Your Next Big Trip

The Ethics of Travel Photography: Should we take photos of children?

Taking photos of children when travelling

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.

Taking Photos of Children when Travelling

A general child protection rule is that children shouldn’t be identifiable if they are alone in a photo.

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.

Get creative with your photographs. They will tell more of a story than a poorly thought out selfie.

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 (admittedly adorable) black African children, 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 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? Probably not, but 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. It doesn’t make it right.

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 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!

Taking photos of children when travelling

 

64 thoughts on “The Ethics of Travel Photography: Should we take photos of children?

  1. Kat

    this is a difficult topic. I always ask for permission even when photographing adults, especially if it´s upclose. I did take lots of photos of kids in Uganda for expample but we really spend time with them and played every day with them during our month long project with local schools. They were kind of our friends for the time and sooo happy to be in the photos.

    Since then, I am a mom myself and have experienced this whole thing the other way around. Now during our travels I am constanty confronted with locals wanting to take a photo with our son (he´s blond which is probably why they find him so interesting). In Morocco they also kissed & touched him ´while doing selfies which I obviously found a bit too much. Not to mention every Japanese tourist wants him on a group photo, kind of funny 😉 I usually let them, unless it would be on a beach with swimsuits.

    But yes, as you say, this would have been considered very strange behaviour if we were in Europe, I would probably never let anyone take a photo of our son here and i would also not take a photo of other kids just like that..

    Coming from a mother – i feel it is very important to ask for permission, you may even get a nice chat with the parents out of it and the shots might be better because you don´t have to hide your camera and snap a photo while noone is loolking.

    1. Cliodhna Post author

      Thanks Kat, you’ve made some great points. I think permission is key to everything here. It shows respect for the child and respect for the parent. As you’ve pointed out, we get better photos too. There’s nothing worse than a photo taken “hidden camera” style. Asking permission opens up dialogue and will leave you with a much more positive memory at the end of the interaction.

  2. Megan Johnson

    This was a good read! I always questioned taking pictures of kids. When I was in Ecuador for a photography class, we went and played soccer with a bunch of local kids. After the game we all had our cameras out and let the kids use them to take pictures of each other and us. It was cool too see all of them after. I felt a little weird taking their pictures myself, so I didn’t take many.

    I agree with all the points you made in this, especially if you wouldn’t do it at home, don’t do it. Very well written!

    1. Cliodhna Post author

      Thank you Megan! I love the idea of giving children the cameras. I did this once in the class I teach and the photos were 100 times better than anything I could have taken. I think lots of children become quite awkward around adults taking photos.

  3. Cherene Saradar

    Really interesting debate and you really covered many good aspects of this in a very thoughtful way. I tend to only ask permission for adults (but mostly I find it’s an adult dressed a certain way wanting pics and expecting a tip) but with children it does become very sticky. I admit in the past I didn’t think about it too much as I should have. I recently spent a week at a refugee camp and really got to know the families and children so I had permission to take photos. I really wanted to write about it and bring attention to the problem so I did use those photos. I still wonder if it was ok to do so.

    1. Cliodhna Post author

      I think the purpose of the photo is important. In your case, you were using it to tell a story and highlight a very important, under reported issue. If I were in your shoes I would probably do the same thing.

  4. Nuraini

    I agree. I think it shows a lack of respect for another human being’s agency. As if they lose their agency by being poorer than you, or a different race.
    It may be more ok in some cultures more than others, but the common yardstick here is to respect someone else’s agency and authority over their dependents and therefore not make decisions about them like they are things.

    1. Cliodhna Post author

      Great point Nuraini. It’s really about remembering that the people we are photographing are living, breathing, thinking people and not subjects.

  5. Alex

    Wholeheartedly agree with the last line! Photos of poverty and children in poverty have their time and place, usually with professional photographers with a specific project or intent in mind. (Though they are often invasive, too!) The photos travelers take should capture the essence of daily life, and come on—most of the kids you’ll meet as a traveler are happy and energetic, not listless and depressed. Don’t make them look that way, especially not to further your own narrative.

    However, I don’t see the harm in taking kids’ photos as long as there’s permission and you take the time to show the photos afterwards. If a parent gets mad, just delete them or stop. Perhaps I’m a bit lax at this point, though — I’ve had so many people stop to take my photo both with and without my permission while traveling, I really couldn’t give a damn anymore 😛

    Europe is a bit different, it’s true, but I think that’s more a matter of people needing to think about their weird double standards, as I’m sure most European travelers would have no qualms with taking photos of people and children abroad.

    1. Cliodhna Post author

      Thanks Alex, it’s interesting to get another perspective on it. There’s definitely a weird double standard at play where children in other countries are seen as “other” and so not treated in the same way for some reason.
      I think respect is key, particularly in affording parents in other countries the respect we would give at home by asking their permission to photograph their child.

