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The Travel Photographer: More Than a Camera-Toting Tourist

This post is part of a series called Travel Photography.
Travel Portraits: Methods for Making a Connection
A Photographer's Guide to Visiting Nepal

Photographers and videographers like to holiday in places with photographic interest. For some this means sweeping landscapes, for others, it's the bustle of urban life, or the drama of neglect and decay. Sometimes when we travel, however, we get swept up and forget that foreign places are somebody’s home. This tutorial is about how to photograph when you're travelling while staying safe, respectful, and most of all, happily productive.

So, how do you photograph somewhere where the economy is in decline? Or social norms are radically different than your own? What's the best place to photograph an amazing spot you've heard of but that's just a little too far off the beaten path?

Check Your Privilege at the Boarding Gates

Though you might see yourself as a travelling photographer, everyone else will see you as a tourist. That's okay: you are a tourist.

When we visit somewhere, we can often almost take ownership of that place and expect the world to make allowances. We get excited about photographing, and it's easy to forget that we're guests. As a visitor, you have to act accordingly.

As much as you can, learn what's expected of you as a photographer. Look into local laws and customs regarding photography and video before you go. When you arrive, ask someone you trust about how you should act, and if there are any sensitive things or places you should be aware of.

Though it may seem like everyone and their cat has a camera these days, many people in the world cannot afford cameras. Cameras are a symbol of affluence, as is technology in general. If you're travelling to a place where your presence with a camera will cause unwanted attention or put you (or worse, others) in danger, then don't bring the camera. Safety first, always.

Respect the Boundaries

On a recent trip to the Isle of Skye, I was told in conversation that the Mountain Rescue team had been called out on several occasions already this year for people who either let their dog run off the lead and it got into trouble, or for people trying to cross the river who then got stuck! Nobody wants to be the embarrassed one who gets hauled down a mountain or carted off by the police for walking into trouble. You might not be aware of certain factors in a new place but it's still your responsibility to find out and respect them.

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The mountain on Skye where the Mountain Rescue team had already been repeatedly called out

If you're unsure of an area, find someone local who can help you. Many picturesque places run special photo workshops where someone can accompany you safely to beauty spots and help you to get the best possible pictures at the best times. Tour guides are often available in more remote places, too. You can find these by researching online prior to travelling or if you're already at your location, ask a trusted source such as your hotel staff or a travel agent representative.

Courtesy goes a long way when photographing people. It's best practice to ask before taking someone's picture, and this is doubly true when travelling. Find a way to ask, even if you don't speak the same language. Only take the picture if you get consent.

No picture is worth getting into trouble for, especially when you're overseas and the penalties might be different from what you're expecting. There was a case recently about some French tourists who were arrested for stripping off at the Angkor Wat temple in Cambodia. They may have thought they were just larking around but the consequences were serious, with them eventually being given a suspended sentence, a fine and being deported from Cambodia. Pretty serious stuff for what I'm sure seemed like a big joke at the time. 

It may sound trite or even sexist but safety tips are even more important for women. Personal safety is not the time to worry about politics. The reality is that many places in the world are not good places for women in terms of equality,  respect, and personal security.

Be Open to Adventure

In places where people often live below the poverty line, tourist zones are set up. These are self-sustaining areas that a traveller who just wants to soak up the sun never has to leave. While these can be a good ‘safe’ base, if you spend your holiday in them you’ll never see the true country you’re visiting.

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A Tunisian lady cooking traditional bread [photo: Marie Gardiner]

In Sousse, Tunisia, where I spent two weeks last September, the tourist zone had police guarded borders at either end. These were designed to protect the tourists from extremists who believed that the Muslims working in these areas were too lenient in their acceptance of holiday makers. Just the year before, someone had blown themselves up on the beach near the hotel where we stayed in an attempt to kill some locals and make their point. Thankfully they didn’t succeed in hurting anyone but did cause an increase in security. This all sounds scary but we face crime in all parts of the world and it doesn’t mean it’s a reflection on all people.

