To travel is to be driven by the enduring passion for seeing unfamiliar places. This interest in experiencing other cultures often translates to the desire to document them, which is where important questions surrounding privacy and respect for local people tend to arise.
Photographer Lucy Laucht travels on assignment everywhere from India to Peru for major adventure companies, tourism boards, and travel publications (AFAR among them). As a travel photographer, she has one goal: to capture images that shed light on the essence of the destinations she visits—including the people who live within them. Here, she shares her most important rules for respectfully photographing people while traveling.
1. Put the camera down first
To train your photographic eye, Laucht recommends a rather unconventional tip for beginners and experienced photographers alike: Go camera-less before you shoot. Why? “Sometimes it’s helpful to explore for a few hours without your camera to avoid being driven by the need to capture everything,” Laucht says. “That way, when you take your camera out later, you’ll know what you’re drawn to and will have a better sense of how to operate respectfully in the place you’re in.”
“Time isn’t a luxury you have with travel photography because you’re essentially moving through the streets and looking for fleeting moments to capture,” Laucht says. “It’s really just about being present as a traveler instead of only focusing on getting ‘the shot.’”
2. Ask permission (and smile!)
For many people, summoning the confidence to approach a subject and ask permission to photograph them is the most difficult photography skill to improve.
“When I first started out, I was extremely nervous to take people’s photographs. I’d walk away really quickly after taking a photo, and it started to feel like I was taking something from the people I photographed, which I struggled with,” Laucht says. “It took a long time for me to get comfortable with asking permission or even being close enough to someone to take their portrait. For me, it starts with making eye contact, getting consent—either verbally or by gesturing to your camera—and smiling. Smiling goes such a long way.”
3. Accept the answer you receive
For Laucht, an important reality to address is that you won’t always get the shot you’re hoping for. “Some locals won’t want their pictures taken, and whether it’s part of a strong cultural belief or the individual just isn’t in the mood to be photographed, you have to respect the final answer you’re given,” Laucht says.
One way Laucht ensures she gets permission from her subjects is to work with cameras that push her to get closer to people. “When travelers walk around with zoom lenses and capture shots of people without them even knowing it, there’s no actual consent there,” she says.
“I think it’s great to work with a small film camera or a mirrorless digital camera using a prime lens, which—unlike a zoom lens—has a fixed focal length. Those instruments can feel less intrusive than a DSLR. They also force—or allow—you to get closer to your subjects.”
4. Learn local customs and basic phrases
We’re often most fascinated in photographing places where the landscapes, cultures, and languages are most unfamiliar. However, not speaking the local tongue doesn’t omit a travel photographer’s responsibility to be respectful.
“At the very least, I always try to learn how to say ‘Can I take your photograph?’ in the local language. If possible, I’ll find out slightly more personal phrases such as, ‘You look very elegant,’” Laucht says.
“So much of travel photography depends on how you approach people. If you walk up to someone with a positive mentality and convey that you think they look incredible, the likelihood of that person allowing you to photograph them is much greater.”
Laucht swears that the best way to improve your travel photography is to focus on connecting with people in the places you visit.
Beyond knowing how to ask for a photograph, it’s also crucial to be mindful of when to ask—and also when not to. “It’s important to be aware of cultural customs and taboos surrounding photo-taking in the countries you visit,” Laucht says. “In certain cultures, taking photos can be considered incredibly rude, especially with children and elders or in religious settings.”
“Do your best to learn about local rules of etiquette before or during your trip,” Laucht stresses. If you can’t find the information you need on the internet or in guidebooks, try asking locals you meet who work in tourism—speaking with hotel staff, taxi drivers, and tour guides is a great way to learn more about cultural norms in the destination you’re visiting.
5. Make an exchange
Photographers often benefit from the images they capture more than the subjects who appear in those images, so Laucht always strives to give something back to her subjects.
“I was photographing some children in Cuba, and after each shot they kept asking to see the photo I’d taken. The kids seemed so comfortable in front of the camera; they were clearly used to being photographed, but not used to seeing the photos of themselves,” Laucht says.
“I realized that even though I was shooting on a digital camera, I had a Polaroid camera in my bag. I pulled it out, took their photos, and gave them the images to keep. Now, when I travel, I bring an instant-print camera along with me even when I’m mostly shooting on a DSLR. I think it’s a really good way of being able to give something back to the subjects you photograph.”
6. Foster a connection
Of all of her tips, Laucht swears that the best way to improve your travel photography is to focus on connecting with people in the places you visit. “I find it’s really important to foster any sort of connection you can with a subject before you take their photograph,” she says.
“If you’re prepared to spend a bit of time with someone—even if you don’t speak the same language—they’ll be more open to giving you their time. Plus, as a traveler, you’re going to walk away with a much richer experience if you’ve been able to actually connect with your subject.”
The importance of connecting with your subjects might seem like obvious photography advice, but Laucht is reminded of its significance with each trip she takes. “Some of the most incredible travel experiences I’ve had were never planned or accounted for, and some of the best photos I’ve taken have come from those same situations,” she says.
This was never more true for Laucht than when she traveled to rural villages near the hills of Jawai in Rajasthan, India, on assignment with a crew of photographers and videographers.
“For the project, the client wanted a shot at last light on a mountaintop. On our way up the hill, we passed a group of indigenous Rabari tribesmen sharing a pipe,” Laucht says. “The men didn’t speak English and we didn’t speak their language, but they were curious about our gear so we showed them some of our photos. After spending some time with the group, I asked one of the men if I could take his portrait (pictured above). To this day, I think it’s one of the best photos I’ve taken, which to me is the perfect example of how rewarding it is to slow down and connect with the subjects you want to photograph.”
To see more of Laucht’s adventures, follow her on Instagram.
For more on ethical travel, check out the below To the Best of Our Knowledge episode, inspired by AFAR’s May/June hospitality issue.