Art or Act?: The Ethics Behind a Photograph

One of the more interesting debates in documentary travel photography is the use of local artisans to portray ‘authentic’ experiences. In nearly every corner of the world, traditional ways of life are giving way to the economic realities that rising costs of living, environmental pressures, and an ever-expanding globalized economy impose. And in our increasingly stylized online world, the constant pursuit of follower fame, ad dollars, and Instagram-able content often obscures and distorts the truth in what we see. 

Here off the southern coasts of Sri Lanka, since World War II, fishermen have forged a meager living by scaling improvised crosshatched wooden platforms sunk deep into the sandy shore bottoms to catch fish to consume and sell. Returns from stilt fishing were never good, with local fisheries already in steep decline for decades, and remaining stocks seeking deeper waters during much of the monsoon season, many were forced to supplement their survival by buying bulk catches from passing trawlers and re-selling them on the local market. However, until recently, these men nonetheless persevered.

The ‘Boxing Day’ Tsunami that devastated Sri Lanka in 2004 changed all of that.

The cataclysmic event permanently altered Sri Lanka’s coastal topography, pushing the seafloor further inland and creating a shallower coastline. The seismic waves took many hundreds of resident fishermen with them, and destroyed much of the inshore reefs that sustained their supply of fish and their economy - effectively ending the practice altogether.

Yet, in the years since, the fishermen that endured discovered that visiting tourists - perhaps inspired by National Geographic photographer Steve McCurry’s iconic photographs taken here in the 1990’s - remained keen to photograph them, and proffer ‘tips’ to stage photo shoots depicting this bygone way of life - a much simpler and often more lucrative proposition. 

As a result, the men in the photos below are, in effect, actors. Paid a small fee to recreate a lifestyle that no longer exists, they spend part of their days waiting for tourists to pass by and ask them to pose for this very scene.

It would be futile to argue against the benefits that tourism dollars produce in these places, especially those generated from a low-impact activity such as this. And, with very little relative cost required from visiting foreigners who can afford to travel here, the comparatively small amounts exchanged can feed, clothe, and house families much more efficiently and to greater transformative effect than any days and weeks of prospective fishing potentially could. Without question, these men are supplying a lowbrow service to meet a current demand; and, it must be said, the adaptive, entrepreneurial methods they have employed to meet their needs, and presumably those of their families, is commendable.

Of course, this phenomenon isn’t unique to Sri Lanka. Indeed, along China’s Li River the contrivance is even more comprehensive, where tour operators and government bureaus employ locals to stage and perform acts of traditional life for visitors. Seemingly content with the arrangement and genuinely entertained, the demand for this brand of tourism these visitors have created has transformed large swaths of China’s once quaint, hard-to-find backwater villages into featured destinations in glossy tourism brochures  - replete with chockablock hotels, banquet halls, restaurants, and souvenir shops.

Can a travel photograph be both inauthentic and convincing at the same time? Certainly. What remains less clear, however, is how it should be presented for public consumption. For photojournalists, the lines are well-defined, as the photographer’s code of ethics from the National Press Photographers Association is unambiguous: “Resist being manipulated by staged photo opportunities”; and, “Do not pay sources or subjects or reward them materially for information or participation.”  

When you consider the rise of social media ‘influencers’ with questionable credibility, and travel bloggers’ and brands’ ceaseless pursuit of eyeballs and cheap content - and operating under no agreed-upon ethical standard - the lines of acceptable disclosure have been unnaturally blurred. Complicating matters, original travel experiences, and genuine endemic cultures and traditions are disappearing and becoming increasingly difficult to observe and capture. Generally speaking, this combination of elements can seduce some into taking shortcuts, and resorting to deceptive and dubious photographic practices.

Mendacity in photography isn’t anything new, and dates back to its dawn. However, what would require superior darkroom skills decades ago can be accomplished with a few mouse clicks given the sophisticated photo editing software widely available today. What’s more, 60 percent of the global population now has access to the Internet; and more than half of them have smart phones, making online digital photography accessible to billions - and the competition for visibility fierce. 

In 2015, judges for the World Press Photo competition axed 20 percent of the entries submitted for final-round consideration. The unprecedented number of disqualifications, citing excessive and, in some cases, blatant acts of significant manipulation of the content of the photos, were three times that of the previous year’s contest, and sent a chill throughout the industry, according to the New York Times.

Photographers today are under increasing pressure to do more to push the envelope, to stand out in a crowded field, and to make a name for themselves, but significantly altered or posed-for work that isn’t properly communicated should never be held up for praise and acclaim. To be sure, unscrupulous image manipulation, and staged photo opportunities that lack appropriate disclosure deserves collective scorn. Self-policing and transparency should always remain first principles. Furthermore, watering down the standards that photographers, photo contest judges, and publishers adhere to would create a false choice, and send an ill-advised and reckless message to photographers, the industry as a whole, and the consumers they intend to inform.

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