It seems that everywhere you turn these days there is a rant going on about a viral video featuring a group of Asian photographers (like, loads of them - we’re not talking a small group of 10 or so) grouped around a rather sad and unfortunate duo of local workers at the some non-descriptive rice fields, with the guide (and I’m using the term very loosely here) running around with a loudspeaker (oh yes, a loudspeaker) shouting commands at the poor women, attempting to direct them here and there, while all the time the photographers (again using the term loosely) crowded around them snapping away. For those of you who have managed not to see the video, it’s here.
The amount of scorn, indignation, anger and ridicule heaped on these asian photographers (and their guide) has been immense, with seemingly almost everyone, from the basest amateur to more seasoned professionals blaming those photographers (and guide) for everything, from the “decline” of photography to the destruction of travel - in general - to, I am certain, globalisation, destruction of indigenous people and everything in between. I have read all those comments with a certain amount of amusement because, much as I don't agree with what is happening in the video, I cannot help but thinking that it is photographers such as those condemning the group depicted who have led to the rise of such photographic tours and their impact on the world, photographic and not.
Now, before you freak out and burst out in anger, bear with me for a bit and you’ll see that I am right. Then we can discuss this in more detail. You see, there are four components working together to create this mess and the fault, frankly, lies more on us, photographers, than anyone else. The four components are: photo tours, guides, photographers and, finally, the internet. Let’s examine them one at a time:
Around 10, maybe 15 years ago someone looking for a photo-focused travel tour would, upon careful research, maybe come up with a handful of organisations (just to give you a sense of what I’m talking about, National Geographic was one of them, through their NG Expeditions) offering such services - luxury travel to hard-to-reach exotic destinations and the services of a professional experienced photographer to handhold them along each step. Naturally, such tours would cost many thousands of dollars, would require high quality equipment and, as a result, were usually available to the few (and rich).
But the last 15 years have brought such revolutions to photography - making it, among other things, cheaper and more accessible to everyone - that more and more would-be photographers started travelling with their cameras and seeking the pictures they had seen in National Geographic (and other publications). Of course, even 10 years ago, if you tried to find a guide specialising in photography you would have to search a lot (and I do mean a lot) so most of them ended up with normal, tourist guides, haplessly trying to accommodate the highly specialist requests from their group members, usually failing, leading to frustrated travellers and so on. I’m sure some of you reading this now, in your 40s or 50s, have been on such tours - I know way too many amateur photographers who have done just that!
But, as always, the world adjusted, and more and more “photo tours” started appearing, from companies which only a few months ago could barely put together a normal tour, all of a sudden offering “highly professional guides”, “expert photographers” and so on, competing mainly on price (and as a result, quality). Within a few years, searching for a “photo tour” would return thousands of entries, from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand, all of them making fantastical claims and guaranteeing stunning results to the participants.
The result? These days there is literally no photogenic place you can hope to go in which you will not come up against groups of photographers, laden with cameras and lenses costing more than most locals would make in a lifetime, climbing out of luxury 4x4s, snapping 1000 images and then, usually without a word, climbing back inside to be rushed to the next hotspot.
Why is this happening? Because of demand. When demand exists (and in this case it does and it has tons of money to spend!) supply will eventually rise to meet it at its highest point - nobody can blame local guides and even experienced photographers from jumping on the bandwagon and attempting to capitalise on this… the question is, are they all suitable? And is the behaviour of the guide in the video acceptable?
Of course, the tour is nothing more than a vessel and the guide is the driver responsible not only for the direction but for the quality of the trip as well - not only for the tourists, but the locals as well. Now, there are some very good guides out there - clever, knowledgeable, competent, sensitive to their environment and their subjects, communicative and so on. These guides would do well anywhere and, in 99% of the cases, they were excellent before they were asked to lead “photo tours”. These however are the rare exception and far from the rule. The rule is another thing altogether.
