There’s a time and place and way to take photos in the public sphere when travelling. Here’s a guideline from our travel-seasoned senior editor.
Story and Photos by Simon Vaughan
It was late afternoon as we slowly made our way up from the floor of the Great Rift Valley towards the Kenyan capital, Nairobi. On the way to the Masai Mara a few days earlier, I had spotted a small, stone chapel close to the base of the precipitous climb. I had learned that the place of worship had been built by Italian Prisoners-of-War while constructing the B3 Escarpment Road and I had vowed to snap a quick picture on the way home later that week.
With camera at the ready, I grabbed my photo as we drove by, only to quickly have several Kenyan police start screaming and shouting and running towards the vehicle waving long sticks.
There was no problem in photographing the building, but a big problem in photographing the police who, unbeknownst to me until too late, had been sitting in front of it. Thankfully, they didn’t have a vehicle and also didn’t radio ahead to erect a roadblock. Consequently I escaped without having to do hard time in a Kenyan jail, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that my palms were a tad moist.
There are certain things that we take for granted at home, like being able to photograph almost anything we like.
While it’s probably not wise even here to photograph the security cameras on the perimeter fence of your nearest international airport or the Customs Officers inside the terminal, most anything else is up for grabs. Sadly, this isn’t the case in many countries that are popular with travellers.
Some places forbid the use of flashes or tripods. Others charge a separate fee if you want to take photographs—and a further fee for video—while others permit no photography at all.
This last group often includes museums, galleries and places of worship. Generally though, if you do snap where you shouldn’t, the worst that will happen is you’ll be politely asked to stop. Occasionally you’ll be asked to leave. However, there are some places in which taking a picture—even a selfie with your SmartPhone—can result in arrest and imprisonment. Some are obvious and just common sense, while others are a little more head-scratchingly odd and could be either local law or just an attempt to grab a quick bribe.
This is especially true in some developing countries, and particularly so in countries with highly-restrictive governments. Once in-country, if in doubt and you have a guide with you, check with them first. If you’re alone, ask an official and if still in doubt, probably best just to err on the side of caution.
Travel photography tips for what not to shoot:
Anything that has a strategic value in the time of war or terrorism, may be subject to heightened security restrictions. It wouldn’t apply to major tourist sights like the Victoria Falls Bridge that connects Zimbabwe with Zambia and is the launching point for many a bungee-jumper, but if you’re crossing Rudyard Kipling’s “…great, grey-green, greasy Limpopo” a little further south, you might want to put your camera away until you’ve double-checked.
The situation with bridges applies to many dams too, although not all of them. The Egyptians are very happy for you to photograph their mighty Aswan Dam from the lookout point, as are the Zimbabweans of the Kariba Dam, but other dams and large retaining walls are very sensitive spots indeed. Best to be safe than sorry.
I tend to be more concerned with getting my papers in order when I’m clearing Customs or crossing a border, but if stricken with the urge to photograph yourself standing on the border between India and Pakistan, you might just want to check before immortalizing the moment in pixels, and then finding yourself led away in handcuffs.
Just like border crossings, airports are highly sensitive places. It’s likely not an issue to snap a picture of your plane through the departure lounge windows of your local airport before boarding, but it might well be a problem in some countries where even that innocent action can raise more attention than you’d like.
Even if you’re an architecture buff and the precinct near your hotel is a classic example of post-modern neo-Baroque rococo revival, keep your camera in your pocket and keep walking. Even in some of the most democratic and freedom-loving countries of the world, photographing police officers and other security officials can be a very serious no-no…unless they’re on ceremonial duty like a Mountie in full Red Serge!
Central London is home to several military barracks and if you’re passing at the right time, you might see the soldiers practicing the drills they perform at the Changing of the Guard and other ceremonies. No one will mind if you take a few photos. The same cannot be said for most military bases throughout the world, however. A bus load of British plane-spotters was once arrested in Greece for simply gazing through the fence, even though their specialist-aviation tour had government approval. None had even taken photographs of the aircraft but nevertheless the group was sentenced to as much as 3 years in jail!
Bizarrely enough, some countries have made it illegal to photograph the flag. So, even though there may be a dozen of them fluttering outside the airport when you arrive and dotted at key points throughout the city, don’t do it! I’m presuming this is a cultural thing rather than a security thing, but I chose not to try snapping a picture anyway!
You may not exactly get arrested for photographing a local without asking their permission first—or asking the parents’ permission in the case of children—but you might find yourself surrounded by an angry mob and even be pelted with rocks in some instances. Besides, not only is it very rude and inconsiderate to just stick your camera in someone’s face, but what’s the point of a photo of someone if you haven’t had at least some interaction first?
Your chances of actually running into a world leader during your travels are probably fairly slim, but while no one would likely hassle you for photographing the President’s motorcade as it whipped past you in DC, in some countries you could literally be shot for doing the same thing. Forget photographing a leader, in one Middle Eastern country, I was once instructed to turn around and face the wall while the leader just happened to enter their vehicle 100 feet away!
Most everyone who visits Ottawa tends to take some photos of Parliament Hill at some point and many capital cities even offer tours of their government buildings to visitors. But in some countries, if you so much as venture near some government buildings—never mind try and photograph them—you could well find yourself not just arrested, but in extreme cases, shot! Exercise extreme caution around government facilities, especially those in which the Head of State resides or works!