A few weeks ago, I was scrolling through Instagram when I actually paused for a second: two photos had caught my eye. One was of a Japanese family in kimonos at a temple, faces turned away from the camera; the other was of a Vietnamese family, a father and son, their faces also turned away from the camera.
These were not photos taken by a photojournalist — they were images taken by a college student studying abroad in Asia. And for some reason, they made me slightly discomfited.
It might have been the fact that in both photos, the families’ gazes were turned away from the camera, preoccupied with whatever they were doing in the moment. I wondered — did these people know their photos were being taken? Did the student have their consent?
In these photos, subjects were transformed into objects to be gazed upon. They were another part of the foreign, exoticized landscape, blending into stereotypical images associated with people who live in these countries: individuals wearing kimonos in Japan, individuals in rural Vietnam.
I wondered — if the student was studying abroad in Europe, would she have taken photos like these, of random strangers living their lives? Perhaps in a specific cultural context, like Oktoberfest in Germany or flamenco dancers in Spain. But would she ever be compelled to stop and take a photo of random strangers by their houses or other buildings? I could see the same thing happening in African, Middle Eastern and Latin American countries — but not necessarily European countries.
Yes, the student might have taken the photo because she thought the people looked interesting and “exotic”. Yes, she might have taken it as appreciation of the country she was visiting and to share that with other people. But it’s important to consider the current and historical contexts of travelers photographing people in foreign countries in ways that are steeped in colonialism and the fetishization of those people and that landscape that renders them objects to look at rather than actual humans. It isn’t just regular tourists that perpetuate this either — popular and well-established media do it, too (see: National Geographic).
The photos also reminded me of similar, though different, kinds of images that are often uploaded to social media. These are the photos of volunteers with the people they are supposedly helping. And the volunteers are usually white, and the people are usually non-white and live in low-income countries with entrenched histories of colonialism and exploitation from the West.
These photos often perpetuate the problematic white savior complex, wherein a white volunteer goes to a (usually) non-European country on a volunteer project with ideas of “saving” the local population there, who are deemed to be in need of help. Never mind the fact that systemic economic, political and social inequalities cannot be fixed over a week or a month or a year. Never mind the fact that these people might not have asked for outside help in the first place.
Often, when these photos are uploaded, the attention is not even on the people themselves — it’s shifted to the volunteer with comments applauding their actions and saying they are making a huge impact and doing such a good thing. Once again, the subjects in the photo, the local population, are made into objects that blend into the background.
With spring break having just ended and summer on the horizon, it’s important to keep all of these things in mind. Uploading a photo might seem harmless, but it’s crucial to understand that there is a long racist, colonialist past of exploiting and exoticizing people through photographs — something that still continues today.
My intent for this article isn’t to dissuade people from taking any photographs at all — there are certainly many ethical ways of photographing portraits of people. Obtain their consent, obviously — you never know what their situation might be, if they would feel uncomfortable having their photos online, circulated to hundreds, perhaps thousands of strangers. Contextualize yourself in the space that you’re in — does the photograph perpetuate a colonialist perspective? Ruminate over the photograph: Are the people, the subjects, rendered into exotic objects for your own personal benefit?
Photography can be a beautiful thing — an image that captures a particular moment in time that might never be reproduced again — but it can also be a dangerous thing.