There are really two types of photo guides these days, one infinitely more dangerous than the other. Lets examine them together:
The local guide is, usually, an amateur local photographer, hired by a local travel company and usually furnished with a driver and some local contacts and a fixed itinerary, and then let loose on the hapless photographers. These guides rely exclusively on their ability to communicate in the local language, their easy access to what is literally their own backyard and the fact that they run similar tours approximately all year round. These guides, while lacking the in-depth knowledge and quality of high-end professional photographers, they tend to be more empathetic to the locals, more likely to at least engage in minimal conversation and even more likely to offer insight into what the visitors are seeing and experiencing. Travelling with these guides is a far more authentic experience but, equally, will almost certainly never lead to high-end images. I find these guides less damaging to the experience the locals have.
Of course, there are exceptions: the guy in the video is the worst kind of exception and, in my experience, not fully representative of what is out there. Don’t get me wrong - they do exist (and I’ve even come across a couple) but have not found them to be the rule.
The second type is infinitely worse. These are the actual professional photographers - usually someone who won a competition or two (so, clearly competent - no question about it) and who, most likely, shot their winning images in some similar tour - and who realised that they can now leverage that, charge large sums of money to anyone willing to pay (and, as we will see later, there are hundreds of thousands of these!) and essentially print money by becoming “photo guides”. And there are a lot of them these days. After all, there were, at the last count (2016) more than 800 international photography competitions - let alone smaller, regional ones - so by definition, more than 2,400 photographers come out as winners every year!
Why are they worse you ask? Because unlike the locals, they remain a tourist everywhere they go - they create photo tours in places they know are photogenic (see for example Ethiopia, Namibia, Morocco, Vietnam, China etc.) but themselves are only there for the tour (some of the higher end ones MAY - and that’s a big assumption - visit the place before for scouting) and nothing else. They rely on local fixers (see above!), drivers and translators - essentially barriers between their group and the locals.
They are there to do a job and their job is to help people who are not willing to put any effort into preparing an actual exploration, into learning and understanding local culture and connecting with its people, to get good images. They will pose locals in what their customers think are iconic images (anyone say “little kid surrounded by others in a circle of their feet” or “young novice monks holding a candle while streams of light come through the window”?) and, most of the time, they will treat anyone and everyone as a prop to use as they want. Yes, their customers will get better images than those with the first guides, but their impact to the local communities is infinitely worse as the distance between the locals and the photographers is massive, not-willing-to-be-bridged by anyone, leading to the locals seeing these intruding photographers as an annoyance to be tolerated because of the money they bring and nothing more.
These guides, by their practices, change the people they visit, “teaching” them that every time someone takes a camera out they have to adopt specific poses, act a certain way and, of course, demand money. Any place where such guides frequent is altered forever and always for the worse!
Those of you following this blog know by now that I am a massive fan of the proliferation of photography. I love the fact that now literally everyone can have access to a very good camera for very little money and to thousands of hours of high quality free tutorials allowing them to learn and hone their skills. The fact that trial and error are now free only makes things easier! I love that - if I were the president of Nikon or Canon, once a year I would open my warehouses and give away all my older unsold stock away for free! But I digress.
While millions these days exercise photography in a very normal, sensitive and collected manner, conscious of their environment and with right intentions in their hearts, there are many thousands who are not so, well, nice. They are those for who photography is nothing more than a bragging contest of equipment, travel destinations and photos ticked! For them photography is not about telling a story or about capturing life - it is about busting their friends on who has the better camera (their fireside conversations almost always revolve around just how many stops of dynamic range their sensor has compared to that of the other person and which lens is better because of the quality of sand used by the company in creating the glass), about showing off after returning from, say, the mountains of Java or the Afar region in Ethiopia (when their friends most likely barely made it to Brighton) and, of course, showing off the picture of the cute African kid, painted with chalk and and surrounded - “oh, look how cute and tribal” - by his friends with their dirty dusty feet pointed at him - “this is certainly a picture for National Geographic” - etc.
They don't give a crap about the children themselves or their lives, they don't even know if those kids like what they’re doing - in fact, most of them insist their guide forces the pose even if the people are not willing or used to accommodating it - and, well, the moment they get their image, they are already turned to something else, not even bothering to help the kids who sat in the dirt for them to stand up! They are there to use - and, unfortunately, abuse - something wonderful, authentic and original for no reason other than Facebook and Instagram likes! They are the ones who hire the guides - regardless of price (after all, what better way to show off your $15,000 equipment than paying for a $5,000 week-long trip with a “professional photography guide”?
