I dislike the term. It can be unfair and even arrogant, because it shows a place exclusively through the personal experience of the photographer rather than the subject. And so it patronizes the subject to a large extent. I understand that all artistic expression is about the artist’s point of view. However, if we put it this way, almost all photography is travel, in a sense. Every kind of photography is exploration, maybe related to a literal, even if short travel, and presents the point of view of the artist. But it is not necessarily called travel photography.
For example, nobody really lives on the Grand Canyon and you have to literally visit it to take a picture of it, yet those pictures are called landscape photography, not travel. If I don’t know much about a subject, say, cowboys, but live in a cowboy area and decide to take pictures of cowboys on a Sunday, is this travel photography? Why is the term only applied to people going on vacation, basically to places considered exotic? I don’t think all pictures of the Eiffel Tower were made by native Parisians, yet they are not labeled “travel”, unless it is a snapshot of a tourist in front of it.
The “travel photography” label is actually a bias of exoticism. Instead of making us understand better places we may not know, it places the distance of condescension and the barrier of paternalism between the viewer and the subject. Even if not the usual tourist snapshot, pictures that call themselves “travel photography” tend to reinforce our Western stereotypes of places. Think about those images you’ve seen time and again: Cuban kids in front of a dilapidated wall; colorful Turkish marketplaces; an Indian old lady on a busy street. Do they really make us understand those people and realities better?
A friend of mine, a Fulbrighter in Africa at the moment, told me that when she takes pictures of people engaged in everyday activity, it is customary to give them a small tip. She is not really a traveler or an outsider there, having spent several years in different time periods in Africa. I accept it is fairer to tip people in a place you are an outsider than grab pictures of them abusively. She says she does not photograph them unless she knows them, they know it and allow it. This is a standard I feel comfortable using for my own photography.
It’s not just because the people would appreciate the money. The exchange in a way serves as a confirmation of their permission, a token of unspoken guarantee their dignity is preserved. It is similar to the permission subjects give to participate in a social science study. But still, it is not a real guarantee the picture will not be a run-of-the-mill travel photo.
I would allow myself to take pictures of unsuspecting people in a culture where I feel I am an insider, and in a public context where people do expect exposure. For example, a cowboy show is OK, an open market is fine, an old woman knitting outside of her home and chatting with a neighbor is acceptable. However, I would be very careful snapping pictures of children foraging for valuable discarded items to take home from a dumpster.
I recently read about the case of tourists taken to such a dumpster in Nicaragua for a quick photo trip, usually completed without even getting off the bus. This kind of “travel photography” abuses the dignity of those photographed. Not surprisingly, this practice gave birth to rumors that pictures taken by such tourists are later used to justify donation-requesting campaigns for funds that never actually reach dumpster children.
So, what you do with the picture afterward matters a lot. Do you use it to show how courageous you were to explore some dangerous, strange places? Do you aim to shock your audience or even evoke disgust of a different way of life?
How do you embed respect in your picture in the first place?