In Krakow’s Main Market Square, tourists often fumble over themselves to take pictures of every happening and fountain—while missing the beauty of the entire landscape. And in South Africa’s Kruger National Park, safari-goers crane their necks to photograph every puma leg and giraffe tongue their guide points out, even if, upon inspecting the resulting photos, these “animals” turn out to be oddly shaped tree branches or clumps of grass.
When we travel, we often get so excited to share the journey with others back home and keep our memories sealed inside a photo album that we get lost behind the lens. It’s easy enough to do, simply because there are so many aspects of the culture that are new (to us). But sometimes, tethering yourself to a camera goes against the very reason you travel in the first place—to be present in a new locale.
Here are some tips on how to capture the moment, while still making great (non-photographic) memories to bring back home.
Get Over the Honeymoon Phase
“Did you see that? It’s an elephant on the street! I have to take a picture!” When everything around you is so new and different, it’s easy to get caught up in the exotic and want to consume everything. But before you snap a picture without thinking about it, try to ask yourself, “Why am I taking this photo, and what importance does it have to my travel story?” If you have difficulty captioning it in your head, hold off on the photo. Instead of fretting over getting the perfect shot, just relax and enjoy the moment.
Ask Before Snapping
Imagine a van full of tourists driving through your suburban neighborhood, jumping out of the vehicle, and capturing every mundane angle of your daily life on film. You’re out shoveling snow, and a group of people—speaking a very different language than your own—walks up and starts flashing bulbs in your face.
Tourists in many parts of the world are notorious for snapping pictures without asking, treating villages and communities like a zoo. In the Long Neck Karen Village of Burma, for example, visitors often take photos of women who wear brass rings around their neck, arms, and legs. While it may be difficult for Westerners to understand the tradition (and thus make them want to photograph it), it’s simply part of a way of life for this community.
Always ask first if you can take a picture of a person (or of her children). Try to learn the words for “may I take a picture?” in the local language. In certain tourist areas, people may expect small change in return for a picture—and that’s okay.
Understand Local Customs
In rural areas of Guatemala, snapping a picture of a child can be interpreted as trying to steal his or her soul. In Buddhist countries, it’s disrespectful to sit in the same position as the reclining Buddha for a photo. There are many more traditions and superstitions surrounding photography, so research the cultural customs of the countries you’ll be visiting before you go.
In addition, always consider how your hosts might feel about your actions. Have conversations with the people you take pictures of so they’re the subjects of the photos, rather than the objects in them. Try to build a friendship, and ask them about their daily lives.
Share the Fun
If you have a digital camera, it’s a really nice gesture to find a photo kiosk to print the images and give them to the people whose pictures you’ve taken (rather than just showing them on screen). Photos make great keepsakes for families and children, especially in developing areas where there isn’t easy access to a camera.
Or, if you’ll be traveling in the same area for a while, bring a couple of cheap disposable cameras. That way, you can offer the people who would normally have their pictures taken the opportunity to snap their own, too. This quickly breaks down cultural barriers, and allows the locals to show and tell their own stories about their world, rather than having a foreigner tell the tale for them. Plus, sharing the role of photographer is a fun way to better get to know the people and places you’re visiting.
A Personal Memory Card
Landscapes are beautiful, but your photos will never be the same as actually looking out the window of a bus in Agumbe, India or seeing hundreds of zebras run across the Savannah in Kenya. Will you ever be able to truly remember how you felt when you first saw this landscape later?
If you’re staying in a place for a few days, why not take a moment to relax, journal about the environment, or try your hand at watercolor? You could also write a postcard to yourself to capture how you feel in the area at that moment. Sure, it’s less instantaneous than whipping out your camera, but these intentional memories will probably stick with you even longer than a snapshot.
Next time you take a trip, be considerate and aware of the pictures you snap, and enjoy the adventure. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but newfound stories of friendship, respect, and cultural exchange last a lifetime.
Photos courtesy of Ctwirler12 and Solveig Boergen.
Natalie Jesionka has researched and reported on human rights issues around the world. She lectures on human trafficking, gender and conflict, and human rights at Rutgers University. When she is not teaching, she is traveling and offering tips on how students and professionals can get the most out of their experiences abroad. She also encourages global exploration through her work as Editor of Shatter the Looking Glass, an ethical travel magazine. Natalie is a Paul and Daisy Soros Fellow and served as a 2010 Fulbright Scholar in Thailand.More from this Author