  6. Nicole

    This is a very controversial topic. I usually steer away from taking photos of strangers, young and old, when I travel (unless is an overview photo of my surroundings) because I think about how uncomfortable I feel when I go to Asia and people gawk and point their phones at me because they never seen a black person before.

    1. Cliodhna Post author

      My friends had a similar experience in Asia because they’re so pale. I think there are very few places where white people experience this so for many it can be hard to see what the issue is. My general guideline is, if I wouldn’t like someone doing it to me, I shouldn’t do it to them!

  7. Jennifer Schlueter

    Haha, I cringe at the photos of someone among a bunch of African children, also. Especially, if he/she didn’t know them…
    For me, it’s also ok to take picture only after asking permission and even getting to know the people beforehand. Like you said, these pictures will turn out much better. Even though you may have to miss a “shot in the moment.” And asking leaves me feeling much better than just snapping away!

  8. Hendrik

    Important topic and well written with the right questions and arguments! I have a clear opinion – never take random photos of other people, especially not children, but adults as well.
    I agree, I also think that most people simply don’t even think about what they are doing or ask themselves how they would feel in such situation… this is maybe the main problem. And very often it happens then, that just because all the others are doing it, it must be legit and ok, even though it is not. Always ask for permission, especially when you share later on blogs.

    1. Cliodhna Post author

      I agree, I also refrain from taking photos of adults unless I have their permission. I would be horrified if someone did it to me, especially if I came across it on a blog or social media!

  9. Louiela

    Thanks for bringing this topic. I’m not a pro in taking photos but I love taking random point and shoot photos. And yes, we come across cute and innocent children that we would like to capture some moments.

    But working here in UAE for 6 years, I’ve learned my greatest lesson in taking photos here. It is a big NO-NO. It might even be filed as a police case. So for me,I always ask permission.

    1. Cliodhna Post author

      That’s so interesting. I never knew that about the UAE. It’s definitely important to be aware of the culture and laws of the country we are travelling in.

  10. Jenn and Ed Coleman

    This was a very good read. We have been wanting to expand the breadth of our photography (away from primarily landscapes) and it seems like people crave the human side of traveling. We are looking for ethical and reasonable ways to do this. Your self test – would I take this picture at home – is a powerful tool and one we will be using in the future.

    1. Cliodhna Post author

      Thank you! I’m glad you’ve found this helpful. Working in education, I felt for a while that I couldn’t share some of my more meaningful experiences when working with children overseas. However, if anything I have learned to become more creative in taking photos. I know that if I do publish a photo of a child in the future, I will have a very good reason for it.

  11. Mel

    This is such an important conversation. Kids do make super cute photos, but that’s not what they are here for. I agree, you have to get permission first. I post photos of my kids all the time, but if anyone else wanted to, I would need them to ask first, and I’d want to know exactly where they would end up. Thanks for bringing this up.

    1. Cliodhna Post author

      “But that’s not what they are here for.” Mel, I think you’ve just summed up what I wanted to say in that one sentence. Sometimes we need to let children be children. I know my childhood would certainly have been different if it was documented by random strangers every time a tour group passed by. It’s worth putting ourselves in their shoes.

  12. Lauren

    This is super interesting and something I feel conflicted about too. I try to steer clear of taking photos of people full stop, and especially children. The simple reason is if someone took a photo of me to share on the internet, I’d be freaked out! If I do have photos of people, I try to make sure they’re part of a group shot, ‘telling a story’ as you say, or unidentifiable. Loved your post!

  13. Janine Good

    Pics of children is a topic that will bring in opinions from every side. I agree with you about the fact that few would take photos of kids in their home country. Plus I think if you wanted to take photos, unidentifiable ones can convey your message just as much as if you had their full face. The photo of the child in the blue sweater is gorgeous even though we don’t see his face. Great post on something quite important this day and age.

    1. Cliodhna Post author

      Thanks Janine! It’s something I’ve been thinking about for quite a while (years even!) so it’s been great to hear so many opinions on the topic.

  14. Punita Malhotra

    I must admit I have never thought of it in this light…but your post makes me debate the point in my mind now. Whenever I have taken a picture of any stranger, adult or child, its always been for me to capture the memory, but if I imagine someone taking my picture, I would cringe, even get angry. As humans we tend to do conflicting things sometimes.

    1. Cliodhna Post author

      I agree Punita, sometimes our actions aren’t consistent with our beliefs! I also think that sometimes there is nothing wrong with capturing a moment for yourself. It’s when people start using those moments for likes and follows that it starts to become more problematic for me.

