Tips for Photography in a Developing Country


Canadian blogger and world traveler Brendan, aka "Cashewman" (who took the amazing photo above) has a great list of tips -- some aesthetic, some technical, some social -- about how to take great photographs when you're on the road in someplace like, say, rural Africa, where he's apparently spent a lot of time. One of the 13 tips he lists: ask if it's okay.
This is an important one for me. There are larger debates about photography etiquette and our responsibilities as visitors and photographers. I'll leave that for another time, but a golden rule is: if you're unsure whether to take a picture of somebody, then ask. In some areas, it's considerate to leave a small gift or amount of money as a thank you. Your call.

I missed one of the best shots I have ever come across, because I asked whether it was okay to shoot. Picture an old Senegalese grandmother, piercing green eyes within a face etched with thin white contours. Headscarf, clutched just below the chin with a flowing, boney hand. She was sitting in front of an earth wall with soft evening side lighting. When I asked if I could take a picture, she said no, with a subtle smile. I still wish I could have taken the shot. But she didn't want me to, so I'll just have to remember it instead.

13 Tips for Great Photography in a Developing Country (via @whiteafrican/ photo: Cashewman)


  1. I have traveled extensively in Asia & Africa. Many of the best pictures I took came after I spoke with and got to know the people. My camera was off to the side while I did this. When you treat people as individuals, and not objects, they become much more open to getting their photo taken. Of course, the really great bonus to this is you meet some great people and have some fascinating conversations. Certainly, there are shots you miss, but your description is beautiful and will remain in many minds and that’s not bad at all. (I hope it is from your journal).

  2. Brendan,

    “she said no, with a subtle smile. I still wish I could have taken the shot. But she didn’t want me to, so I’ll just have to remember it instead.”

    You did the right thing, IMHO. You respected her wishes. She may have been smiling at your consideration in asking her, rather than merely blindly assuming that she wouldn’t mind being photographed.

    You were treated to, and have remembered, her “subtle smile.” That is not bad compensation for the physical photograph, even if you cannot show it to others.

  3. Your site of photography in developing countries is similar to the reasons why CAPL exists (Culturally Authentic Pictorial Lexicon) expanded in 2009 to languages beyond German, CAPL seeks to provide a visual lexicon of world languages that are CC licensed. Contributions are welcome after contacting the editor.
    CAPL is hoping to expand into less comonly taught languages over the next few years.

  4. Because it is “so cool” to take “edgy” pictures of human misery.

    Small rant. I do not think that there should be a set of “rules for pictures in the third world”, at least not one that applies to people. Maybe about safety or something else.

    Maybe a set of rules for taking pictures of people “Anywhere in the world”.

    I hate the fact that the image foreigners have of Mexico is one of Sombreros and Tequila (lately is drugs and influenza, not a better image I guess). But the fact remains that most of these mental images come from “edgy” photos like the ones advocated by the general term “Photography of the third world”.

    So, in the spirit of Boing Boing, I urge you Xeni, to stop the complacency with this sort of speech, it seems colonialist, the spirit does not feel like one of comprehension and dialog, but one of “come look at the freaks”.

    Anyways, I am tired of people in so called developed countries not knowing geography, nor world history nor so many other things.

    I do applaud the effort you put into the Guatemalan story, specially the original “in Spanish” interview.

    I know people will see what they want to see in the pictures one shows, but I think the photographers could work towards a less condescending approach.


  5. What is different about us, people from “developing” countries, as compared with people from other countries?

    I find the mere existence of such “guide” or “tips” patronizing, to say the least…

  6. Verde, Tzcttlp,

    Thanks for the comments. But please go and read the actual post and comments.

    Verde: I never said ‘rules’ and I never said ‘Third World’.

    If you’re going to talk about colonialization, let’s talk about the use of that completely outdated term, originally used to delineate alliances during the cold war. ‘Developing’ isn’t a great term either, but it’s a lot better than ‘Third World.’

    OK, next. I also hate that foreigners image of Mexico is of sombreros and tequila. Read the post. I urge people to forget about tourist schtick, and get out to where real people live. I make this exact clarification about Mexico in the comments.

    I’m not sure how you got ‘condensing’ from the photos, if you actually looked at the site. I certainly don’t consider my work ‘taking pictures of freaks’. Anybody lacking empathy in this discussion? It’s not me tiger.

    Finally, you’re both right that it could be ‘taking pictures of anybody in the world’. Sure, I agree. But there are differences in how people see visitors with a camera, depending on where you are in the world. A lot of visitors abuse this, in my opinion. This post is to try to help change that.

    Again, ready the post. Of course, that won’t help you make ill-informed rants according to whatever dogma you hold dear. But it might help your comments be on point.


  7. Those tips apply anywhere, not just in developing countries. No matter where you go or what you’re photographing, you need to respect the country and you need to respect the locals. I live in a tourist area, I’d get freaked out if some tourist started taking my picture, so of course I’m not going to take some random local’s picture when I go somewhere.

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