned that sending photos via MMS (multimedia (picture) text message) rarely works. There’s some registration that me, they, or neither of us have done. So I’ll send a regular SMS, explaining my futile attempts, running it through Google Translate first if necessary.

In response to one such situation, involving a text sent to Adleide, Lena and Julia once I translated it into Portuguese, never got resolved before I left Angola. They didn’t respond, I didn’t get them their photos.

With Adleide, Lena and Julia (I do not remember which is which) while they prepare cake dough. Angola.

Trying in the first place creates the risk of failure. We met a man named Eudry who helped us find a room for the night in Njole, Gabon. He’s an English major in a Francophone country, and was keen to chat. After a long conversation about what time that evening he’d be on WhatsApp and available to receive a photo of us together because his phone would then and only then be the benefactor of intermittent Gabonese electricity, I couldn’t send Eudry his photo because in giving me his WhatsApp number, he’d missed a digit. The end.

With Eudry and Evan. Gabon.

Sometimes I just don’t end up trying. The name on the list never gets checked off, contact with the person is relegated to a someday that never comes.

Even when these photos seem to have made their way through the ether successfully, I don’t always hear back. I care little about the thank you—I think. It’s more that I worry I didn’t reach them. That their names are checked off my list, and I therefore stop thinking about contacting them without having done what I said I would do.

I sound obsessive even to myself. I suspect sending photos is a vehicle for something deeper I yearn for, that it’s just a trojan horse of pixels and read receipts.

I care far more about sending photos than I about do receiving them. A family requests a photo with Anne, Evan’s mom. Zimbabwe.

Maybe it’s my way of making up for lost time, the years of photographing people without even thinking of sending the photos to them. And yet I also think I’m dedicated to sending photos because of the stories I tell myself about myself: that if I’m not careful I can be flaky; that the goals I dream up float away too often.

Sending photos is something I say I’ll do and try hard to do. It takes a little effort. It feels good to succeed. It gives me confidence in myself. It’s about their recipients, and in no small way about me.

Our latest batch of printed photos, for the great staff at Peace House, an NGO and guesthouse. Paul, Solomee and a lady whose name I have forgotten. Cameroon.

It’s also a small way to Make Gifts For People, suggested by Brendon Leonard as a propelling force in creative creation. If I was to sketch someone’s portrait, what would keep me going when faced with perfectionist paralysis would be the thought of giving it to them at the end. I know this about myself. It’s neither the best nor worst motivation. Framing photographing people as making a little gift for them motivates me—both to ask them in the first place, and follow through by getting it to them.

It’s this same hope for eventual sending that has me slowly (so slowly!) going through all the photos in my catalogue and tagging them with who they contain. It is exciting to me to imagine giving someone all the photos I have ever taken of them over years or decades.

Whether or not they’ll see these as worthy of printing, framing, sharing or even looking at repeatedly is a separate consideration. To me its largely irrelevant. Sometimes I give people photos and they can barely disguise their “meh.”

Cristelle, pictured in the patterned dress by the SUV, already had plenty of photos of her and her family up in her shop. Cameroon.

6.2 Drawbacks of this approach

As you might have guessed, one byproduct of my process is that I give my contact information to what feels like A LOT OF PEOPLE. Time to time this marks the start of a conversation between us. Of these people, some I wanted to be in touch with, photos notwithstanding. Others, well…less so.

This side effect grew in magnitude until it reached it apex in Zimbabwe. Here, virtually everyone had WhatsApp, in particular because of the significance of the Zimbabwean diaspora (overseas relations). And we met a lot of people, wonderful people. We often camped at schools where teachers lived full time. A LOT of photos were taken and shared. It felt like every day involved a photoshoot.

Student reps wait for parents to arrive on a visiting day at their boarding school. Zimbabwe.

All these individuals on their own were great, are great, but I came to see their chats as a collective, slightly overwhelming whole when they became frequent and ongoing. I don’t like having frequent instant-message style communication with anyone except a few close friends, and even then only rarely.

