I was sitting in the passenger seat, being driven through Mazabuka, a town in Zambia’s Southern Province. As I watched the road disappear behind me in the wing mirror, a face appeared. It was a young boy who had hopped on the back of our jeep to get a lift to school. We made eye contact. He grinned and I snapped his photo.
When I was 12 I stood in the middle of my hometown in Ireland chatting with my friends. A tourist from the U.S approached us with her camera. She asked could she take a photo of us in our “cute little uniforms.” I called her a weirdo, walked away and told my parents. They were disgusted and told me I did the right thing.
While visiting a school in Zambia, children crowded around me, posing. The principal asked why I was not taking any photos- “all whites take photos.” Eventually he took my phone and directed me into a photo with about 20 children I had never met before. I still have the photo, but cringe every time I come across it.
Related: Volunteering in Mazabuka, Zambia
These three stories tell of different perspectives and attitudes to taking photos of children when travelling.
While most countries do not have laws against photographing children in a public place, the question of ethics hangs in the air. With adults, the general rule of photography is that you don’t have to ask permission, but you should. In general, we end up with better photographs. Subjects are more relaxed and we might even end up making a new friend or learning a bit about their lives.
When taking photos of children when travelling, however, we don’t always know whose consent, if any, should be obtained. When travelling in some parts of East Africa, for example, I have seen children crowding around tourists, posing for photos. If their parents aren’t nearby, tourists don’t seek them out to ask permission. The children enjoy having their photos taken. The tourists enjoy taking the photos. So what’s the issue?
Here is where the issue of photographing children becomes problematic for me. As a teacher, I tend to view things through my ‘child-protection’ lens. I’m not trying to ruin your fun, or limit your possibilities as a photographer, I promise. Instead, I’m going to attempt to lay out my issues with photographing children in a way that is as non-judgemental as possible (although if your Facebook profiler is you with a bunch of African kids, with the caption “so humbling,” I beg you, please, change it. Take your pick- pensive gaze into the distance, cocktails on the beach, a picture of your cat, anything!)
I believe that most people take these photos because they don’t stop and think about what they’re actually doing, which is taking a photo of a random child away from their parents and putting it on the internet. (On that note, never offer children sweets or money in exchange for photos. It can encourage begging and early school leaving.) I’m going to try to lift my ‘teacher lens’ a little, and address some of the main questions I ask myself when taking photos of children while travelling.
Would I take this photo if it was a child in your home country?
To me, this is the most important question to ask. Would you approach a group of children playing on the street and take photos of them in your normal, everyday life?
The children you meet when travelling are living their normal, everyday lives. It is us travellers who are out of place. We might be walking around filled with wonder at our new surroundings, but most people are just living their day to day lives. We should respect that.
What would happen if I took photos of children playing on the street in Ireland, without their parents permission? I would be reported, shamed and regarded as a general weirdo at best.
If you wouldn’t change your profiler to a selfie with random kids from your own neighbourhood, you probably shouldn’t be doing it with kids from your travels.
Have I asked permission?
The thing is, some parents will be happy for you to photograph their children. Particularly if you want more than just a poorly composed selfie. Especially if you offer to send them a print.
The only time I have ever taken a township or ‘village’ type tour was in the historical Soweto township in South Africa. At the beginning of the tour our guide asked that we take ‘responsible photos.’ This obviously meant different things to different people. For the duration of the tour, 2 Dutch girls ignored the guides historical information about Nelson Mandela’s birthplace. Instead they spent the entire tour snapping photos of any child that crossed our path.
Finally, a woman stopped them in the act and asked “do you want to take photos of my family?” Taken aback, the two girls mumbled that they thought her children were cute so wanted a photo of them. “Well at least let me clean them up!” the woman replied. In that one sentence the woman highlighted everything that was wrong with what the girls were doing. They hadn’t asked permission, assuming that they were somehow entitled to a photo of someone else’s child.
Asking permission shows respect.
To me the interaction in Soweto highlighted two important things.
The first being that asking permission shows respect for the agency of the people involved. In their haste to have a bank of photos of black African children to show their friends back home, the two girls had neglected to actually interact with a single person in Soweto. They seemed to have separated the subject of their photographs with reality, caring more about the image than the person.
The second is a question of pride, privacy and race. There seems to be a perception out there that poor people and black people are less deserving of privacy. If you wouldn’t take a photo of a middle class white child in Camps Bay, don’t take one of a poorer black child in a township. (On a side note: this video perfectly highlights everything that is wrong with the majority of township tours.)
Of course there are exceptions and scenarios where taking photos of children when travelling won’t be an issue. Do I regret taking the photo of the Zambian boy on the back of the jeep? No. But I won’t be putting it online. Should I have refused the school principal’s request for photos? This is harder – maybe I would have caused offence or maybe I could have broken a cycle of white people who are only there for a photo op, maybe I could have explained that back home I would never allow a stranger to take photos with my pupils so I didn’t feel comfortable doing it there. In the end my Irish politeness took over while I hovered uncomfortably. It’s important to remember that some school’s and orphanages will allow you to take photographs if it means a continuing stream of donations. Permission doesn’t always mean it’s the right thing to do.
My experience comes mostly from travel in East and Southern Africa. However, we see this repeated in poorer countries the world over. When we talk about travel and privilege, we should also be talking about how this extends to our ability to document our experiences. Truly creative photography should shatter stereotypes, not perpetuate them.
Join the conversation. This is an opinion piece based on my work as a teacher in Ireland, as a course coordinator in Zambia and as a traveller in East and Southern Africa. Do you agree? Do you take photos of children when travelling? I would love to hear your thoughts on this. Comment below or pin for later!