Photo Etiquette

I‘ve come across, lately, a few blog posts noting a certain frustration over the author’s inability to take candid pictures in certain parts of the world, notably Senegal, without being confronted with anger or demands for compensation.

At times the traveler is offended even that the subject should be so greedy as to demand money, have locals really been so perverted by our travels? Also, is it really so hard to figure out how to get candid shots?

Having traveled to Senegal, where I ran into this problem continuously, I thought I should retort.


Hey! What’s the problem here?

Some people don’t like to have their pictures taken, maybe even you don’t like to have your picture taken. I know depending on my mood or how recently I’ve gotten out of bed, I don’t like to have my picture taken.

By a stranger or a family member, it doesn’t matter. It’s my image and I’d like to think I’m in control of my image, and I don’t want the way I look right now to be frozen in time and looked at over and over again because I don’t feel it’s a proper representation of my image.


“Is that going on Facebook?” we hear more and more often before our subjects agree to have us take a potentially embarrassing picture.

What if an image is a metaphor for a soul?

And what is “your image” if not a reflection of your soul. You believe yourself to be one way at the core, and that is what you would like reflected to the world. If ‘your image’ is misconstrued, your soul has been misunderstood, or even worst altered. At times even if it is understood correctly, that can be viewed as a weapon, as is so very well stated in this essay in “Centre for Research Architecture”

“In the digital age, the soul is copied over and over again by means of data mining and user profiling: the tracking and tracing, examination and evaluation of personalized settings, individual preferences, and habits within communication networks. The digital double created by these practices can be perceived as an attack on the alleged integrity and originality of the soul.”

Is a picture really stealing a something?

But what is this speak of souls? Surely creating an image, be it a photograph or a data summary, isn’t the “thieving of a soul” . Indeed, it is said about some places that

This was explained to me as the reason why the Senegalese often refused having their picture taken. This was explained to me by expats, not by locals. Locals just shied away from the camera and offered no explanations.

Technically I still don’t know if local Senegalese actually believe their souls are being stolen. Some people–for example the author of the essay mentioned above–believe it to be a myth created by Westerners, a myth meant to reinforce the notion of the Noble Savage:

Is this just a myth used to perpetuate ‘Colonial’ and ‘Noble Savage’ stereotypes?

It proves what is supposed to be evident: the primitiveness of the other, of those who are unfortunately doomed, as well as their originality as a rare, still available and not yet fully exterminated example to whom the privilege of possessing a soul has only recently been granted; the naivety of those who are not familiar with new technologies, as well as the correlate power of those who know how to handle them properly; the spiritual innocence of the noble savage, as well as the guilty conscience of those who intrude upon their reservations..

Some argue that suggesting locals believe snapping pictures is snatching souls, with its allusions to Voodoo or primitive religions is degrading to cultures worldwide, and indeed a quick look at this thread on this forum can show you just how degrading some people can be.

Why not just strike up a conversation?

But does it really matter if we’re speaking of real souls, metaphorical souls, or just images? If someone is interesting-looking enough to want to snap their photo, wouldn’t that suggest they’re interesting enough to strike up a conversation?

John Rosenthal, from Sun magazine speaks of tourists pissing off a lady feeding birds in New York’s Central Park, summing up her frustration (as assumed by him) as a more deep seated hidden statement:

The hidden statement beneath the photograph he would take was really a remark, and it went something like this: “New York is filled with oddballs. This is one of them.” Uncurious about the real woman, he snaps her picture to validate the normality of his own life. She has become exotic to him because nothing else is.

What’s the real problem?

Would you not be upset if some random stranger walked by and took your picture, then walked away without even a hello?

tea, senegal, africa, tea tradition, pouring teaAnd if you tried to protest, what would your protests sound like?
“I don’t like the way my hair looks right now”
“I don’t know how you’re going to use this image”
“What if you make money off of it? Will you send me a check?”

It all just goes back to image management, we don’t want our image to be used in ways we didn’t intend. We have copyrights for intellectual property, and we have model release forms in photography, for just such purposes.
Stealing someone’s identity, intellectual property, or image in Western society is a crime punishable by law. All three of those things can–individually or together–be summed up by one word, “soul”… so myth or not myth, it makes sense. On multiple levels.

Not everyone cares, why should you?

So who cares? You can just snap away on your travels and hope you don’t run into anyone who’s got a problem with infringements upon their image, and hope the confrontation is brief if it ever happens.