It was unrelated that I had to change my WhatsApp number, but it was related that I didn’t make a big effort (any effort) to tell everyone the new one. I told myself that WhatsApp would send out a blanket notification alerting all my contacts to my new number. WhatsApp did not.

I regret this ghosting. The unease with which I viewed my actions as time went on quickened my change of thought. I’ve reframed having a large amount of WhatsApp acquaintances (in addition to my close friends and family on the app) as a way to practice setting boundaries. If I only want their contact so that I can send them photos, I’m clear about that.

Teachers Emilda M. and Passion K. during a fun moment trying out our tent the evening we pitched it at their school. Zimbabwe.

However, I’m somewhat flexible to what others want from our conversation. What begins as a photo exchange sometimes turns into a (consensual!) back and forth between what we have become: digital acquaintances or sometimes even friends…to the extent that WhatsApp pen pals can be friends with each other.

This has happened to me because I let it, because they let it. Sometimes others have driven it and sometimes I’ve been the one pushing more contact and conversation. Giving out my contact and seeing what happens isn’t really a drawback. It has been a mixed bag, skewed towards the awesome and the normal.

One single time I received a pornographic GIF that showed toes tickling testicles, but that’s another story.

I’ve reached out to a few of the people that I WhatsApp ghosted last year. One of them, a teacher named Francis, sent me a photo upon our digital re-acquaintance. It was the same one I’d sent her, us together on a misty morning, minutes before we left their rural school which had been our home for the night in the wet mountains of eastern Zimbabwe.

Elvis, Francis, Me, unknown, and Josephine. Zimbabwe.

My process is inefficient. It would be smoother and quicker to have a single social media account or website gallery to share photos. The latter could even be password protected so that only those depicted could see. These strategies limit human error that plagues exchanging numbers, while also making the decision to exchange numbers more of a separate consideration.

You knew there was a but coming, right? Having WhatsApp is not the same as having full internet access. Right now I’m on a prepaid data plan that includes WhatsApp, but not data. This seems fairly common. Data is available separately, through bundles priced by volume and duration of validity. The price of 500 MB is different if you want it to be valid for an hour, for a few hours late at night, for the daytime, or for a week or a month.

Many African telecom providers offer “Facebook” free—Evan will correct me here and say no, it’s Facebook offering Facebook—but without images and videos. Those cost extra.

WhatsApp included, data balance separate. Kenya.

Our experience in African countries has included both pretty reasonable SIM-based internet prices (Tanzania) and extortionate ones (Zimbabwe). Infrastructure for broadband (router) internet is limited. Wifi is not yet a thing for many people except in certain pockets of relative prosperity, foreign tourism infrastructure, or both.

In Zimbabwe, for example, I paid $15 USD for maybe 400 MB, valid for one month. This stung, but I could easily afford it. At this price, reading websites and loading their images is a luxury out of reach for many Zimbabweans. This means that putting photos on a website or Instagram doesn’t necessarily make them accessible to whose who are in them, even after compressing the file sizes.

Notably, the people who are less likely to have internet access may also be less likely to have photos of themselves, and more likely to be the people we’ve gotten to know by sleeping at their house overnight or chatting together on the roadside in the middle of our nowhere, and their home.

While this home with a solar panel is certainly not representative of how everyone in Zambia lives, charging devices and keeping them charged is a consideration for many, over and above being able to afford internet bundles. Zambia.

So without assuming that I’m only person they know with a camera, or that my photography is great, or that people have never seen their likeness, or that they’re holding their breath waiting for me to bring the only joy possible into their lives, I love sending people their photos. The feedback I’ve gotten has been very positive.

6.3 Printing photos

Lastly, sometimes I print photos. Sometimes I do this because the people in them don’t have WhatsApp or internet, sometimes because I want to give something to say thank you, and sometimes both.

This just requires a USB key and a printing shop. The latter is far easier to find than I expected, an expectation filed under baseless assumption of what wouldn’t be available in African countries. They’re one of those things I didn’t notice until I needed to. I’ve printed photos in Kenya, Uganda, South Africa, Cameroon, Zimbabwe, and probably a few other places I can’t remember now.

