I’ve written about “Ethics in Photography” before, primarily as it relates to the Street Photography genre. The ethics of photographing indigenous people isn’t so very different, except for a possible heightening of sensitivity.
When you’re photographing within your own cultural experience it is more a question of privacy, rather than encroaching upon historical cultural taboos. These taboos can be an almost insurmountable obstacle at times, but they are points of view that need to be well-respected.
Blind Maya Beggar
To do otherwise, is to invite possible catastrophe, and even physical harm (including death) to one’s self. It happens—as more [often ignorant] tourists and travelers access once pristine areas, with so-called primitive populations, the possibility of misunderstandings between cultures becomes a real possibility.
Displaced Maya Girl
San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico
These are not places where you are automatically entitled to push your camera or iPhone into someone’s face to record a memory shot. In many cultures around the world it would be considered a hostile act, subject to immediate and profound [physical] punishment. In your own culture it might result in a verbal confrontation (the risk every street photographer takes), in other cultures it could result in your death or, at the very least, serious injury.
Interior Costa Rica
I have had the privilege of photographing a number of indigenous people around the world: from the various Hmong mountain tribes in Vietnam, to the indigenous Maya throughout southern Mexico, and even the Maleku of central Costa Rica. I call it a privilege, because that’s exactly what it was (and is).
Some general guidelines, based on personal experience, might be in order:
1. ALWAYS be respectful. It is their culture, not your culture. You don’t have to agree with everything you see or hear, but keep it to yourself.
2. ALWAYS ask for permission. This one isn’t always easy, and I’ve broken this rule any number of times—but always with good intentions (and a willingness to take full responsibility for my actions and the risk it might incur). If a person cannot be easily recognized, or is in a crowd, or has their back turned, I may take the risk. Also, I am a photojournalist and I have a responsibility (almost a duty) to document what I see around me.
3. Use a LOCAL guide whenever possible. They can take you to places you could never access on your own, and they can help you avoid any possible misunderstandings that might occur. They know the language, and they KNOW the culture. Like shooting wildlife, a good guide in this situation is worth his/her weight in gold. Trust me on this.
4. Be willing to pay. Typically these people are not rich in a monetary sense, even if they are very rich in a cultural sense. Many of my fellow professional photographers, sad to say, are unwilling to pay a small fee to photograph these rapidly vanishing cultures. Shame on them. Their excuse: it promotes beggar-ism. Bullshit. By paying, you sometimes lose the opportunity of a great candid shot, but just as often you are rewarded with a truly spectacular shot—it all evens out.
5. Be gracious, be polite, be generous and smile a lot. Say “please,” say “thank you” and say “I’m sorry” if you blunder. Don’t patronize. Respect and learn from the culture you’re interacting with, many of these cultures are much, much older than your own.
6. Share the photos you just took—let your subjects see the digital image(s) you recorded (they don’t have to be perfect). I shoot RAW files (no in-camera editing), so the images I share look pretty flat (before I RAW convert and post-edit)—they don’t care, they just enjoy seeing them.
Not all of your photos will be pretty-pretty, there is a lot of grittiness in this ole world. Everyplace has its underbelly. If you’ve got the guts, and the stomach for it, you can get some amazing shots.
The above photograph, Alcoholics in a Doorway, was an opportunity (as a photojournalist) to document a worldwide social problem: Homelessness. I did not ask permission before taking this shot; the subjects were unrecognizable, and it documents a very real social problem. My intention was not exploitation, but rather education.
Homeless in Granada
Homelessness is rarely due to a lack of money; often as not it results from mental instability, drug and alcohol abuse. Per capita the U.S.A. is one of the richest countries in the world (monetarily), and yet it suffers from one of the highest rates of homelessness. Unfortunately, I find in my travels, that there is often a disproportionate amount of substance abuse amongst the indigenous.
Stephen F. Dennstedt
Photographer, Writer and World Traveler
Reporting from Matapalo Samara, Cost Rica . . .