True. You could. But in some places, you’d be taking a real risk. I’ve had stories of cameras being destroyed, and others of people actually getting physically assaulted.Senegal, africa, african family, senegalese family, breast feeding, breast feeding in public, family values

I considered putting together a list of countries you should be more careful in, but then I decided that really you should be careful everywhere, partially because the world is smaller everyday and you never know when you’ll run into this issue, partially because taking a picture without asking is just rude, everywhere.

Instead I came up with a list of 5 simple things I personally believe  you can do to keep from offending people, and help yourself out in the meantime.

1. Carry around business cards and hand them out to your “subjects”

  • promotes your brand and your site traffic
  • is most useful when you think your subjects readily have access to the internet
  • can work pre- or post-photo-taking, but in more sensitive zones should be done pre-photo

2. Carry around model release forms and take your subjects’ information

  • will help you sell pictures you take more easily
  • promotes trust that the picture will be used in a meaningful way, not just passed around for a laugh.
  • is useful when you don’t think your subject has access to the internet but would still benefit from getting a copy of their picture. Sending photos via snail mail is usually very cheap.
  • can work pre- or post-photo-taking, but in more sensitive zones should be done pre-photo

3.Have a chat with your subjects

  • allows you to get a better feel for the story the picture is taking
  • makes a stronger connection between you and your subject
  • nips conflict in the bud
  • doesn’t ensure a “yes, you can take my picture” but increases your chances

4.Don’t take a picture if someone is protesting or shying away

  • use good judgment
  • keeps you from bodily harm or harm to your equipment

5.Don’t pay people to take their picture, but do think of them if you make bank from their picture

  • throwing pennies at locals, who might or might not need money, is to treat them like a starving dog begging for your table scraps, and makes the assumption they can be bought. Often a real connection is much more beneficial to both parties than petty cash.
  • they’re people, not paid attractions, and if they need cash your few cents won’t help them long, there are sustainable ways to help local economies.
  • if you sell your photo for a lot of money, or on some stock photo site, or it’s in museums or magazines, do think about your subject… you have their info on your model release form, remember ;)
This Senegalese Lady gave me no trouble for taking this picture, but then we spent 3 hours with her and her family
This Senegalese Lady gave me no trouble for taking this picture, but then we spent 3 hours with her and her family
Photos aren’t the only things that steal souls

The thing with photographing candid subjects is that they are people with feelings and souls and can be offended. But I believe the issue is deeper. As John Rosenthal suggested, the issue is that we reinforce our reality by cruising quickly by our subjects and snapping their photos without scratching the surface.

I would personally like to argue that entire destinations have souls that can be tarnished, although they can’t fight back with protests or fists.

Whether you’re photographing people, buildings, landscapes, or anything else, try to do it with tact, dig a little below the surface, create a connection with your subject, and try to be true to them as much as you possibly can, knowing we all have our own perceptions of the world. Be creative and artistic in fact. Bring the world a point of view it hadn’t seen before, don’t just stick to the stereotypes, don’t just consume.

In fact, think not just of your picture taking, but your general relationship with a person or place…. how are you treating their image and/or soul?



  1. Hi Jade,
    I am not from Senegal or anywhere like it, but from Dublin, Ireland….but I did spend a few weeks in Dakar, many years ago.

    I found this post fascinating, as many parts of it put in words some of what I feel myself. However for some reason I was thinking about this issue again this morning, and this afternoon I have seen your post :) Is that like being pulled in by group consciousness to somehow “discover” it??

    I love taking photos but don’t like, at all, being in front of the camera. I have often told people who are trying to snap me that I am not comfortable as they are taking part of my soul away :)

    I guess in a simple way it would at least be acceptable to say that that moment in your existence and your image, cannot be entirely summarised in one photo. One photo of your image cannot possible communicate the depths, loves joys and pains that you have lived up until that precise moment.
    Jackie De Burca recently posted…Tossa de Mar Travel Guide-An Insider’s GuideMy Profile

    1. Thanks for stopping by and your thoughtful comment Jackie!
      I’m glad it resonated with you, and I’m always happy when I am witness to serendipity :)

      I completely understand as well as I think I’m one of the least photogenic people out there. I always feel like images are a terrible representation of the way I feel.

      It’s all about respect really.

      Have a great day!
      Jade Adele recently posted…The Real issue with the term expat.My Profile

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