From the field

Photography & Cultural Sensitivity

Tips for how to be a culturally sensitive travel photographer

Traveling with a camera is a great way to meet people, learn about our amazing world and bring home photos that remind you of the journey. If you travel far from home, you're likely to encounter cultures that are very different from your own. Keeping a few basic tips in mind can help you enjoy the experience and take some amazing photos without offending your host community.

Photograph by GLA photographer Xiao Li in Costa Rica

Say Hello!

Almost every interaction you have with local people will be better if you greet them with a smile, say hello and show that you're friendly. In some places, there are different greetings depending on the time of day or night. Often, saying hello is combined with a gesture. For example, the Japanese bow. Thai people clasp their hands together as if in prayer and in the Middle East, they shake hands then touch their hearts. Learning these greetings shows that you have studied and respect the local culture. If you show people that you're trying, most likely, you'll be greeted with smiling faces and open doors.

Photograph by GLA student Ryan Parrilla in India

Ask for Permission

When in doubt, it's always better to ask fpr permission before photographing a person or a religious event. Try pointing to your camera and ask, “OK?” You'll usually get a nod yes, and often people will show you the best place to stand to take your photo. If someone asks you not to take their photo, respect their wishes, thank them and move on. Another scene or person awaits where photography is more appropriate or comfortable. Be thankful for the opportunity to be 100% present at an event that doesn't permit photographs.

Photograph by a GLA student in Peru

Look Around You

When you're photographing something that is exciting and different, it's easy to get absorbed in the moment. Every now and then it's important to remove the camera from your eye and look around. Notice the local people near you. Are they upset with your actions? Are you talking too loudly? Have you walked too close to the action? Are you blocking someone's view of the event? The answers to these questions are usually written on the faces of those around you. Also, removing the camera from your eye will allow you to fully enjoy the scene and maybe even identify a different angle.

Photograph by GLA student Noe Abe in Thailand

Be Respectful

Customs vary widely around the world. Showing respect for those customs is critical! As the traveler, you are the guest in someone else's home, so the rules you typically follow may no longer apply. Realize that you are an ambassador for your home country! If you are rude and disrespectful, you may leave an impression that causes others to think that everyone from your country is rude and disrespectful. Be mindful of your actions, and show an intentional effort to respect your host community.

When traveling, it may be customary to remove your shoes, cover your head or wear clothing that covers your shoulders or legs. It might be considered impolite to eat or pass things with your left hand, show the bottoms of your feet, place your eating utensils a certain way. All around the world people do things differently. It isn't a matter of right or wrong, it's just how people have decided to interact with each other in a polite and considerate way. Try to avoid thinking of it as an inconvenience, and rather, celebrate these cultural differences because they are one of the most fascinating aspects of traveling. If everyone around the world did things in exactly the same way, traveling would be pretty boring—besides, as you know, showing respect for the culture often paves the way to great photo opportunities!