Monday, March 17, 2008

Photo Ethics

A serious topic, this musing though is not about Photoshop. Rather it's about trespassing.

Responsible photographers need to always remember that unless they are invited to take a photograph or are on public property at a public event, there's a good chance their efforts to take pictures, particularly of people, may not be greeted in a friendly fashion. 

Sometimes the reasons are cultural (the Mayan Indians of Mexico and Guatemala), sometimes spiritual (Native Americans), sometimes because the setting is just not appropriate (a religious ceremony perhaps), sometimes because people think it is rude (think tourists taking pictures of "natives") and other times because the people being photographed are doing something they may not want others to see.

Most of us don't get into the later situation too often, fortunately, but the other situations described above take a special sensitivity not easily covered in this short space. The bottom line is that a serious photographer should be thoroughly acquainted with the history and the cultural preferences of the people he or she is photographing. Even as a casual tourist, anything short of this is just plain rude – and could be dangerous: numerous stories abound of tourists with cameras being thrashed with sticks in the great Mayan Church at San Juan Chamúla (pictured above).

We avoided that problem by hiring a guide in nearby San Cristóbal de las Casas – an experience which allowed us to obtain photographs, such as the one below of Mayan weavers in their home in Zinacantán, which could not have been captured otherwise.

Sometimes, though as a working journalist, you find yourself in situations where you have to rely on your own snap judgment, such as when I joined a human rights group on an earlier trip to Chiapas in 1996 to document activities of the Mexican Army in the aftermath of the Zapatista rebellion which rocked Mexico in 1994. The Army was accused of terrorizing remote Mayan Indian villages in the jungles along the Guatemalan border.

The two pictures, above, I took in pouring rain with no interference from a passing patrol. But the third picture tells a different story. Taken of me surreptitiously with one of my cameras by a colleague the following day when the Army sent out a special detail to see what we were up to, the picture shows the risks journalists can run into when they are taking pictures where they are not wanted. Needless to say I did not take the soldier's picture.


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