In my experience the service is quick: within the day or on the spot. This means we don’t have to be staying in a place for long to do it. I also like that this puts me inside local photo studios, where I can browse samples, check out their tech set up, or see the type of photography they offer their clientele.

A mother and son on display at a photo studio in Nairobi, Kenya.

Call me old fashioned, but I love holding a photo in my hand. Sometimes I turn it into a thank you card — for help, for company, for conversations, for time spent. I write on the back. When I’m at the printing shop I’ll usually also print photos of us, for the same purpose.

As a recovering people pleaser it’s a bit hard for me to hear the requests for more copies, which very occasionally happens when I haven’t printed a copy for every person in a photo of multiple people. I’d add a “but” here if there was one. I hope they understand.

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7. Thinking broadly about success

If the aim is to see and remember a place’s people generally, face-to-face photography is only one of several options. Photography appearing in advertisements and exhibits also capture people in particular moments of their play or work.

Window advertising showing families supermarket shopping. I love this photo because the families seem pretty ordinary despite their carts’ contents being very staged. Kyrgyzstan.

However staged or curated some—not all—of these may be, they provide a different perspective by removing something influential from the equation: What, without trying, I see and don’t see.

Here I’m reminded of this funny essay about Paul Theroux and travel writing generally. It argues that what travel writers produce may say just as much (or more!) about them as about than the place and people they visited.

Similarly, a photo is not objective: Why that photo? Why that subject, at that moment? This is all fine…as long as we keep it in mind when we decide how much weight and attention to give this stuff. As a tourist who writes online about their tourism, sometimes this train of thought makes me want to altogether stop writing and sharing, lest I give too many the impression that what my visit was is the same as what the place is.

But I continue, with renewed humility and an appreciation for photographs of photographs. With them, the lens through which I view the world is somewhat put aside, in favour of images created to communicate a message to the intended audience, often the photographed subject’s fellow citizens.

The two female faces Cuca beer chose to represent beer-drinking (?) women in Angola.

In the case of advertisements, presumably the people in them have already consented to being shown to a large number of people. Dare I believe that sometimes, in some places, some subjects have even been compensated?

Photographing photographs is also sometimes a salve for me. Retreating to this “meta” can be comforting when I feel unsettled, in the hours or days following negative feedback from people who aren’t happy to see my camera.

This photograph of a Ugandan woman wearing a gomesi hangs on the wall. We saw many women in gomesi, but they looked so regal that I was afraid to ask for their photograph! Uganda.

Plus, photographs of photographs aren’t just substitutes for original photography. These mementos that others took the time and effort to print and purchase are something unto themselves. The preparation and posing contained in a photo studio session only exists therein, and in the matte or glossy results.

This boy’s awesome pose seen and photographed at a photo studio in Yaounde, Cameroon.

Sometimes the photo’s existence is itself significant, not a day to day scene but a special occasion or milestone. Not a billboard to nudge consumerism in a particular direction, but a treasured keepsake like Jean-Marie’s portrait from the beginning of a long career in the Congolese military.

A younger Jean-Marie. Congo.

Sometimes it’s exactly a billboard to nudge consumerism or attention in a particular direction.

A multicultural drama, Imbewu: The Seed, advertised on a billboard in South Africa.

But regardless of what coaxed along the existence of photography made without me in mind, it can often offer a different take, a less stereotyped version of a place, something surprising to an outsider but obvious to an insider. Or even surprising, or downright confusing, to an insider, like why this image was chosen for the cover of a book about Canada.

I have no idea. Canada.

Happily, recording these recordings of life by leaning on another’s photography sometimes dovetails with sharing the work of a local photographer, artist or reporter whose efforts may face hurdles that prevent wider recognition if they seek an international audience.

One example is the privilege inherent to even starting a blog to share travel stories and photos (ahem, above and beyond having the means to travel at all). In Tanzania, where I photographed this woman, new policies intended to censor free speech and “discourage obscene behaviour” include mandatory blog registration and prohibitively high fees to do so.

A woman watches a morning scene. Tanzania.

