How to take photos in Africa

A guide to responsible travel photography

Preparation

Type the name of your destination in a search engine and look at the pictures. Question those photos! Can you find others beyond exotic wildlife and romanticised poverty? How do photographers from your country of destination portray their country?

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Use this free worksheet from our online course* to go deeper.
I searched for Kenya in Google pictures and this is what I got:

Google search results: sunsets, elephants, giraffes, acacia trees and maasai

Yet some Kenyan photographers give a very different perspective (click on the photos to get to their awesome websites!):

Street Artists (by Cedi Mungai)

The new Kenya Airways Dreamliner (by Mutua Matheka)

Gilbert Tongyo in his fish shop (by Mwangi Kirubi)

Patricia Kihoro (by Victor Peace)

The reason for taking pictures

If there are millions of photos of giraffes in sunsets already – why do you take them again? What do you want to proof with your photos? Why do you hunt “perfect moments” like trophies? We often unknowingly reproduce the photos – and the stereotypes coming with them – which we have already seen many times before.

Landscape

men on house

There is more to Africa than the savannah. There are urban areas and skyscrapers, lush green suburbs, highways, semi-urban centres and malls. Do you only take pictures of rural areas, because they are so exotic, so different from what you know? If you leave out the urban areas and all the zones in between, you will portray an unbalanced picture.

People

Always ask for permission. Always. And don’t take that permission for granted. Some people will agree because you took them by surprise and they don’t want to appear impolite. That is not a free ticket to publication.

Bakari at the shore of Lake Victoria

Take respectful photos of people. Avoid a higher angle forcing them to look up because that makes them look small. When taking photos together with them, how are you positioned? In the middle of decorative black children? Standing, while other people are sitting down? Don’t make objects out of the others.

Editing

When digitally editing your photos, consider what you exclude for aesthetic reasons and why. Why do you chose this frame, and what are you leaving out? A slight change in contrast can make a flat landscape look hostile or sharp, and other adjustments can lighten or darken peoples’ skin colours. The border between ethical enhancement and manipulation is extremely blurred, so be careful.

Sharing and Publication

Again, you need permission from the people in your photos for publication. It is not easy, but here on this website we ask the parents of the children before we publish the photos. Social media is a form of publication, too. What would you think if you one day found a photo of you online portraying you as poor or exotic?

If you take photos with or of people, they also have a right to have a copy of them. Make sure to develop them and give them out before you leave, or make sure to share them online.

Captions

Name everyone in the photo or nobody. “Me and some kids” is a caption that makes the white person the hero, the main subject, and the children become mere props. What about “First-graders of Garden School on their last day before the holidays”?

Also, try to avoid stressing stereotypes in the captions or downgrade people or situations.

Safety

Big cameras and equipment as well as expensive phones may present attractive opportunities to thieves. If you neither want to lose your expensive equipment, nor feel like being constantly on the run from possible pick-pocketers, just leave your equipment in the hotel or the house and enjoy the walk through the city. It will be much more stress-free.

Ask your friend or guide whether it is okay to take the camera along and also whether you may take photos in certain areas or situations.

people harvesting pears in Dundori

Law

In Nairobi, like in other places, it is forbidden to take photos of some government buildings. If you want to avoid trouble with the authorities, respect these rules.

Not taking photos is also an option!

In the beginning you might be uncomfortable and over-aware or over-sensitive about many things, including taking photos. That is a good thing! You don’t have to get rid of this sensitivity. Your intuitive shyness about taking photos is a sign that you are aware of the complex process behind taking photos. Not taking photos is just as well an expression of a responsible attitude.

What are your best tips for taking photos responsibly? Share them in the comments below!


*To learn more about responsible travel photography and generally a more responsible way of travelling the global South, join the free email course.

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