I can almost hear you groaning, but please bear with me a bit because this is not another rant against the internet - I love the power it gives me to do all the things that I want, to do my research and communicate with people. At the same time, I feel that it does bear some “responsibility” for the mess portrayed in the video. Let me explain: first of all, think of all those photographers looking at images (and obviously, when you do an image search for, for example, Myanmar, the top entries are usually images by high-end professional photographers) and wondering how, with their very expensive gear, can they be guaranteed to get the same kind of images too. They reach out to one of the aforementioned “photo tours”, maybe even send them a few of the images they downloaded, and demand they be taken to shoot the same images themselves - and of course, the hapless guides try hard to set things up for them, often to the detriment of the local people and the environment.
Second, think of what happens after they come back. Most of them realise the images they came back with are not really as amazing as they thought they were, share them with their friends and other social media outlets, gather a few dozen likes, affirm their enormous photographic prowess and, confident that going on a photo tour paid off, launch their browser and search for the next one and the one after that. And on and on it goes…
It’s all about the money
They say money is the root of all evil, but having seen evil freely dispersed without any financial aspect, I’m no longer as certain. However, money does play a huge part in creating situations as the one displayed in the video. These are the numbers - just in case you were wondering - for a “photo tour” to Ethiopia:
Cost of the local transport crew: $200-$400 per week for a 4x4 fitting 5 people, so around $40-$80 per week per person, lets go nuts and say $100
Cost of local fixer (not the photographer guide): $100-$200 per day (this is per group and this is high end!), so maybe $100 per week per person?
Local hotels: $100-$300 per night per room at the most luxurious hotel. Say $800 per week per person (for the utmost in luxury)
Tips and other expenses: lets be generous and say $100 per week per person
This brings the costs (without international flights, but 95% of the time those are excluded anyway) per person for a 2 week journey to $2,200 for a tour steeped in the ultimate luxury. If you’re willing to be a bit more reasonable (just a bit), costs go down to $1,500 or so. Now, look at how much 2-week photo tours cost. They range from $5,000 all the way to $8,000 per person. This means, the pure profit for the photographer is anything between $2,800 and $5,800 per person! If only 10 people sign up for the tour, that’s an average of $35,000 for a 2-week stint.
Can you see now why everyone wants to lead a photo tour? Don’t get me wrong - I’ve lead a few (far cheaper than above and usually including international travel) and they can be profitable at cheaper prices, plus they are fun! The question is how you use them…
So, there you have it friends - the photographic quartet of cultural damage. Now, lets go back to my original assertion that almost everyone who condemned the asian photographers is part of the problem. You see, most of the critics are also exactly the types of photographers who will buy and follow “photo tours” - you can tell by reading their pious indignation, by reading just how much purer and better THEY are, how when THEY go on photo tours (!!!) they are so close to the locals and that THEIR guide is different from all the others and how THEIR motives when they are behind the camera are not to take the picture but to connect with their subjects etc etc. Of course, 9 times out of 10, if you go through their sensitive images you will see either the same images as everyone else has or voyeristic shots of locals completely disconnected from the viewer (see? Now my categorisation of guides makes sense, right?).
I guess what I’m trying to say is: next time you see something abhorrent to you, something which pisses you of, before you express your critique and righteous indignation, think a bit in case you, deep down, are not that much different from the people you’re dissing.
Oh, and just in case you’re wondering: in 25 years of professional travel and photography, yes, I have hired both types of guides enough times to know how to tell them apart (and eventually to manage the bad ones sufficiently for my needs), I have pursued photos inspired by things I had seen online or in books and have staged photos in a way that matched my vision or assignment. These, don't fool yourselves, are part and parcel of travel photography since the dawn of time. The challenge is not to avoid doing them, but to truly do them in a sensitive and minimal footprint way. And this is much, much harder than it sounds!