Me and tourists like me aren’t the only ones snapping. High time, then, to use the internet to see more work from photographers from more diverse backgrounds, whether they’re on the road abroad or documenting places and people they’re familiar with. Says Brian Otieno on his reaction to scrolling through the photos available online showing his neighbourhood and neighbours in Nairobi, Kenya:

“They were pictures from Kibera, but only showing the deep, deep poverty…And I was seeing all these other sides that were not like that. So I decided to do stories from home. Here, I can do different stories every day. And they will leave a lasting impression on people’s minds. Home is like my studio.”

Brian Otieno photographs Prince Adrian’s first birthday in Kibera, Nairobi, Kenya. Via the New York Times.

I’m not dogmatic about seeking out photos of people taken only by their fellow people—Rwandans photographed by Rwandans, for example. Outsiders have a role to play. It’s just that without some effort, all I’ll see are records of other places and people taken / shot / captured / composed / planned overwhelmingly by people like me. This monotony of biases and blind spots and photos created by them is simply unrepresentative of not only the diversity of photographers, but also the truths a photo can share.

7.2 Okay but what about the people we actually meet?

Illuminating as these strategies may be, they don’t really help me remember the particular people I’ve met. Memories of their appearance and characteristics tend to fade unless they’re underwritten by something tangible, to clear later fogginess. This too can be approached from different angles.

I used to dream about sketching people. I pursued this once, just from a photo I’d already taken, committing to paper a foreign person’s laugh lines after meeting them while travelling.

Sketching Evan for his 36th birthday. Zambia.

Thinking about this now, it strikes me as a ridiculous and funny undertaking. My armpits would soak with nervousness and fear of offending by rendering their nose too bulbous, their eyes too asymmetrical. But it would probably be lovely, a way to share patience and quiet attention.

Seeking mementos for remembering those we meet can take many compromised forms. Maybe the context was illicit and those concerned are worried about privacy. Their faces are off limits, but other parts might be alright.

Understandably the money changers we exchanged with on the Zambia – Zimbabwe border did not want their identity to be revealed.

A compromise can be a combination. There are times that I already have my camera strap slung over one shoulder, or my iPhone ready, and yet I don’t ask. Like it will break something delicate about the moment. Sometimes in these cases I ask for a photo of a part of them instead. I furnish this with writing about the rest of them.

This is also a litmus test, to gauge willingness for a full-on photoshoot. When I asked these four men pictured below for a photo of their varying footwear, they pointed out how strange it was that I’d leave without a photo of the people those shoes belonged to. Taking their photo became a way of obliging them, instead of them obliging me.

I loved the variety of their shoes. Then, these men offered a variety of poses oozing with cool. Angola.

A camera isn’t even required to underwrite memories. Its absence changes the interaction, and motivates me to write more detailed notes. Audio recordings can also be made, because it’s hard to pay attention and remember all the different sounds in a place’s symphony.

And none of these fully replace attention in the actual moment. Sometimes I feel that my efforts to create a memento of the moment in the moment distract from the moment itself. It’s an ongoing search for an imperfectly perfect balance that lives somewhere between being there and recording it.

When I really ask myself why it’s necessary for me and my camera to be the one creating tangible mementos of the people met, I don’t have a great answer.

7.3 Headshots

I was recently asked by a financial coach for my choice of headshot, to accompany my online review of his services. Even if he’d had personal photos of me or had the choice of many of the photos I post online, I expect he’d have still asked for my input.

How I decided I wanted to be represented. Tanzania.

This is standard practice, because we value having agency over how we’re represented. When looking for a way to remember what someone looks like, why not use the photos they choose to represent themselves?

Sometimes I am lucky enough to get the magic elixir of a person I’ve met holding a photo that they’ve had taken of themselves. Here is Nomsa in her normal clothes holding a photo showing her in her traditional clothes. She hosted us in Swaziland days after it became eSwatini, and she corrected me when I forgot to use the new name, before getting us to help her chop wood for a cooking fire.

Nomsa showing us one of the photographs she has of herself celebrating her culture. eSwatini.

It seems to me that there’s a whole other way available to remember the people we meet while travelling, through the photos they share.

