Lately I’ve been looking at my photos and feeling guilty when I scroll past the occasional photos I’ve taken of children on our travels. Innocent photos of kids playing in sunshine, in rivers, rice paddies and on beaches. Pics of them cuddling with Emmie or playing games together. It’s a beautiful expression of childhood in Asia and a reflection of the joy that can be found in a simple life.
But I’ve realised I was wrong to take these photographs.
Photos of children are beautiful, yes.
And in Asia we can snap such gorgeous shots of curly haired golden skinned kids with open friendly little faces, wide grins and sparking white teeth. But should we?
I’m feeling it’s wrong to take photos of children we see on our travels and and share them - especially when we are sharing across social media channels. And when I see pics of kids on other travellers feeds on social media I feel really uncomfortable. Just today I've seen a photo on instagram from a male tourist who is smiling and holding a baby in a slum with a caption about how there is still joy in poverty, and what an amazing experience he has had. There is just so much wrong with this.
I think my stance has a lot to do with the fact that young kids really can’t give informed consent to their photos being taken. And we are knowingly fooling ourselves when we ask them if it's okay to take their photo and take their okay - or lack of objection - as consent.
And to be honest, we are exploiting these young children for our own enjoyment, and our need for instagram and facebook likes and comments on what a great photo/gorgeous children.
Quite simply, we are taking advantage of them.
I have some absolutely beautiful pics of young Bajau Laut children playing in the water with fish, running along the beaches and just being beautiful, happy little children on Mabul Island in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo.
I asked permission from them and from their parents before I photographed them but in hindsight that's just not enough.
I shared two of these photos on my instagram account to show the beauty of what I was experiencing and highlight the story of the Bajau.
What I was doing was wrong. These are children living in poverty on stilted shacks on some of the worlds most beautiful beaches, and yes the photos are amazing, but it’s not right for me to take these photos or put them on social media. I should have just enjoyed the moment and interacted with them, not stalked them from behind a lens.
They’re really beautiful shots, and they do tell a story and could help raise awareness of the plight of the sea gypsy tribes.
But I don’t need these photos of little children to do that do I? And yes professional photographers have taken photos of Bajau kids and children around the world - but they are photographers and photojournalists who have spent a lot of time with tribes and communities building trust and relationships, they are not tourists walking through their lives snapping pics to throw up on social media for likes and popularity.
I also paid some children who were dressed in traditional costumes for a photo on temple steps in Chiang Mai, justifying it as helping to support their family financially. But these kids should be in school, not being the bread winners and being exploited by tourists. This was also very wrong.
Here’s why I’ve stopped taking children’s photos and why I think you should too.
They are not old enough to give consent.
A three or four year old is not capable of giving considered permission for us to take their photo and put it all over the internet. I think any child under 16 can’t give informed consent and there are many reasons why they may say yes:
- they don't know what you've asked them
- they don't understand where your photo will go
- they feel pressured and intimidated to agree
- they are hoping for money to help their impoverished families
It is not our right to take and share photos of children.
We can choose to take and share photos of our own children, but we should never take and share photos of other children.
Asking and gaining their permission gives us a false agreement as we know in our hearts these kids are not capable of giving informed consent. And taking acquiescence as agreement is even worse. But we can make ourselves feel a little better by thinking, well they said I could take their photo, or they didn't object so it's okay. That’s just not good enough.
It puts them at risk.
Photographing children puts them at greater risk of having their images exploited throughout social media. It also creates a risk that children and families will see tourists photos as a way to earn an income for their family and community. Children will be pulled out of school (as they were seemingly in Chiang Mai) and put to work to earn money through having their photos taken. This is stealing their opportunity to gain an education, improve their lives and break from the poverty cycle.
Privilege versus poverty.
And it’s not fair to ask the parents either (and the adults with them, if they are selling goods or dressed up, may not even be their parents). Even if their parents say yes it is permission given in an unequal relationship. Our privilege gives us power in a request to take photos and it is unfair for us to even ask. They are in poverty, tourists have money and perceived power - it is an unfair discussion. They may feel they have to agree, and also then see photographs of their children as a way of earning money.
Their privacy is worth more than our social media popularity.
Do these photos in any way help these children? Not really. But they could get lots of likes on the web. Is that really a valid reason to take photos of kids? We should stop looking at children as photo opportunities and engage and really try to understand the situation they are in. Put the camera away!
We should protect children not exploit them.
If I take and share photos of little children like the Bajau, it’s possible that others will want to take the same photos and the cycle of tourist photography - all for a nice pic on instagram or facebook - continues, without helping the people being photographed. But if I don't share, and others don’t share, and we stop taking photos of children then that it will help protect the children and the communities they live in. We can raise awareness without taking their photos. Keeping the camera in our bag helps to protect these children and maintain their privacy.
You wouldn't let people do it to your kids.
Traveling with Emmie we have a lot of people ask for photographs with her, and a lot taking sneaky photos, which I hate!
If a stranger came up to her and asked to take her photo, then took her agreement (unlikely as she is over it!) as consent and posted her photo everywhere I would be really mad. Sometimes she will agree to a photo - like with a bunch of Chinese girls at Disneyland, which is cute and fun. And that’s okay. But she is not living below the poverty line with tourists snapping pics of her daily.
When is it okay?
The only pics I can think of that I would be okay with using are ones where we had a long term relationship with a family, or photos where children were entirely un-identifiable such as a silhouette. I really can’t think of any others.
These are my thoughts and my way forward and I am very comfortable with my stance.
And maybe we can start to measure the integrity and of a social media account by its lack of photos of children.
What do you think?
I found a great brochure at Siem Reap airport by an organisation called the Child Safe Movement. You can read all their info at www.thinkchildsafe.org