  15. Sibéal

    Interesting article. I have photographed kids in different places (in Ireland too) but I am careful of how I use them. You make a lot of valid points – especially in terms of white tourist exploitation or treating real people like they are something in a zoo. Where I am now I sometimes end up in tourists’ holiday pictures and depending on the person I can feel like that! But definitly in places where I have been asked for money or sweets in exchange I don’t. One of my favourite pictures from Cuba was when an entire school ran out as we were driving down the road shouting and waving (it wasn’t really on the tourist map obviously) or from Nunavut the kids hanging around the piers. But we always interacted with them, showed them the photos, let them use the camera. But the bottom line is respect and showing the person, every person, respect.

    1. Cliodhna Post author

      That sounds like a fantastic moment to photograph! I think you’ve hit the nail on the head- respect is crucial.

  16. Rosie Benton

    This was a really interesting read – I’m always super cautious about taking photos of children, it makes me feel uneasy. We teach english in Korea and everyone is constantly taking photos of the kids to send to their parents, so different to the UK where a teacher’s mobile phones aren’t even allowed in the classroom!

    1. Cliodhna Post author

      I’ve noticed that with teachers I trained with who are now teaching abroad. Many of them have photos of their students on Facebook when they wouldn’t dream of doing that in Ireland!

  17. Getty

    Growing up in Congo, I can say that most parents do not want their children’s photos taken without permission. All those kids lining up for photos is because when foreign come that’s what they do, take photos of them.
    I don’t understand the whole take photos with “poor children” trend… Anyways, great article! ❤

    1. Cliodhna Post author

      Thank you so much for your response. You’ve made an excellent point. It is disheartening that kids have come to expect foreign people to behave in that way. It makes it easier for people to justify their behaviour as they can say “the kids were lining up, they wanted the photos!” but what do the children or their families gain from the encounter? Very little in my experience. Thank you for reading and giving your experience.

  18. Global Girl Travels

    Kudos to you for touching on this topic. To be honest, most of us travelers probably would not make a big deal out of it. But now that you brought it up, it has raised a lot of questions that I think is only ethical to address. We do feature a lot of portraits on our blog (adults and children alike), but like you said I think it is only fair to ask permission. You cannot assume that while it is accepted in one country that it will be the same for all.

    1. Cliodhna Post author

      That’s a really important point. Some countries or cultures have very strict ideals about taking photos. For example, my friend who is Muslim will share pictures of herself with me privately but would always request that I don’t share any of our photos publicly or show them to people she doesn’t know. I think it’s only fair that we give people we encounter when travelling the opportunity to decline as well.

  19. Kassie

    This is an interesting debate! I have taken many photos of children, most with permission but some in the moment like you did with the boy on the Jeep. However I’ve never shared a photo of a child online without permission!

    I totally agree with the need to respect the privacy and also the safety of the children because as you said taking their photo can encourage behavior that isn’t good for their schooling.

    I’ve been on the other side of the camera from tourists and it’s a weird feeling. It’s definitely an interesting topic that should be brought up more often!

    1. Cliodhna Post author

      For me, posting online is where I really draw the line. Sometimes there can be nothing wrong with a spontaneous photo and children often love being shown photos of themselves. It’s when we try to use that child to gain likes or follows that the encounter becomes exploitative in my eyes.

  20. Juliette | Snorkels to Snow

    Such a great topic to have some open discussion about. There is something about photographing children that seems ‘cute’ and often because they can seem so carefree and unaware of the adult world. But then when you think about it, it’s also a bit creepy. I would love to photograph more people but even adults I feel a bit hesitant about randomly snapping as if I’m turning them into an exhibition, especially in travel situations when those subjects are clearly less fortunate than ourselves.
    Interestingly though, these days I never post any photos of my nieces or nephews or other children unless the parents are okay with it. When I was younger I probably wouldn’t have thought twice.

    1. Cliodhna Post author

      Thanks for your input Juliette. You make some really interesting points. I’m not sure if there’s anything inherently ‘creepy’ in taking photos of children but it does highlight that we need to be careful what we do with those photos so that nothing ‘creepy’ comes of it. I haven’t taken many photos of people even though in some cases, I would love to. The Digital Photography School do some great guides on how to approach people to get a natural, consented portrait when travelling. I read it a long time ago but I will try find the link to post it here.

  21. Kallsy

    These are some excellent thoughts! Recently on a trip we had some kids begging to take photos with us so we asked their parents permission. They agreed and we posted the photo without thinking (granted, the parents did give permission). But I agree that the general idea of “would I take this photo if I was in my home country” should apply. Most schools in the US don’t allow you to take photos of children to post unless the parents have signed permission.

    1. Cliodhna Post author

      You definitely did the right thing by asking the parents’ permission. There are some situations where it would be rude not to take a photo, particularly if the parents ask you to!

  22. The Travel Ninjas

    Thanks for this provoking post. Asking permission is so important and the decent thing to do for sure. In the situations you described, it certainly seemed exploitative. How do you feel about tourist attractions where everyone (including kids) are taking photos of each other and the attraction? Sometimes its just unavoidable to get photos of kids. We don’t want them in the photo but there is often too many people (including kids) around.