I’m lucky to have gotten Annie’s WhatsApp number after we met in Malawi. I never asked for her photo and because we met at night, it was difficult to cleary see each other’s faces. We’ve kept in touch since, and this is how I have her portrait.

Annie’s portrait. Malawi.

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8. Tips from an amateur

I have some tips. Few are original. They are just the ones that resonate with me.

In 2015 I visited Georgia. There I met a photographer named Sebastian whose beard was dense as a broom. We walked around in the capital, Tbilisi with our cameras.

He gave me just one tip, barely one sentence: get on eye level with people. But as we walked on the cobblestone streets below flats with small curtained windows and paused at corner shops, I watched as he skillfully put people at ease. Perhaps how he managed this was harder to explain, but since that day I’ve at least gotten to eye level. I think it’s an awesome tip.

Sebastian gets maybe lower than this couple’s eye level. Georgia.

Selfies are a popular style that many people on Earth seem to be comfortable with, making them good ice breakers. In Cameroon, where I’m writing this, it’s common to see Huawei, Samsung and Tecno billboards advertising smartphones specifically for their selfie capabilities. From what I’ve seen, these capabilities are definitely put to the test.

Turn those lights down low…and take a selfie. Tanzania.

Selfie style or not, asking someone to appear in a photo with others can feel less intimidating. We appear in a lot of photos with people not because we’re obsessed with our own mugs, but because it seems to put them at ease. It would put me at ease too. It’s often insisted that we join the photo.

Evan’s presence was requested and he did not muster as much personality as they did. Tanzania.

That said, selfies are controversial—especially in the context of selfies with me, foreign tourist, front and centre with lots of kids in a little village somewhere. I’m getting a handle on all the complaints arising from photos like this being put on the internet by reading No White Saviors with my brow almost permanently furrowed while doing so.

Smaller cameras are less intimidating. This can be rephrased as: I haven’t figured out how to make larger cameras less intimidating. Like my strategy with reading books while bike travelling, I want to use whichever strategy will deliver a good result for everyone. That means whatever camera someone will agree to be in front of, and whatever camera I have on hand.

This is Jean at the bus station in Brazzaville, Congo—her eyes make the photo for me, not the lens it was shot with, but who am I kidding, my bigger camera was packed away while waiting for the bus ride.

Jean. Congo.

Smartphone cameras bring an additional harmony to the experience, because of how often we photograph people who are themselves smartphone photographers. Its familiarity levels the playing field.

She pauses him to see if he will take a photo of her with her girls. Kenya.

I used to think my smartphone pictures were just snapshots for friends or visual notes to jog my memory while journaling. They were not for sharing on my blog. I dismissed them as not beautiful enough. I wanted bokeh all day every day! My attitude has softened a little bit over time.

First of all, this is increasingly a false distinction; smartphone cameras can yield amazing photos. Second, I don’t have the need (or want) to develop a coherent photography brand. Anyone waiting around this site for high-quality or consistent photography would have long left or died holding their breath.

Thirdly, when I look at my photos, even the grainy and blurry ones, part of me still wishes I’d pulled out my “real” camera. But most of me is just glad I have the photo.

This gladness begets a desire to share them and the stories behind them, like how Sweya chose to frame her pregnant belly in our selfie as we sat together on a train ride one night in Tanzania.

Sweya and I. Tanzania.

Not everyone wants to smile for photos, regardless of their demeanour before the camera comes into play. I find this an interesting insight into what different people consider an appropriate pose for a photograph. Says Michel in Tomorrow I’ll Be Twenty:

“I don’t like making Caroline laugh, whenever a woman laughs I feel embarrassed for her, I avert my eyes, so she won’t be embarrassed too. A woman looks awful when she laughs, you can see her teeth, and her tongue. Now you shouldn’t just show your teeth or your tongue to just anyone in the street.”

I don’t like being told “give me a smile” but anyone on Earth, including Evan, so I don’t coax others. That said, taking a few different photos can allow the person to show the camera different sides of their personality.

Serious stares punctuated by joviality are what I remember about this Father who hosted us at his boarding school. Zimbabwe.

