Thursday, October 2, 2014

how to be an awkward but not rude travel photographer

I live in a truly spectacular place.
So I like to get out and experience it and explore it.
I am also really into photography and have a crush on my Canon.
So I want to capture these experiences and explorations in photographs too.
But sometimes it's hard to tell where the line is between what is just awkward and what is rude in regards to taking pictures while traveling.
Because locals stare at me all the time, regardless of whether I am scooting to work in the morning or jogging down the street or grocery shopping or ordering a Starbucks coffee or eating out at a restaurant or crouched down taking a picture of something.
My goal as a photographer is to make sure the stares are simple hey-there-is-a-foreigner stares and not what-a-jerk stares.
For example, my friend and I went on a little temple-hopping, photo taking adventure last week.
We drove our scooters around downtown Hsinchu and poked around three different temples, one small, one big yet abandoned and one huge + highly populated. 
And we both wondered: how do we do this the right way?
This being taking pictures of the temples we explored. 
Taiwan is unlike Thailand or Indonesia concerning temple etiquette or even tourism.
No signs outside of the entrances state the rules for how to properly behave in a temple.
Further, I am pretty sure we are some of the only westerners in Hsinchu so locals are not accustomed to foreigners coming around to snap photos. 
I've searched the web for Taiwan temple etiquette but nothing really useful or definitive pops up.
So rather than feel like I cannot proceed with my photographic explorations of something as iconic as Taiwan's temples, I simply proceed with my common sense.
This is how I stay in the realm of awkward-foreign-girl-taking-pictures rather than rude-American-girl-taking-pictures.

ask for permission
I don't speak Mandarin beyond a few survival phrases, none of which have to do with taking pictures. But I don't actually need any words to ask locals for permission. Before I take photos of certain things, for example a night market stall or people, I make eye contact and motion to my camera. Every single time so far, I get an overwhelming positive response. Most people seem ecstatic that I would find their fruit stall or even themselves photo worthy. This simple gesture lets people know I actually care about their feelings and allows me to snap as many pictures as I want without feeling awkward or guilty. Last week, if someone was at the temple we wanted to enter, we simply asked for permission before just walking inside and taking pictures. 
notice what locals are doing and respect it
This is pretty much how I get by day to day for far more than just figuring out how to be respectful while taking pictures. This is how I learned the rules of the road while driving my scooter and this is how I learned how to get business done in the post office. This is very useful when trying to navigate what is appropriate and inappropriate in regards to taking photos. After living in Taiwan for more than two years, I know that a proper dress code for anything does not exist so I don't cover up to visit a temple like I would in Thailand or Indonesia. Women here visit temples wearing shorts that are reflective of my underwear, just to give you an idea. Further, I pay attention to rooms that people don't go in at a temple so I don't either. If I notice they don't touch something, then I don't either. If something is obviously revered, I may just leave it alone. The simple action of paying attention to local behavior allows me to feel confident that I am not doing anything offensive while snapping photos.
put yourself in their shoes
I don't feel bad going into a temple and taking photos despite the fact they are well used by locals. Do I feel a little awkward? Sure. But that's not enough to keep me away. Taiwanese temples are breathtakingly beautiful and an iconic symbol of this country I call home. That said, I do not take pictures of people actively practicing their religion. In my opinion, certain things are meant to feel private. If I was a National Geographic photographer writing an article on Buddhism, that would be different. But I'm not. I am just me: a curious person. So when deciding whether its appropriate to snap a picture, I always ask myself if I would want someone taking a picture of me if the situation was reversed. If I don't think I would want that, then I don't take the picture. It's as simple as that. 
remember that not every picture has to be an overt act
I have taken plenty of daily life photos in which the subjects have no idea I am taking their photo. Sometimes this is easier said than done but it is one way to remove worry from your end of the situation. It also means you don't have to ask for permission or jump through any hoops before taking out your camera. I usually do this by shooting from my hip. I don't bring my camera to eye level. I do this a lot at markets and I usually love the quality image I get because it's a little crazy just like the scene I am capturing. 
Small, simple steps can ensure that locals feel respected and valued while at the same time allowing you the opportunity to snap away. 

What about you? Do you have any good tips for being a respectful (and maybe a little awkward) travel photographer??









This post is part of the Sunday Traveler and Travel Tuesday link up. Check out both for more fabulous travel writing + photography! 



