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To stage, or not to stage?

With the recent polemics surrounding a certain image that won a photography competition recently, I feel like we need to talk about travel photography. About people photography, in our case. And to set up boundaries as to what’s acceptable in both cases. Honestly, in my opinion, it’s a matter of common sense – but it seems that’s not enough. We still witness some shocking scenes in the world of travel photography these days.

A ‘staged photo’ by Malaysian photographer, Edwin Ong Wee Kee, won $170,000 – a decision that caused quite the stir. Source: Facebook/Ab Rashid.

Let me be clear: My goal isn’t to attack or criticise any specific, or specific group, of photographers. I don’t know these people. I’ve never met them. But the whole circus that events such as these have created is, in my book, very disturbing, which is why I feel it’s important to discuss the topic in general.

The case of photography

Let’s start by looking at photography in a wider context. When it was first invented, staged images were pretty much the only option. The equipment was big and bulky (and expensive) and the exposure times were very long.

Anyone who wanted to photograph people had to have them stand still for several minutes. Even with the invention of the collodion technique in 1851, the exposure time still had to be 2–3 minutes. Not exactly spur-of-the-moment stuff.

Then, in 1901, came the Kodak Brownie – the first commercial camera for the middle class. Photography exploded from then on and all the different types of photography that we know today were born.

Documentary photography stemmed from the desire to illustrate newspaper articles – and quickly, a set of ‘rules’, or commonly accepted behaviours, was established. Photojournalism and documentary photography had to depict the truth, without the influence of the photographer. Nowadays, if a photojournalist is caught staging their picture or modifying them in any way, it means the end of their career.

At the other end of the scale, there’s fashion photography. Very little fashion photography happening without staging, without someone directing the whole image. From the model, to the props used, to the choice of location… everything is controlled and staged for the best results.

But what about travel photography? It seems to me that travel photography is considered as the ‘hobby photography’; anyone can just grab a camera, hit the road and start shooting. If you try to remember the big names of travel photography, who do you think about? Well, there is only one name that comes to mind for most people. Just one.

To me, this proves that travel photography is largely ignored as professional fields in photography – so no one has bothered to set any ethical guidelines. After recent events, maybe it’s time we do so.

The case of travel photography

You may remember the 2015 controversy surrounding Steve McCurry. He was accused of having Photoshopped some of his images to make them more aesthetically pleasing. At first, he said his staff did it. Then he said that he: ‘considers himself to be more of a “visual storyteller” rather than a photojournalist.’

What I understand from this is that basically, if it isn’t photojournalism, no one cares. But the problem is that I do care, and the International Travel Photographer Organisation (don’t Google it, I just made it up) isn’t doing anything about it. So I thought I’d set up some ground rules because, well, no one else has.

When it comes to travellers and tourists photographing people, the situation can get out of control. Living in Asia, I witness people travelling here to take photos of people on a daily basis. In fact, my job is teaching people how to practise better people photography – so I’m constantly exposed to this industry.

I’ve already shown some examples of what I consider to be unacceptable behaviours in the world of travel photography today. As another example, a friend of mine witnessed something very disturbing while travelling in Bangladesh. As he boarded a train in Dhaka, he saw a group on a ‘photography tour’. A Bangladeshi man was sitting on the train, praying. One of the participants of the tour, probably thinking that the man praying was doing so at the wrong angle, or in too weak a light, put their hand on the man’s head and tilted it forward. Without a word, a hello, or a thank you.

Lots of people think that Asia is a great place to photograph people. Unfortunately, some of these people think that’s because you can do what you want with the locals – as if they weren’t people at all, but mere subjects available for your photographs. Like going to the zoo to pat the monkeys and throwing them peanuts for good behaviour.

At least, that is what it feels like to me. That this is what some ‘travel photographers’ believe. Which is simply unacceptable.

As I mentioned earlier, there are really no rules for travel photography. Not yet, anyway.

Most people practise this form of photography when travelling. Some do it as a way to remember the places they travelled to. Some do it in order to take beautiful images that they’ll be proud to show their friends and family. Some do it in order to win travel photography competitions.

The case of ethics

I started writing this article with the intention of applying ethics to travel photography – but honestly, it’s not just about photography. It’s about having common sense and even the minimum standard of ethics. People are people, human beings like you and me. And just because they live in a poorer country than you doesn’t make them your free models for your beautiful photographs.