It’s not obvious to all 7.7 billion of us humans why someone wants their photo. Some people are jaded or downright suspicious about being photographed, whether justified or not. It helps to have a concise—and honest—explanation ready. This can also start a conversation. It’s a thrill and an opening when someone gives me a deadpan “…why?” when I ask permission. Here is Brandon Stanton’s opener:

“Hi. I am an artist. I have an instagram page, where I post photos of people I talk to all over the world. I have over 30 million followers, and I would love to talk to you if you don’t mind, and ask a few questions.”

Once anyone is on board with being photographed, they will generally accept being shuffled around and kept waiting a few seconds as the photographer considers composition and lighting. This can make a huge difference.

Or they can guide the composition.

It takes practice (for us, anyways) to be calm and confident while setting up photos, as opposed to getting nervous and botching the focus of the shot even after taking the time to set up!

The photo our hosts took was better, because we were in focus, and theirs didn’t even involve a tripod. eSwatini.

Practice on the people who have to put up with you. I mean long-suffering friends, family and partners, not children or strangers who glare at you at the market or at the school while being unable to shoo you away!

He’s not totally unclothed. He’s probably also not totally cool with me posting this photo, but at least we can have a conversation about it. Cameroon

If I learned just in time to publish this blog post, it wouldn’t really count: After several months in Francophone African countries, I’m very embarrassed to say I still haven’t learned how ask in French “can I please take your photo?” Can I blame Duolingo, which hasn’t taught me that yet? Probably not…

Be better than me! Learn how to ask properly!

I ask in English when it’s understood, or gesture to the camera—while it remains benignly lowered, not yet raised to my eye—and ask with that ubiquitously understood word, “photo (please in X language)?”

In the following photo, I asked and then didn’t rush to photograph, giving the men who didn’t want to be involved time to walk away. Only Dominic was willing.

With an elderly Gabonese man in a suit and tie named Dominic in Gabon
Dominic agrees to be in a photo with me. Gabon.

Before broaching conversations about taking photos of people, I’ve found that photographing ourselves and the general surroundings can indicate an interest in photography generally. I think this is less intimidating than indicating an immediate, laser focus on photographing whoever is in the space we’ve just entered.

Taking selfies of ourselves at a crowded train station. Tanzania.

I usually have a camera with me, whether or not I expect to use it. Like my beliefs about dating, success is a numbers game in no small way. Talking to no-one new makes it hard to meet someone cool; no camera guarantees no photos.

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9. What matters now

The dating analogy can do a bit more legwork, as it decently summarizes how people and their photos relate in my mind right now. I’ll end here.

When I dated—in the past tense because I’ve been pooping in sight of Evan for years now and he’s not packing his bags— I felt out of touch with the dating goals of some of my peers.

I saw many dates as ends to themselves—not always, but fairly often (I went on a lot of dates). It wasn’t a failure because it didn’t “turn into anything.” Even when things soured or ended before I wanted, even when I was sad or rejected (or both), it didn’t really occur to me to see any of it as wasted time.

It’s rare these days that I’m looking specifically for peoples’ photos. I love photos of people. I want to get better at taking them—and I don’t practice nearly enough. But what I am really looking for are people open to meeting and interacting with me.

If those interactions go alright, then maybe we can make a photo to remember that it happened. Or maybe not. What matters to me is that we met each other.

Cameroon was where I started writing this article. Maybe after all these words you’ll still remember Karen, Dionne and the motorcycle man eating his breakfast in his winter clothes. I’ve left Cameroon now, unlikely ever to return.

There is something about Cameroonian meetings that I had to write down to remember, even if I’d wanted a photo of it. Sometimes as we parted ways, I’d be told by a Cameroonian person that “we are together.”

I doubt I understood the full meaning, but I still thought this expression was awesome.

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10. Further Reading and Looking:

Agnes holds a newspaper showing her working at her produce stall. Kenya.