50 comments

  1. Very thoughtful post. I especially agree that tourists/expats should be more mindful of people in religious/spiritual scenarios. And your photos - oy! So gorgeous!

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    1. Thanks. I think sometimes it's harder for expats to remember this because they sometimes don't feel like a visitor but instead like they are at home. It's important to remember that people will perceive us as tourists.

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  2. Love the photos - and yes, I agree with all of these! Being respectful is so important, and I don't usually take photographs of people actively worshipping either. Shooting from the hip is a great technique, I've had some great photos that way!

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    1. I have gotten some really, really funny pictures too from this method :)

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  3. Love the photos! I really loved what you said about making eye contact with people. Sometimes you just want to make sure you're not going to offend anyone- to me that's more important than getting the perfect shot to remember the market.

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  4. Very interesting post! I also feel awkward when taking pictures in places where there is a lot of people. I try to avoid getting them inside the picture to respect their privacy, but then, city photos without habitants feels empty. Great tips, I'll try to follow them :) Thanks for sharing!

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    1. I used to do that too but I feel like there is a huge difference between walking down the street and sitting behind a food stall at a market. I think the street is fair game.

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  5. Great tips! I always find it difficult and awkward to take pictures of people, especially kids, because I don`t want to offend them and usually they don`t speak English. So I have very few photos of people. Hope to change that because the people one meet while traveling is often what does the trip memorable. Will definitely try out some of your tips! :)

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    1. Thanks! I have tried to be more brazen with people. I don't want to move away from Taiwan and only have pictures of buildings.

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  6. This is a great post. I often get very annoyed with some tourists who think it is okay to shove a camera in someone's face. Asking and thinking about whether the situation is appropriate is all it takes to be respectful.

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    1. Yes, I have seen that happen before and felt uncomfortable witnessing it.

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  7. I read this via Twitter this morning, and I loved this post. It never ceases to amaze me how people can lack manners and common sense when it comes to taking photographs, it only spoils it for the rest of us! Thank you! :)

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  8. Great tips! I think making sure that you stay out of the way and don't interfere is really important, too. Too many people forget the importance of being polite!

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    1. I used to commute on the Washington State Ferry system and remember how irritating thoughtless tourists could be. I've tried to learn from that and remember that being polite is the best policy!

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  9. You're completely right! And in my experience being kind and respectful really pays off... if people see that I'm nice and I smile to them they will gladly pose for the photo.

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  10. Great, beautiful pictures. And I really mean it! :)

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  11. Beautiful pictures - and a well thought-out philosophy. I generally try to draw a line between public spaces and private life, but sometimes it's hard to see a clear distinction.

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    1. I agree. It is sometimes really hard to tell.

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  12. First off, I really love your photos of those tiled dragons at the temple. The craftsmanship is amazing. Secondly, I always feel so awkward asking people if I can take their photos that I usually just completely skip taking photos of strangers. A few times I have asked and been told "No" or "Just one." I truly like your advice to put yourself in your subject's shoes. I once posed that question to my friends who happened to be white and blonde/brunette living in Asia, and they said that people take their picture without permission all the time. So, they didn't feel bad joining in on the free-for-all. Does that happen to you, too?

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    1. It's funny you ask that. I love Taiwan and find Taiwanese people to be very kind but also extremely rude in some regards. I cannot tell you how many times I have caught people taking my picture or talking about me in a really obvious way. It is really uncomfortable and definitely contributes to my own philosophy.

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  13. Great article and I love your photos. It's great to see with courtesy you can still produce excellent photos and not be disrespectful of people's privacy.

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    1. Thanks. Sometimes, as someone who likes to imagine shots before taking them, I have to make an active choice to set my camera down and value someone's privacy over my vision. While I may regret not getting the image, I never regret honoring another person's right to privacy.

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  14. Very interesting and well-written post. These certainly are the dilemmas we're faced with when we're not sure of the local customs but I think your tips are great. I liked "shooting from the hip"-- reminds me of an old western movie, haha.
    I sort of felt like this last summer in Warsaw when I was wandering around a beautiful church taking some photos and I realized there was a funeral getting ready to begin. Although no one was telling anyone to leave, I felt it best just to get out of there... it felt like it could've really been disrespectful.

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    1. I think I would have left too. It is sp important to allow locals to just live their lives and not be in the way.