If you’d like to travel and photograph people in an ethical way, first start considering people as people, as equal to yourself. This means showing them respect, interacting with them, and – one of the most important aspects – giving them something back. Not something physical, simply a personal exchange. Make them laugh by showing them the photo you’ve taken or, even simpler, make yourself available for them to take a look at you, a foreigner, that maybe they’ve never seen before.

Ask yourself this: What is travel for you? Is it staying in a group, following your guide and going to visit every place that tourists visit? Or is it getting a bicycle and going the opposite way, in search of a more authentic, genuine experience? It’s up to you what you want to do. But maybe, to those people in the huge group, you could say: ‘Hey guys, I think you’re missing out. You should try and get lost a little more’. (You know, in a nice way!)

Just waiting for that perfect light! Photo courtesy of Mike Pollock. Source: Pics of Asia.

Now, about the staging thing. A lot of photographers travel around the world and stage images wherever they go. And there’s nothing wrong with staging photos. They can help you to take better pictures, and guarantee that you return home with ‘the shot’. I know a lot of great photographers who stage images as part of a project they’re working on. But none of them lie about it.

If you do stage an image, just be honest about it. Say that you staged it. Because telling people that you managed to capture this incredible candid image when it was actually staged… it’s just unethical. It’s lying to the people who see your picture, and it’s lying to your subject, too. It’s depicting your subject in a way that he/she is not. If you stage your image, you staged it with your preconceived idea of what it should look like. Not what it really looks like.

If you don’t buy into this for the ethics involved, then consider this: You know how the world is today, in this information age. People will find out. People always find out.

Staging an image using a preconceived idea, a concept you have in mind, using a model that you can control? There’s a name for that – it’s called fashion photography.

There are no rules in travel photography, so anyone can do what they want. At least, that seems to be the unfortunate consensus.

But there are basic human rights that everyone should respect. You shouldn’t use people as your personal models if you don’t show them respect or even involve them in the process. This happens a lot when people disguise a staged image as a candid one – often with the goal of getting into photo competitions and increasing their perceived value. If they shot these images candidly, it means they’re pretty good photographers. Whereas staging photos can actually turn you into a worse photographer – sure, you’re in control of all the elements in the frame, but where’s the creativity?

The creativity question

In the end, it’s a personal choice – whether you want to stage your image or not. As I said above, if you decide to stage your image, it’s fine as long as you’re honest about it. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with it, if you’re honest with yourself and the people viewing your images. You won’t be misleading the public by pretending that this or that situation was real, when it’s been fabricated by someone who may have interpreted the scene from a different cultural point of view.

My main issue regarding this topic – and this is more personal – is about creativity. Because my primary role is teaching photography, I’m against staging – for me, it’s counter-creative.

Creativity in photography, and art in general, comes from conflict, from the unexpected, and often from the accidental. I’ve never woken up in the morning feeling like a creative genius! No, the times I’ve felt creative with my images and composition is when I’ve messed them up – I was too late, I cropped in a weird way, I had the wrong setting on, or my subject moved in an unexpected way. These, in fact, were the times that I got my best photographs.

Staging your images closes the doors to all of these factors – factors which can make creativity happen. Of course, it isn’t as simple as that. Becoming a good photographer, who is able to capture a good image in any condition, takes years of practice. But there are no shortcuts when it comes to art, and the real genuine art takes years to create.
Take the example of fashion photography. Most of the time, the final image starts with a concept, an idea. What differentiates it from travel photography, is that the people coming up with these ideas are usually good at doing so. They’re artists, they make bold moves, they think creatively to catch the attention of the public.

I doubt that every single hobbyist photographer travelling around Asia and staging their images has such vision. Often, they’re simply inspired by other images they’ve seen before, some stunning scene that moved them. Or by some other image that won a photo competition once. And so, what they often do, is copy that image they’ve seen in the past.

Frankly, as a photographer, a teacher and a fan of creativity, I find it pathetic to be constantly exposed to the same images – merely copies of copies of photos that, once upon a time, were original and authentic.

The scary part is that this trend isn’t slowing down. Nowadays, photography is accessible to pretty much everyone, and with the huge number of ‘photography tours’ available in Asia, anyone can be a travel photographer. All of this competition makes it harder to make a place for yourself as a photographer or to be recognised by your peers. So some people choose to take a shortcut, to reach fame faster.

Who’s to blame? Photography competitions

A decade ago, there were were only a few travel photography competitions around. Prestigious names, prestigious competitions, awarding great creativity and originality.

Nowadays, it seems that launching a photo competition is simply seen as a great way to make good money.