Do some reading on the place before you visit and learn as much as you can to stay as safe as you can and of course, to get the best experience possible. Don't be the foreigner that justifies the stereotype.

Be Alert

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Abandoned hotels in Sousse, Tunisia [photo: Marie Gardiner]

Consider the implications of what you see. As a photographer, you will notice things that others do not. These things could be incredible photo opportunities. Or they could be a non-photographic chance to learn more about the place you're visiting; learning more always seems to lead to better photo opportunities, too.

Abandoned hotels littered the area in Tunisia where we were visiting. There were 11 on the 1km walk from our hotel to the medina alone. They made incredibly interesting photography but they also made me think. The hotels were not that old and they weren’t small. Clearly some sort of tourism boom happened maybe 30 years earlier and the hotels sprang up all over the town. Then, something happened – quite possibly what lead to their revolution a few years before my visit.

Sousse simply wasn’t bringing in the tourists anymore and the hotels couldn’t survive. Most were literally abandoned where they were, fully furnished. They shifted the tourist area a few miles up the road, you could almost see a line where one ended and one began. When you consider this, and that their currency is 35p to 1 Tunisian Dinar then you really start to get an idea of just how poor this country has become. I was happy, on a composition level, with my photographs of the hotel, but they also tell part of a larger story about the place. That helps me remember my trip with more vivid detail and nuance.

Be Respectful, Especially With Self Portraits

It’s only natural to want pictures of yourself in these fascinating places you’re visiting. Always take into account your surroundings and consider, is what I’m doing appropriate? Remember the girl who took the smiling selfie in Auschwitz? She’d always wanted to go there with her father, wanted a picture there because of that, and quite naturally for  a photo, smiled. It was on her profile a month before someone spotted it and it went viral. She even received death threats. Ridiculous considering the genuine ignorance and size of her ‘crime’ but when it comes down to it, though her actions are mundane in the everyday they were not appropriate for the place.

Former concentration camp, Dachau - Dachau, Germany [photo: Marie Gardiner]

In Tunisia, being a Muslim country, there were many mosques. To visit them, men must have their legs covered and women must have their head, hair and all their flesh covered apart from their face and hands. They provide you with traditional abāyah (long robe) and hijab (head scarf) for free. I think the very least we can do when someone is willing to openly share a part of their culture or religion is to respect their rules. I spotted this lady below having her portrait taken outside of the prayer hall (where non-muslims are not allowed).

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A mosque 'selfie' that seems inappropriate for the surroundings

Small considerations can go a long way to ingratiating yourself with the locals. We had a great chat with the man looking after the entrance to the mosque and learned things about Islam that we’d not known previously.

Be Considerate and Responsive

We spend a fleeting moment on holiday in another country and sometimes it’s easy to forget that how we behave and that what we do can have implications; even if that’s just an impression we leave behind.

Sometimes I’m embarrassed by the ‘Brits Abroad’ mentality that I’ve seen – Brits who just want to go to a hot country, get a tan and eat as much as they can; all the while refusing to speak a word of the local language and being rather rude. That’s not everyone of course, but enough to have left an impression.

If you are respectful and considerate of your surroundings you will get the most out of the places and people you’re surrounded by. In places where your countrymen have a bad reputation, you'll find being the exception to the rule can open doors for you.

As my partner and I attempted to speak a little French and Arabic in Sousse it was commented on by several locals that it was unusual, that Brits usually don’t bother. It made me sad for the impressions that we sometimes leave on others. Sad for the missed opportunities for enrichment that come from cultural and interpersonal exchanges, too.


Travelling as a photographer is a lot of fun. It's exciting, being in a new place, and the excitement can fuel some fantastic pictures. Some of the most powerful magic of photography is bringing back pictures of far-away places. 

When you photograph while travelling remember that you are a guest. Take care in the places you visit and be courteous with everyone you meet. Be alert, open, prepared and switched-on. Yes, you are time-limited, but the photographic opportunities will come. Don't force it. Make friends in the places you visit. Most important of all, stay safe - don't risk yourself or others. And have fun!

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