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  15. yes to all of this, plus one point: bring a friend who helps you not feel so awkward about taking photos in the first place!

    now, not only are we photo buddies, but linkup twins :) don't worry, my dragon is facing the opposite direction.

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    1. Hahaha! I love you. And I love that we are link up twins (with opposite facing dragons).

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  16. I absolutely love this post. It's so important to me to not add any more to the bad reputation of foreign tourists, or intrude on privacy of those who live in the land I'm visiting. It's worth it to be sensitive to your surroundings.

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    1. Agreed. I think the best approach to take to travel photography is just simple awareness.

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  17. Loved this post. I agree with you - before taking photos of people, I ask myself if I'd like to be photographed if the situation were reversed. It's so important to be respectful and not treat people like animals at the zoo. Tourism can be such an unequal situation, especially when people visit comparatively poorer countries - now that I'm back home in America, I will never experience tourists taking photos of me going about my daily life because it's so novel.

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    1. Thanks! Sometimes, I think it's hard to find the right balance. Public life is public. It happens for all of the world to see. I have wandered around taking street photos that include some intimate moments of strangers. I think some of those shots are beautiful. I don't know if it's better because they don't know I took their pic so they couldn't be uncomfortable. I wouldn't mind someone shooting a picture of my husband holding my hand while walking down the street. I think our love is beautiful and therefore is worthy of art. Sometimes, despite wanting to be respectful, it's just hard to tell what is right and wrong.

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  18. 1. These pictures are BEAUTIFUL. I'm so glad you take them for everyone to enjoy.
    2. I love how thoughtful you are about photographs. I feel the same way. It makes me uncomfortable when I see people disregarding local tradition or custom to "get the shot". I always like to fade into the background when photographing... but these are great tips for everyone!

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    1. Thank you! I like to blend in too but I find it very hard where I live, which is in a random Taiwanese town. I stick out like a sore thumb!

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  19. This post is amazing! Good on you for being so respectful - and good for us that you shared your tips! I have to say that I struggle with taking photos in public places, while some people won't notice, I hate bringing a big camera to my face, I do feel rude! But asking for permission and putting yourself in their shoes, great tips!

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    1. Thanks. I try really hard to be thoughtful. I really wanted to get a picture of the incense close up but didn't know if that would be rude so my strategy was to wait until there was no one around to be offended just in case.

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  20. Great advice! Yeah sometimes I just don't take pictures of people since I don't want to be rude ... i guess i never thought of asking them. i should do that next time!
    Hsiao-Ting (www.shoutingchow.com)

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    1. It has taken me a while to figure out how to go about street photography and portraits of strangers but I've managed to and I am so pleased with it. I think I can do it in Taiwan with ease because I live here and feel very comfortable.

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  21. Thanks to Twitter, I just came across your post, and I love the attitude of your suggestions and the beautiful examples of your photos. Lovely job. xx

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    1. Thank you. It was a really fun day of photography!

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  22. Hi it's Christa, host of the Sunday Traveler, I just wanted to pop in and say thanks for joining in on the fun! I love your advice on put yourself in their shoes, because we'd expect the same courtesy! I'm loving all the dragon photos #nerd

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    1. I am quite smitten with the dragons too, although the paper lanterns are my favorite :)

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  23. Stunning photos! And I feel the same about taking photos in foreign countries, especially in religious places like temples. Also, so jealous that you live in Taiwan - I love that place!

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  24. What a great post. And gorgeous photos! I have to say I hardly ever thought about this before traveling to rural China, where most of the villagers (although this is China so the village still had a million people) had never seen a foreigner outside of their television set. I was constantly being yelled at and photographed in a million different positions--like just as I was taking a huge bite, bending over to pick something up, etc. etc. It gave me a real appreciation for the line between privacy and tourism. Sometimes I struggle still when I see a moment I'm dying to capture, but I always try to remember looking over with my mouth full and seeing a crowd taking pictures!

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    1. I think it's easier to be respectful after experiencing disrespect yourself. People in Taiwan do this in different ways: they stare, they gossip and they sometimes even feel free to examine the contents of my grocery cart while I wait in line to buy them. I mean that they will literally pick them up out of my cart and talk to each other about it. It's like: what is this strange girl buying?

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  25. Thanks again for sharing - I loved the post so much I have featured it on Travel Tuesdays! Fantastic tips :)

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