Ask First When Photographing Strangers In Travel Photography

The benefits outweigh the loss of spontaneity.

While there's a time and place for candid travel photography, internationally-renowned photographer Michele Westmorland describes how she has reaped greater rewards by asking permission first.

You may have seen my underwater photo tutorials here at Adorama Learning Center. That is the photography I am generally known for. However, all my years spent blowing bubbles also taught me to look above the surface to see the connection between nature and man. I have learned from many assignments that it is difficult to tell a story about the natural environment without including humans. This connection became very clear as I grew passionate about cultural preservation in Papua New Guinea, an island nation in Melanesia. Fish are easy since no permission is needed. But how does one learn to engage humans and produce compelling images?

The first thing to remember is the ethics of cultural photography. Being a Fellow of the International League of Conservation Photographers, I am well versed on these guidelines. The number one purpose of the organization is to further environmental and cultural conservation through ethical photography. What does this mean? It means respect, and it comes in many forms.

1.     Always ask permission.

This seems to be a sensitive subject with many photographers. The desire to get the spontaneous photograph looms heavy on their minds. Do I take “spontaneous” photos? Of course! It happens when there are mass numbers of people in a celebration with the clear knowledge that photos are welcome. However, when I visit a small village in Papua New Guinea, I generally keep my camera down for some time in order to have a proper introduction and welcome by village elders. It is amazing to see just how quickly the community becomes relaxed – and the photography begins with a rapport that allows you to start spontaneously shooting.



Canon 5D Mark III, Canon 24-70mm f/2.8L lens. ISO 320, 1/60th second at f/9. Strobe with soft diffuser and a -1 compensation.

2.    A spontaneous shot is not always the best.

I have done my fair share of grabbing candid shots and many times it has resulted in a unfavorable look from the subject – a cross or glaring stare. I have found that if you engage with your subject and take the time to create an interest about the photo you would like to capture, the person becomes involved in the process. He/she will relax, given a few minutes, and the images will still have a spontaneous look about them.



Canon 5D Mark II, Canon 70-200mm f/4L lens, ISO 200, 1/200th second at f/6.3. Since I spent time with this wonderful man asking about his eagle, he allowed me to take my time photographing him. It only took minutes before he was comfortable and I captured the joy showing on his face. Which do you like: color or B&W?

3.    Learn a few basic words in their language.

Thank you is the clearest form of respect. Memorize it in their language and use it often. Tenkyu tru in Pigin for Papua New Guinea; Terimikasi in Bahasa for Indonesia; Gracias in Spanish for many Latin countries. I’ve found that adding simple phrases to your vocabulary is rewarded by a gleam in the eyes of the locals. It shows you have taken the time to learn about the culture. Better yet, ask permission in their language. Inap mi kisim poto bilong yu? I use that in Pigin!

4.    Have a meal together.

I have to say I have tried many “exotic” meals prepared by my new found foreign friends. One, in particular, happened in a remote part of China. Just sharing the abundant and tasty food opened the door for some intimate images of the family.



 How special was this??? I had lunch with a Kasakh family in their home and captured this endearing photo of a young wife and her infant child as she continued to serve me more food. No one paid attention to my camera after we spent some time getting to know each other. Canon 5D Mark II 24 – 70mm lens. ISO 400; 1/50th second@ f5.6. This took a little planning with the strong light coming from the window. However, the rim light around the woman and baby’s head was perfect. The only way to expose the face was to use fill flash. My strobe had a Rogue diffuser attachment to soften the light and not overpower the ambient sun from the window.

5.    Be sensitive to religious beliefs and places of worship.

I would not even consider barging into a funeral of any religious group. Nor would I enter a place of worship without finding out if it is culturally acceptable. Many religious places around the world forbid photography in any form. This is not the place to “shoot now and ask for forgiveness later”.


Before even entering the temple area, my guide, Wayan, went in first and asked permission for me to photograph. Then he made the proper introductions for me. I spent about an hour at this fabulous location. Canon 5D Mark II, 24 – 70mm f/2.8 lens. ISO 400, 1/60th at f/9.

6.    To pay – or not to pay.

This is probably the most frequent question I am asked – and the response is: It varies.
It is important to know cultural boundaries and what is typically done in that country. I will discourage anyone from paying cash on a whim. It can create problems of jealousy within the village – especially in Papua New Guinea where everything is to be shared.