10.1 Reflections on aid photography, relevant for tourism

Barbie Savior should be required reading for all of us beside ourselves with the purity of giggling children with true, authentic red African soils between their toes, just like us during our explorations of unspoilt lands:

“Even as a young babe, I found myself wishing for an Africa that fully knew the magic of Christmas. And this year? This year is that year. Thanks to your generous donations, we were able to raise $695,431.39 dollars to get this shipping container of snow sent straight to my sleepy village.”

I just had to replace “charities” with “tourists” and “NGOs” with “travel bloggers” to reflect on how useful this advice is and where I fall short:

“There are some points of agreement: Photographers should get the subject’s consent, tell the subject what the image will be used for and provide detailed captions to the organization that will feature the picture. Only then can charities begin to create a more accurate image of countries that many Americans only know through the work of charities and NGOs.”

A selfie with kids seems so fun, easy and effortless. From there it’s a slippery slope to sharing it—and seeing the likes and hearts flow in. Scratch the surface and neither of these decisions are straightforward. A guide:

“And if a child gets excited when they see you pull out your tablet or smartphone and ask to take a photo with you, that doesn’t mean it’s OK to do so. “It’s a cop out to say, well, they want it,” Worrall says. “A child can’t make that kind of decision.”

“Think of how they would view the photo if they found it at 25 years old,” she adds. “How would it make them feel?”

When we are taking photos elsewhere, we often take them with our audience at home in mind. But what do the people we try to represent in our photos think of them?

“One of the most heart-wrenching aspects of the survey was how sad the advertisements made the participants feel, says Girling. He traveled to a focus group taking place in Johannesburg and observed everyone as they looked over the ads for the first time.

“People sat there shaking their heads in silence,” he says. “They felt sad that people in their own countries were suffering, and they didn’t have the ability to help them.”

No White Saviors is another great place to go to hear how locals (in this case, Ugandans) feel about how foreign tourists like me behave when travelling and volunteering in their home and then characterize our experiences and judgements of others. On the “poor but happy” narrative:

“I mean, we are a resilient people, yes, but not one of us is about to turn down better access to healthcare, clean drinking water, education for our children, a roof that doesn’t leak or a home with more than one room…”

Photographers capture a fashion show. Kenya.

10.2 Insights from photographers:

The Camera as Portal:

“The way that’s influenced me as a photographer is that when I’m making portraits of people, I’m aware of what it means to be a subject who’s been objectified as well. So I pay attention to the cultural context in a specific country and their cultural attitudes around the idea of photography. Because even the language of photography is often very imperialist: I’m taking your picture, I’m capturing this image.”

Four essays from Teju Cole’s “On Photography” Column really resonated with me while thinking about my tourism in African countries. I cheered. I reflected uncomfortably. I wondered why it took me so long to come across them:

Portrait of a Lady:

“Something changed when Africans began to take photographs of one another: You can see it in the way they look at the camera, in the poses, the attitude. The difference between the images taken by colonialists or white adventurers and those made for the sitter’s personal use is especially striking in photographs of women.”

On photography as a weapon of imperialism, past and present:

“The women of Kabylia will cover their faces and return to themselves as they wish to be. The oba’s beaded crown will fall back into place, shadowing his face. Photography writes with light, but not everything wants to be seen. Among the human rights is the right to remain obscure, unseen and dark.”

On getting others right:

“But you also sense that this could be you, that these images are not a report on tribal peculiarities but on the workings of human memory. Uncertain about her right to shape the story, Zalcman lets the subjects speak for themselves. This hesitancy is productive: She manages to accomplish quietly forceful reportage from material that could easily have been sensationalized.”

On a too-perfect picture:

“The problem is that the uniqueness of any given country is a mixture not only of its indigenous practices and borrowed customs but also of its past and its present. Any given photograph encloses only a section of the world within its borders. A sequence of photographs, taken over many years and carefully arranged, however, reveals a worldview.”

What the collaborative Everyday Africa Instagram account has become, according to its founders and participants:

“This social media model has hit a nerve. “The Everyday Africa platform on Instagram may very well be the biggest visual library of the continent,” writes Ghanaian photographer Nana Kofi Acquah.