    1. Cliodhna Post author

      I think the situation you describe is different as the children aren’t the focus of the photo, rather, they just happen to be there. I suppose I was writing this from my recent experience in Southern Africa where tourists regularly crowd around children taking photos where the children are the complete focus. For me this is where it becomes exploitative rather than just a natural situation where there happen to be children in your shot. I’ll be honest, I don’t fully know the answer to my own question so thank you for your response. You’ve made me think some more!

  23. Carmen Baguio

    This is a great post and should be as just of a concern as the overuse of animals for perfect “look at me with an elephant” pics. As a teacher of 6th graders, I completely understand feeling very protective of children everywhere.

  24. Sara Broers

    We actually talked about this at our local social media breakfast club yesterday. I do believe everyone is trying to figure out where the line is. Respect and asking for permission seem to be the smart way to go about this. It can be hard to get a photo of a popular tourist attraction without kids in it, there in lies the challenge. Great post and one that makes a photographer or traveler think.

    1. Cliodhna Post author

      I’m so glad to hear that other people are talking about this issue. For me the line is whether the children are the focus of the picture or just happen to be there. It’s been so enlightening to hear different people’s views on this as it’s made me think even more about what I consider acceptable.

  25. Ana Rose | Roads and Pages

    This topic is unique among the travel blogs that I have read. I have never experienced taking photos of people, though. If there will be a child on my photo, it was not intentional. It is unavoidable also to have some childrens on the background most especially when we visited Disneyland. My boyfriend and I just love to take photos of us together in a different country. Aside from that, we also love taking photos of those different tourist attractions.

    1. Cliodhna Post author

      I think there’s definitely a difference when taking a photo with a child in the background. As you mentioned, it is unavoidable in many cases. I was thinking more of close up shots of children where they are the main focus. I definitely wouldn’t worry if you and your boyfriend are the focus 🙂

  26. Ellis

    Great post with very relevant issues every traveller should think about. Last November I visited a project with day care centers for children. The NGO now purposefully only allows donors and visitors to see the projects in the evening after the children left to maintain the childrens privacy and prevent pictures. I was really impressed by this attitude as a lot of the times such pictures are encouraged to keep the money coming in. Which indeed doesnt make it right.

    1. Cliodhna Post author

      That sounds like an excellent policy. Well done to the NGO for taking a stand as I know it’s not easy for them to refuse visitors with loaded pockets! I’m delighted to hear that some organisations take this seriously.

  27. Danni Lawson

    A really interesting perspective that made me question my own attitudes on this subject. I used to work with children in the Czech Republic and kids there were desperate for photos with all their craft projects – but no parents around to ask permission. This raises a lot of interesting questions.

    1. Cliodhna Post author

      It’s definitely a tough one. As a teacher I witness really special, sweet moments between children. I often wish I had a camera to capture them but unless I would be using them for official school business, it’s not allowed. That being said, I rarely look back and regret not taking a photo. Particularly if I don’t know the children, I don’t think I’d want a photo of someone else’s children in years to come.

  28. Ivy

    I agree 100%. More people should think before they click. Unless the photographer is taking pictures of children he/she actually knows AND has received consent from the child’s guardian, I don’t think it’s ever okay to snap pics of kids. Or of strangers, period. I wouldn’t want someone else taking a picture of me without my permission so why does it make it okay the other way around? Thanks for bringing awareness to this issue.

    1. Cliodhna Post author

      That’s my thought process on it too. I would be horrified if I caught someone taking a photo of me without my permission! Thanks for reading 🙂

    2. Cliodhna Post author

      Thanks Ivy, I feel the same. If it’s not ok with me or children I know, then it’s not ok with a stranger.

  29. Stephanie Frias

    I was prepared to full heartedly disagree with this post, but instead I completely agree with what you are saying. I love to photograph people and children, but there is definitely a hesitation point that I have learned to listen to. A good conscious comes into play here. If it doesn’t feel appropriate, it probably isn’t.

    1. Cliodhna Post author

      I totally agree. There is definitely a fine line that we should become sensitive to. I like your idea that if it doesn’t feel appropriate, it probably isn’t. I think that can apply to many different situations when travelling.

  30. Maggie

    This is a tough topic – I’ve been that person who snapped photos of a child without even thinking. We were at a traditional Austrian May Day festival and he was wearing such a cute little traditional Austrian outfit that I didn’t even think twice. Looking back, I’m slightly horrified! Thanks for tackling something so tough and delivering it so beautifully!

    1. Cliodhna Post author

      I think it’s an issue that’s not black and white. Sometimes we get caught up in the moment and it doesn’t mean there’s anything sinister in our motives. I suppose it’s what we do with that photo or why we took it that’s important!

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