7.    Buy their product or curios.

In a street market and want to photograph the owner? Buy a piece of fruit or whatever it is they are selling. It does not matter if you consume it or throw it away later (if you have a fear of food poisoning). When I’m in Papua New Guinea, or other places where this is the only means for women to have their own money, I buy a beaded bracelet, a piece of cloth or a pot. It is such a small gesture for being allowed to photograph them – or their children.

8.    When it comes to children …

Please, no candy or plastic toys that are not environmentally friendly. If it is something that contains more sugar than you would give your own child, covered in hideous wrappers (to be thrown everywhere) or too minty avoid it. Take the time to find out what is popular among these guidelines and buy it locally. Small plastic toys are also dangerous to little ones if swallowed. Consider bringing a bag full of pencils or other small school items. Let them see their pictures on the back of the camera. You’ll get lots of giggles and more than a handful of “thumbs up” or “peace signs”.



Canon 5D Mark III, 24-70mm lens for both images. Moms are always proud to show off their babies. The young girl to the right had the scarification usually performed on young boys. This unusual situation was something I wanted to capture but needed to get permission from her mother. Originally wanting cash, I negotiated to purchase a beautiful bilum bag (string bag) to remember her by – and agreed to send photos.

9.    Always accept an invitation to photograph special events.

I have had the incredible opportunity of shooting a special event such as a compensation event or sing-sing. These special invitations are few and far between and given as an honor. Only because I fully engaged and became friends with the local community, did I receive it. Take it seriously and make sure you attend.

10.    Be genuine – show a clear interest in your subject or in what he/she does.

In Tekesi, China, I decided to roam the local streets to see what daily life consisted of. I was curious about the importance horses played in the life of these people when I saw cars zooming by. With the help of my guide (See #12) and before taking any photos, it was clear to the blacksmiths that I was interested in their craft. My questions, body language and smile were well received and within minutes, I was allowed to begin my visual story of their work. Nothing staged here!



Canon 5D Mark II; 24-70 f/2.8 lens. For the outside images the ISO was 200 and shot at 1/200th second at f6.3. For the interior shot, I knew with the low light level I had to increase the ISO to at least 320. But I also stabilized myself in the doorway to make sure the slow shutter speed of 1/40th second did not cause any movement. For the composition, I noticed the sunlight on the floor and included it for a more dramatic effect. I also felt this had a more photojournalistic feel so I post processed into black and white.


Canon 5D Mark II, 70 – 200mm lens ISO 200; 1/200th second @ f6.3. Here is another image where I felt it was stronger in black and white.  The focus is on the old man but showing the strong relationship between the men and their horses.  I wanted the foreground horse and rider to be a soft focus so that you visually lead to the old man. Black and white was in my mind before I pushed the shutter.  Only time and practice can help you with that choice. But at least today with digital you can learn by experimenting after the fact. Take a selection of images you have and convert to B&W to help develop your eye.

11.     Give back! Send photos, donate to a local school, or bring medical supplies.

I have been back to several of the villages I have photographed in the past. It was an emotional moment when I saw a moldy, tattered print I sent to them a couple years before, hanging in the hut. If you make a commitment to send prints, follow-up and do it!  Other treasured gifts, as opposed to cash payment, are school supplies or simple medical needs, such as bandages.



Canon 5D Mark III, 24 – 70mm f2.8 lens. ISO 200, 1/80 @ f14. Even when I take a group photo to send as a gift I want the best I can give. Notice that the first image used flash. I used a diffuser to soften and spread the light. The men’s dark eyes and colorful décor show much better than the bottom image with no flash.

12.    Hire a local guide or engage with someone from the community to help you communicate.

This is probably the least expensive way to become a friend. Local guides can not only help you navigate with safety in mind, but they can break down barriers of communication. In addition, I have found that my guides become part of the process and connected to my projects because they now have a vested interest. It is fun for the guides as well as me.


Again, time was spent with the elder in a Mongolian village to learn about his music and instrument. It didn’t take long before he was comfortable enough for me to ask that he move closer to a window where the light could fall on his face. 24-70mm lens. ISO 320; 1/40th second at f/4.5 with fill flash directed at the shadowed part of his body. Rogue diffuser was used on the flash. The flash was used with a remote sensor so I could have an assistant (my interpreter) hold and direct where I wanted the light to fall.

I remember when I first started photographing people in strange lands just how nervous and intimidated I felt. It takes a little practice but soon you will be sitting down to a meal or having a conversation with a new friend you never knew you would have.

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