Photo Ethics In The Field: Dealing with Tricky Situations in Travel and Wildlife Photography


We've all heard the saying, "A picture is worth a thousand words." And if we didn't believe in the power of images to communicate, we wouldn't spend so much time capturing and sharing them. But photographs don't happen in a vacuum. There's the photographer, who interacts with the subject and their surroundings. That's where the trouble with photography comes in—managing the effects we as photographers have on our subjects and their environment, whether they are ancient historical sites, natural wonders, people or wildlife.

The topic is huge and filled with controversy, but I'd like to share with you some common ethical problem situations that arise in travel and wildlife photography, and provide some perspective on how you may want to address them on your own adventures.

Ancient Historical Sites

Jeff Morgan, a friend of ours who runs the Global Heritage Fund, was recently quoted as saying, "No one should be allowed to walk on 1,000-year-old stones." I doubt he literally wants us to close the great cathedrals of Europe to the public, but he does have a good point. Heavily trafficed areas of landmark temples such as Angkor Wat have started wearing down to the point where they are losing their original shape and grandeur, as authorities belatedly start to protect them with walkways.

Certainly, the overall onslaught of tourists—not just photographers of course—is responsible, but it is we as photographers who pay the price for the new ropes, railings and signage that are needed to begin to control the damage. If a simple "Don't Climb on the Stones" sign at the entrance was adhered to, then perhaps photo opportunities could be left intact. But that's wishful thinking. Below is a classic view of the famous tree growing through Ta Prohm in the Angkor Temple complex, taken from the courtyard a few steps away. But that shot isn't there any more. As you can see from the next picture, the busloads of tourists that used to stand on the tree roots and stones to have their pictures taken have been fenced off with a platform and railing which, of course, changes the scene completely for landscape photographers.

The steady stream of tourists touching and standing on the ancient Ta Prohm Temple stones (ignoring the signs) has led to the need for a wooden deck with railing, which drastically changes the photographic opportunities. 

 Efforts of most developing countries to protect their heritage sites are feeble enough as it is, without greedy photographers pushing the envelope and treading where they shouldn't. So one simple take away for me is to honor the request of locals and local governments when they provide boundaries and set limits for access. All too often we see other photographers ignoring them to get a shot, to the detriment of the site and to all future photographers.

Photographing Children

There are innumerable opportunities around the world to photograph people in interesting clothing, or doing something unique, or with amazing faces. And nothing is more fun than casual people or "street" photography. But plenty of harm can result as well. Let's start with kids. In developing countries we constantly see photographers pay small children to take their photograph, and it makes us want to cry. More than likely, that child should be in school or studying (no matter what story the child gives you about how it is a holiday, or school is in the afternoon) and instead they have likely been dressed up and sent out to beg. Once they become a source of revenue for their families, this can quickly become their way of life.

Only slightly less bad is giving them candy. As Bruno (who manages a hotel where we stay in Northern Myanmar) says, "Don't they realize these kids don't have dentists?" Frankly, almost all children who have not been pushed into begging love to have their picture taken, and ask for nothing in return. Showing them their image in the viewfinder, like Alison is doing with these Laotion children in the image below, is icing on the cake for them.

Alison shows her images to some eager Laotian chidren
on one of our southeast Asian photo safaris.

If you must give children something, try pencils or other school supplies. Better yet, look for controlled ways to get photo opportunities. We often visit monasteries, nunneries or schools and donate money to the institution while also giving pencils, and sometimes books, to the students.

Here, Beth hands out pencils to the children in an elementary school
near Mandalay, where we visited and were entertained by the students

Most children are just like these western Burmese, excited to have their
photos taken. In some cases we've been able to leave the children with prints
of their photos, which they loved to have as keepsakes.

Paying adults to take their picture—whether it is Masai warriors, the tattooed Chin women, or the Padaung with their neck rings—is more complicated. Of course, there isn't anything wrong with earning a living by modeling. But in cases where the money encourages customs which have outlived their usefulness to continue for the sake of tourism, the photographs don't justify the social cost.

For many years I refused to visit or photograph the Padaung or "long-necked"
women, not wanting to be party to their exploitation. But on our latest trip we
found several who refused to accept any payment but who wanted to show off their
cultural tradition, so we did briefly photograph them—to their delight. Even in that
case it was with some trepidation, as it is never completely clear what the long
term affects of this type of photo tourism will be.


We're all familiar with scenes of harassment of wildlife, with photographers or other tourists flushing nesting birds to get images of the chicks, or pursuing animals and making it difficult for them to eat. Those are no-brainer bad ideas, and as my buddy Moose Peterson says, "No photograph is worth sacrificing the welfare of the subject." But there are other less-obvious examples of how photographing wild animals can cause them trouble.

Photographing Kills

Nothing is more exciting in wildlife photography than watching predators hunt. Whether it is a pack of wild dogs, a pride of lions, or a lone leopard—the way they isolate and stalk their prey, followed by the spectacle of a wild chase, is often the highlight of an African safari. But the prey animals have figured that out also. Many of them have learned to look for the trucks of tourists, and assume predators are nearby. So in the private concessions we use, the guides are trained to hang back once a hunting animal gets serious enough to stalk their prey. Of course, once the prey has seen the predator the game is afoot and there are photographs aplenty, but by giving the predators some space at the right time, we've helped avoid stressing them, and helped ensure that they won't avoid trucks altogether in the future.

So if you hear stories from someone who stayed right on top of a hunting animal, you might want to ask them whether they'd thought through all the consequences down the road.

We gave this leopard plenty of space to chase down an unwary Impala,
and still had plenty of opportunity for a great experience and photographs.

Unintended Consequences

Another rare treat for wildlife photographers is photographing Meerkats. These photogenic critters even got their own TV show. But when first encountered they aren't much more tolerant of people than the very-hard-to-spot ferrets and weasels of our own country. So some type of habituation is a must for good photo opportunities. Simply having a person near them most of the time seems to do the job. But meerkats avoid inbreeding by having males seek out nearby families with which to breed. Unfortunately, non-habituated males turned out to be intimidated by people, so the family wasn't growing. The guides were smart enough to realize this and to leave that family alone, even though it put a big dent in their business short term.

Meerkats like this family can become used to people over time, but it's important to be aware of the 
possible consequences ,and not let frequent observation get in the way of their natural patterns.

These are just a few examples of situations where photographers have ethical decisions to make. There are new ones every day, as our environment changes and the number of tourists and photographers continues to increase. Please let us know some of your favorite stories involving the ethics of photography and any tips you have for resolving tricky situations—or any questions you have about areas where you're unsure how to act.

If you're interested in learning more, we'd love to have you join us on a photo tour or safari, of course. I lead a limited number each year through Or at FotoClave 2011, where I'll be leading a breakout session devoted to exactly this topic—the ethics of travel and nature photography. And we've just announced a special appearance at B&H in New York City on September 7th. We'll be covering a wide variety of wildlife photography topics, also touching on some of the ethical issues. You can learn more or register online.

You can learn more about David and his photography and photo safaris to Africa, Asia, Alaska and Texas, at and on the photo information site, as well as by reading his blog on You can also follow David on Facebook or Twitter. David is leading another trip to photograph the people and temples of Cambodia and Burma, in December.

NOTE: The Khmer girl in the opening photo was the daughter of our guide at Beng Melea, and she is holding her mother's guiding tip—we didn't pay her to take her photo!