How travel photojournalists overcome temptations of the industry
At a time when it takes nothing to call yourself a travel writer and photographer, the questions of ethics for travel photojournalists become greater.
The lines of ethics are blurred right at the beginning when the tourism board of a country sponsors a photojournalist for a press trip. The organizers then expect a positive story to come out of it, according to Mark Sissons, a travel photojournalist based in Vancouver.
“If you talk about ethics in journalism, travel journalism is a bit if a grey zone because some people argue that it’s not really journalism,” Sissons says.
“I would take the trip, I’d write the story. I won’t hide the fact that I had it covered, but I don’t feel any obligation to write positive things and sometimes I haven’t or I’ve just not written about it at all.”
He went to South Africa in 2015 and was taken to a lion sanctuary, where he was told the lions are rescued, raised and then reintroduced to the wild.
After a basic Google search, Sissons found that the lions were in fact raised and then sold to the hunting industry. He made the choice to leave the photos unpublished and not mention the place in his article, but now, he said he might come back to this story.
“Instead of not writing about it, I should be writing against it. I just haven’t had the chance yet,” Sissons says.
Travel photojournalists have a very small time frame available to get familiar with the place and Sissons said it is unfair to the country or the region to write negative things about it based on a superficial experience.
The issue of acquiring permission to take a photo often arises for travel photojournalists and Sissons says that is when the question of exploitation comes in.
“Often when we are traveling and we are taking photographs in very poor countries. A lot of the times in Africa, we are taking pictures of children, we are not asking their mothers or their families for permission,” Sissons says.
Travel and news photojournalist, Sam Leung, who lives in Alberta, said never paying his subjects for a photograph is a principle he will not break.
“I will never pay for a picture. You will ruin that person’s life, because you turn him into a beggar,” Leung says. “It’s so easy to make that dollar from you, and then they will never want to go to school, they will never want to better themselves.”
If the person understands the language he speaks, Leung says he will hire them as a translator or a fixer, so they treat it like a job.
Leung once traveled to Tibet to photograph people at a holy monastery, where every Tibetan will go to pray at least once in their lifetime. The tradition is that no matter how far they live, they will walk to the monastery. Tibetans save their money to travel there, but then have none to go back home.
“Usually I will always make an eye gesture, sometimes I will point at the camera,” Leung says. “Majority of them will let you shoot a picture, then they come to you and they stretch their hand.”
Leung took a photo of a woman at the monastery and refused to give her money after. Later that day, he asked his porter if all those people were bagging. The porter told him that the people on pilgrimage were not bagging, but raising money so they can go back home.
“I felt so bad. So the next morning I went out,” Leung says. “I deliberately tried to look for her. It took me about three hours to walk the whole thing about two or three times to find her again.”
He gave the woman money and said she was very happy, gave him a big bow and walked away. Leung said that ethics of travel photography relate directly to the principles of the photojournalist.