Travel really could also be called ‘expansion of personal photography collection’, or ‘renovating the physical memories of oneself’.
The point I’m trying to make is when you travel you are bound to take a lot of photos.
We know this.
Scroll through Facebook, or click on any of my other blog posts and you will see evidence of expanding collections and memory renovations.
This is not a hate piece on the proliferation of travel photography because that would be majorly hypocritical of me.
Instead, this is about those photos I’ve taken that perhaps I shouldn’t have.
Let me explain.
Well, you really have no choice in the matter I guess, I’m explaining anyway.
Back in 2013, when I first came overseas, everything fascinated me. The world was opening up for me for the first time. I was 21.
It being my first time overseas and all, I wanted to record absolutely everything, and record it intimately so that I could never forget this feeling or these places. Or the people.
People. And, that’s where the question comes in, should we be allowed to capture photos of people without their permission?
For example, there was a homeless man in Barcelona carrying all his belongings behind him in a cart.
Homelessness was clearly a new concept for me at that point (#privileged) and so I snapped a photo of him. He constituted a part of me discovering the world.
But later, as my mind expanded and I grew as a person, I started to reconsider whether that was justification enough to take a photo without permission.
I had taken similar portraits in Dubai of a desert man and in Greece of a fisherman fixing his nets.
Fast forward to this year and this trip throughout Europe. It’s been pretty absent of the same portraiture, although I did take some snaps as a boat was being unloaded in a small Scottish fishing village.
I justified that because there was a mob of people with cameras (aka tourists) surrounding the boat and its haul. (Following the crowd is a good reason, right? That’s what all the beloved quotes say, isn’t it?)
But then I got to Poland and was on a walking tour with two friends and my old Topdeck tour guide who I had inadvertently run into (three years down the track and completely out of the blue – you can read about how small the world really is here).
Now on a tour both as tourists, we were being shown an accommodation complex because of its layout, architecture and graffiti (I think).
I was preoccupied taking a photo of this bare wall with a Polish man sitting perfectly in my frame. It occurred to me that I perhaps shouldn’t take the photo, but I really liked this style of photography and just wanted to take the snap.
So I did.
And just as I hit the shutter, the man went berserk, pointing his finger at me and yelling what seemed to be a hateful tirade.
Although I was surrounded by a group of people, including friends, and it was daytime, never have I felt so scared on my solo travels as I did in that moment.
My tour guide asked me if I took his photo and I lied because I didn’t want to have to delete it or admit my wrongdoing. Talk about a downwards spiral of bad behaviour.
I did delete the photos in case the man came over and demanded to see my gallery but recovered them later because, well, it was a pretty cool photo, capturing the exact moment of the man’s outburst.
It wasn’t with some guilt that I did keep the photo, but after a confession to my friends, they assured me not to worry about it. Thanks friends.
But, I still found myself pondering at what I had done, especially when a couple of days after that I visited Auschwitz concentration camp and was angered by the people taking photos of exhibits we had been told were not meant to be photographed (Maybe this is a hypocritical piece after all?)
The ethical questions all these photos raised took me back to a university subject I took, photojournalism.
As we studied some of the most renowned photos of the past century, we were presented with many ethical questions.
For instance, the photo of a starving child in Sudan being stalked by a vulture: why didn’t photojournalist Kevin Carter that captured the photo save that child?
His answer was utilitarian (the greatest good for the greatest number); he couldn’t save them all but he could show the world what was happening there, and maybe together the world could save more than just one child.
What about the Hart Park drowning photo John Harte took that shows a drowned boy in a body bag surrounded by his distraught family? What about their privacy?
John Harte replied with another question: what about preventing more deaths by drowning (the stats at that time for children drowning in that particular water hole were high).
So it seems it’s okay to take a photo without permission if it does something, raises awareness. Not exactly a justification I can use for my photos.
I’ve tried to find reasons, like maybe in 150 years people will see my photos and be so grateful they have been preserved to show the way of life way back when in 2016?
And what about if I’d inadvertently taken the photos – would that have made them okay? After all, legally you can take a photo of anyone in public without permission. Ethically, there are no laws to abide.
Perhaps the argument really is do we even own our image anymore?
I think about those times I’ve opened my Facebook app to see someone has tagged me in 17 photos and my heart sinks. Oh great, I think, what are these going to look like?
And, I know I’ve done the same countless times to others – on Facebook, on my blog, anywhere and everywhere I can upload a photo.
So what’s right and what’s wrong?
I think maybe it’s a line we straddle and move from side to side as time progresses. And I don’t think it’s a linear movement from wrong to less wrong, neutral and then right, more right, rightest.
It’s more neutral, right, wrong, right again, wrong, wrong, oh look finally I’m on the right side again.
A constant expansion and renovation of not only our photo collection, but ourselves.