Photography etiquette for travellers

  • Malaysia
  • Monday, 09 Jul 2012

The traveller and the camera are inseparable, but it’s a good idea to be mindful of local sensibilities when you wield your camera overseas.

Vacation photography can be a colourful and enjoyable activity. To most people, the words “vacation” and “photography” are virtually synonymous – you can hardly have one without the other.

The holiday itself may last only a few days, but the memories captured on film can last a lifetime. However, bear in mind that an innocuous activity like photography can turn into a nightmare, if you inadvertently break the rules or cultural norms of the place you are visiting.

women in saree

In the thousands of hours I’ve spent traversing the globe, I have thankfully had just a handful of misadventures.

The following points are helpful to ensure that you are staying right in your travel photography:

Not everything can be photographed freely

From museums in Paris to memorial-halls in Peshawar, indoor exhibits around the world are often protected from public photography.

Once you have been informed by notices, guides or guards, do as you are told or you’d be abusing your host’s hospitality, and perhaps even committing a criminal offence.

Many religious sites forbid indoor photography, from the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel to the venerable Delhi Akshardham Temple. Some secular sites do, too. When I was in Montreal, my hosts, Tourisme’ Montreal, highly recommended the famous underground city, but while I was merrily snapping away there, I was stopped by an aggressive off-duty security guard who held on to me and yelled for back-up!

There is apparently an incomprehensible law that forbids photography anywhere in the vast underground metropolis, something most tourists are unaware of. The tourism board apologised for the fracas, but refused to clarify the issue – as far as I know, scores of visiting shutterbugs still click away happily there, and there are thousands of photographs on the Internet.

Outdoor landmarks

Sometimes, inexplicably, even outdoor photography of scenic attractions are prohibited. The hospitable and scenic United States can, at times, be shockingly paranoid and suspicious, especially if you fit someone’s vague idea of a “terrorist”.

But, bear in mind that there are legal and security issues surrounding some popular tourism icons. For example, Brandon Kop, a Washington-based shutterbug, warns that “The White House is one of the most restrictive photo locales in DC,” even for seemingly normal exterior shots.

When in doubt, check before you shoot.


Once whilst driving to a Masai village in Kenya, I was shocked after being shouted at by my guide, who said it was forbidden to photograph the other Masai villages we were passing, even though I could see tourists with cameras there.

My worst experience, however, was at the famous red rock called Uluru in Australia, where I was sternly lectured on the strict limitations imposed on media personnel.

Everybody else in the world is apparently free to take all the images they want and put them in whatever newsletter, Internet blog or Twitter account they choose.

Media personnel, however, were given quite a harsh set of restrictions that do not make sense to me.

Rob Wallis, a veteran Aussie photographer, describes these restrictions with diplomatic terms like “onerous” and “absurd”.

Know what you’re photographing

Tourists in Rome, Berlin and other European capitals have had rude jolts upon being accosted by security personnel, who ordered them to erase images of the lovely old buildings they had photographed. The ornate and attractive edifices were actually foreign embassies, and as such were sensitive security areas.

I had an even more frightening experience. Being an avid classic car buff, I was photographing a 1950s truck in Cairo, when I was set upon by Egyptian police and hauled off to a lockup where I was interrogated. Although it had absolutely no markings, that rustic-looking truck was apparently a police vehicle, and they alleged quite violently that I had committed a serious subversive crime.

It took a very long and scary time before my driver-guide plucked up the courage to creep in and explain with a trembling voice that I was actually a guest of the Egyptian Tourism Board, and that apart from tourism icons, I was a harmless car buff who had been snapping any old cars I had come across.

Uniformed personnel don’t act uniformly

The Buckingham Palace Guards and the Beefeaters of the Tower of London are as popular with shutter-clicking tourists as the Royal Canadian Mounties and the mounted guards of Malaysia’s Istana Negara. And friendly gendarmes in France and sulu-wearing police officers in Fiji may willingly pose for tourists, but in many countries, you could be accused of terrorism – or worse – if you aim a camera at security personnel.

Airports are especially sensitive areas. The most unpredictable people you could make a mistake with are members of the dreaded Transportation Security Administration, the “airport safety” agency of the United States Department of Homeland Security.

In contrast, a beautiful but heavily-armed Tourism Police officer at Jakarta’s airport won my award for “World’s Best Tourism Police Personnel” when an elderly and slightly tipsy Dutch lensman asked her cheekily, “Are you going to arrest me?” and she quipped: “Only if you steal my heart!”

Why you photograph

church window

The freedom accorded to you in taking photographs outdoors depends a lot on why you are doing it. Australian officials can raise ludicrous fuss over anyone they suspect may use a photograph for pecuniary purposes.

The US can be perplexing, too. Most agencies in California, for example, require permits for any photography for “commercial purposes”, although they often don’t formally define the term.

Some state agencies in the US typically regard as “commercial” any photography done with the intent of sale for profit, including editorial, stock, calendar, greeting card, and fine art, while others regard editorial photography as non-commercial.

In contrast, most US federal agencies evaluate permit requirements on the activity’s impact rather than on commercial intent, and the tourist usually has all the freedom needed to snap vacation pictures.

A new fad is pre-wedding photography at scenic locations overseas. This can get quite complicated as bridal or “formal” photography is banned in many places that have no problems with ordinary tourist snaps. Even that world-famous bastion of free-speech and democratic expression, London’s Hyde Park, becomes a bureaucratic tangle when you realise that several permits are needed for any sort of “formal” photography.

Weddings parties are often not permitted to take photographs outside buildings you may think are open to the public. These include monuments in Selangor’s Shah Alam, religious buildings in India’s Amritsar, and even the car-park in front of the popular SM Mall shopping haven in Manila.

Photographing people?

You may be surprised by the issues that can arise when photographing people on the street in a foreign country. Whether travelling within your own country or abroad, you have to be cautious when photographing people. Know when you must seek permission and when you need not.

Some issues are legal, some cultural or religious, and others are simply about courtesy and common sense.

In ultra-modern Dubai, I was startled when the Filipina ground crew at a posh airline lounge began screaming at me when I photographed them. Having photographed airline crew all over the world as part of my work, I found this unexpected. However, it turned out they were legally right to object.

train ride

Visitors to neighbouring Abu Dhabi, Qatar and other conservative Muslim nations should avoid photographing women in general, and particularly women of the country you are in, without prior permission.

Every country has its own laws and rules regarding the rights of the shutterbug when photographing people. Some Third World countries, for example, have laws that forbid photographs of scenes of hunger and poverty. The wise thing to do is to check out the legal acts and rights of a photographer in the country you are in.

It’s always better to abide by the laws – and even the unwritten rules of society. Several friends in the British Isles tell me that they studiously avoid photographing children in public as there is almost a national paranoia about paedophiles there. What is pleasant in one country can be taboo in another.

To be absolutely safe, you should e-mail the relevant embassy or tourism board for clarification. Or check with your travel agent.

Knowing the rules is especially handy when you frequently go out for street photography or are, like me, very interested in photographing the cultures and traditions of people you meet.

Be sensitive, stay alert, and have a happy photo-filled holiday! - Story and photos by ANDREW PONNAMPALAM

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