“To task African photographers with the burden of changing how the continent is perceived, might be overwhelming,” writes Acquah; but, he adds, “a picture of the real Africa” is slowly emerging.”

Brian Otieno on the perfectly reasonable advice he gives visitors:

‘Mr. Otieno often welcomes other photographers to Kibera, but suggests they approach it as if they were photographing in their home country. “Just don’t come with this image in mind that shows poverty and no place for growth and development,” he said. “It’s a matter of showing respect.”’

I held the subconscious assumption that all of history’s important events, regardless of where they occurred, had been photographed by photojournalists from western countries. Though this is an ongoing issue, learning about Mohamed Amin shook my assumptions:

“He began learning how to shoot images while still at school, joining the photographic club and developing his photos in a stairwell dark room…During those years, he honed not only his photographic skills, but also his business savvy, selling snaps of school activities and splitting the profits 50/50 with his subjects.”

Many of Alex Reynold’s social media followers are from the countries she photographs and therefore the fellow citizens of the people she depicts. She reflects on their feedback as she shares her thoughts on ethical photography:

“The key is to be respectful and receptive to others’ perspectives, and responsive when you are wrong. I am not perfect in the way I represent places and people, but I do my best to learn from my mistakes, to listen when people come with legitimate critique.”

Here Eleanor Moseman shares photographs of women that she has gotten to know very well, and reflects on the difficulties of faithfully showing who someone else is:

“There is an exoticism that surrounds the magical, and far-flung regions of Tibet. Great explorers have been tramping over these inaccessible and at times hostile lands for centuries to bring home fascinating imagery and tales of magic. Stories and photographs grant us with portraits of “the other” but where is the line between objectification and the true life of these resilient and faithful people?”

Eleanor pursues an answer to that question through her work, found here.

My online friend Daniel Baylis writes about making a friend (Moses), who introduces him to his friend (Mohapi), and they go walking in Khayelitsha, Cape Town, South Africa:

“Mohapi became my translator / goodwill ambassador, enabling me to take portraits of people and capture moments that I would have otherwise deemed too invasive.”

In the years following, Daniel has been celebrating “humans and the multitude of ways that we can exist,” with Portraits of the People.

Phew, you’ve reached the end. Thanks for reading. I’m amazed you’ve made it this far! The photo at the very top of this blog post shows Evan and Sacrifice Simon in a burst of laughter during an afternoon chat in Mlimba, Tanzania.

— Megan


  1. Hi Megan. Thanks for your article and all the thought you put into it and the references. I do a lot of photography in our travels and a fair amount of it is of people. Apart from a very few people pictures that have been published in the Vancouver Sun with a travel article they only get seen by friends, family and very occasionally my photo club group. I do my very best to get permission in advance and show them the photo in the camera but I really like your thoughts around the rule of respect and their perspective on being photographed. I will often talk with them but in a public place this is not always possible. I don’t use WhatsApp but have emailed some pictures or printed them and mailed them. I like your idea of getting them quickly printed locally and given back to the person even if I haven’t had time at home to do the editing that would normally happen. I think that your section on pictures having bias is good and certainly gives pause for thought, particularly in my case when showing them to others who view the slide show as a representation of that country.

    Best wishes,


    1. Hey Neil,

      Really appreciated hearing about how you approach this issue in your own photography of other people, and for pointing out the specific parts of the post that resonated. Thanks. I think with most guidelines we set for ourselves in our lives, we strive to meet them most of the time and you’re right, it’s not always possible. At least it’s never been easier to share photos with people, if we want to do so. You’ve gone to the effort to mail them in the snail mail, that’s amazing!

      I don’t think that we visitors should necessarily stop taking photos and sharing them with the people in our lives, but we can definitely engage with, be influenced by and share the work of creators from a wide range of backgrounds alongside our own documentation, whether that’s on social media or the books we get out at the library. Sorry, long sentence. It’s not any one single voice but a plurality of them that convey the complexities of a place and its people. And just selfishly speaking, I love learning about a place and my fellow humans from many different perspectives.

      Good luck as you continue to be thoughtful in your travels, and as always thanks for reading! Megan


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