Think about it. If you know how to build a website, that’s all you need. You can launch your new ‘Renowned International Photography Competition’ website, and charge people to enter their images. Then you can find tonnes of emerging photographers happy to judge the images for exposure. You make money, you don’t spend any. Jackpot!

The truth is, there is no exposure for the judges. When is the last time you checked the bio and website of all the judges in a competition?

Another problem is that these emerging travel photographers may not be experienced travel photographers. They may not know about photography as much as a pro, and may not know about images which are actually copies of other images. If I see one more image of a novice monk in Bagan burning incense, Chinese cormorant fisherman, Inle lake fisherman or Omo valley cute kids with flowers on their heads winning a competition, I will instantly categorise that competition as BS. Because such images have been created and captured for over a decade now. They have already won plenty of competitions. We’ve had enough of seeing them. And any respectful competition organiser should know that.

Since it’s getting more and more difficult to make a name for yourself in the world of travel photography today (remember, everyone is a photographer), then it seems that winning photography competitions could help. What that means is that photography competitions officially decide and inform the public what a good picture is. And that’s the scary part!

If you see an image winning the National Geographic photography competition, you’ll probably think that it must be a great image. Similarly, people seeing competition-winning images tell themselves that these must be great images, the images that they should be taking in order to… win photography competitions. They’re leading by example: what to shoot in order to be popular. The sad thing is, it’s becoming more and more rare to see real creative work being awarded. People want the ‘wow’, the postcard. The problem is, the postcard isn’t real. It was created to look ‘wow’.

Why are you practising photography?

If your goal is to become famous and win competitions by staging beautiful images, there is ethically nothing wrong with that – if you are clear about what you do and how you do it. The worst thing is finding out that a photographer lied about staging images. It usually means, for them, the end of a promising career.
On the creative side, though, this won’t help you to improve your travel photography skills, especially if you photograph people. Because in places like Asia, where scenes can be quite busy and chaotic, photography skills are needed to capture great images.

If you practise photography for the sake of it, because you love it, because it’s your passion – or, in my case, because it pushes me to travel further and meet new people – then why would you ever need to stage an image?
As I mentioned earlier, creativity comes from the unexpected, which is the opposite of carefully planning a composition and using models. Staging images can make you become a lazy, bad photographer. Staging photography can lead to you travelling in that huge group of people who all want THE shot. (Sure, everyone will get THE shot. But everyone will get the same shot.)

Conclusion

In the end, you can stage photos if you like – but please be honest about it. If your goal is to win photo competitions, just be aware that a lot of today’s ones are dubious and won’t get you anywhere. (I know a lot of people who have won great photo competitions and their lives haven’t changed because of it!)
One last thing: It’s important that photographers don’t fall into the photo competition/social media trap. That is, taking photos of what you expect people to like, in order to bring you more popularity.

This is the end of art and the beginning of marketing.

Shooting for popularity, not shooting for yourself, will make you become a predictable photographer – shooting the same things, over and over again. There is no more room to express your voice and opinion. There is no style and originality. You may win a photography competition once, but what are you going to do next? Shoot the same thing?

To stage or not to stage? To shoot for others or yourself? They’re big questions, which pose a lot of arguments. But I think it’s about time that we started asking them.

– Etienne Bossot, founder of photo tour company Pics of Asia, is a teacher and tour guide. This article originally appeared here.

2 Comments

  1. Andre Moonen Andre Moonen April 3, 2019

    Great Article. Thank you. Would love to start a discussion on this. I’m an advertising photographer and also shoot a lot of personal work. Most of our work commercial work is constructed (stage). A lot of our personal work is as well – it’s not travel photography, it’s creative ideas that we execute it. What’s funny is our style is candid, although we stage it.

    Travel photograph is difference I supposed, becuase the EXPECTATION is that it’s not staged and is real life. So the creative part of travel photography would purely be how you used your camera and how you observe the world – finding beautiful light, nice/different angles, compelling scenes, and a way to communicate a message powerfully without interfering with the environment. So you are creating an image via HOW you capture it, rather than (what happens in advertising) how you construct AND capture it.

    I’d find it an interesting challenge to capture travel imagery in a creative way that is unique. Maybe i should take the challenge – i might see something others don’t becuase I’m trained differently.

    • Etienne Bossot Etienne Bossot April 3, 2019

      Yes, Andre, the pleasures of travel photography is that we have no idea what we are going to get at the end of the day. It is a great exercise as we are constantly thinking about composition, and anticipating our subjects’ actions (in Asia we mostly focus on people photography).

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