Why you shouldn’t take photos of strangers

You’ve probably seen it more than once. A friend or family member who’s been abroad and has taken photos with a bunch of locals. Perhaps they’ve even just taken photos of a bunch of strangers on the streets because they found them to be interesting or beautiful. But what might seem innocent is actually… not. In fact, it’s actually illegal in some cases. The rise of social media in the last decade has made us even more unaware of how we shoot things or what we shoot. Especially when we travel, we seem to just take photos without even thinking twice. Taking photos of children playing on the streets, an elderly couple sitting at a café or a beautiful person who just happens to sit in the most picturesque setting. It’s the perfect photo to get the most likes or comments on your social media outlets. But imagine if someone did that to you and put it on social media without your consent?

This is why you shouldn’t take photos of strangers, particularly children. You might travel to countries where people aren’t as aware of their legal rights as at home. You might even ask them if it’s okay to take photos of them and post it, and they’ll say yes. That’s getting consent. But what about informed consent? What if they knew what a privacy breach it was to take photos of their children or of them, would they be so quick to consent then?

Sometimes, it’s impossible not to be included in a photo though. Imagine you’re walking around in Hanoi, Vietnam, for example, which has some of the busiest streets. People are snapping photos from left to right, so it’s not impossible that your face will be on those shots. But that’s a completely different thing. If you’re going to someone specifically and takes a photo of them, that’s when the issue starts. And the issue is usually power. There is an imbalance between the viewer and the viewed, the one who takes the photo and the one in front of the camera.

What’s also important is what you put on social media. Have we not far too often seen photos of kids in Africa with their Western volunteer who is there to “save the day”? Have we not seen photos of the slums of India, where kids run around collecting trash? You might say that this is part of reality, but it also creates this image of certain destinations that may do them more harm than good. Because India is surely more than slums and the kids in Africa surely don’t always need a western volunteer to come save them. But if you’re really eager to take photos of strangers, here’s a few tips on what to think of:

Engage with the people

Don’t just take a quick photo and leave. If you’re really interested in taking a photo of this specific human(s), then talk to them. Get to know them, engage with them and ask them questions. Make sure to approach them in a friendly way and accept that if they say they don’t want to be photographed, they really don’t.

Be professional

Explain to them what you’re doing, why you’re doing it and give them your business card or social media channels so they can follow you and see where you’re putting their photo. When you’ve taken the picture, let them see it so they can approve of it. If they don’t like it, delete it, however beautiful you think the photo is. Just because someone gave them your consent to take their photo doesn’t mean you can upload whichever photo you want of them. It’s respectful and professional to let the strangers choose.

What is it you want to convey?

Ask yourself this question and think twice before posting a photo of a stranger. Think about what your photo wants to convey, what impression does it give to others and what do you want to say? Is it just to get more likes on social media or do you genuinely have a story to tell?

Don’t pay for the photos

In Vietnam, there’s been cases in the far north where the kids are asking strangers to pay them to take a photo of them on a water buffalo for example. Giving them a few cents might sound alright, but you’re actually supporting an enterprise. More than often, the families of the children send them out so they can earn money from tourists. You don’t want to be encouraging kids to skip school in order to get a few cents from strangers who wants to take their photos. So be careful if you’re going to pay someone to take their photo because it might lead to other social problems.