Is your travel photography ethical?

Fines are now being issued to tourists in Kyoto who photograph Geishas without their consent. Are we entering an era where common sense must be enforced?

Monday, January 13, 2020,
By Sarah Barrell
Japan is dense with cultural no-nos, but in an age where the ‘when in Rome’ edict ...
Japan is dense with cultural no-nos, but in an age where the ‘when in Rome’ edict has become a rule to live by, basic etiquette shouldn’t be ignored.
Photograph by Getty

If you find yourself exploring the narrow lanes in Kyoto’s famous Gion district, be careful where you point your camera. Visitors who snap a photo of a geisha (known as geiko in Kyoto) without consent face fines of Y10,000 (£71). Fed up with people accosting these ceremonially dressed women and their young maiko understudies in order to grab a selfie (in some cases, literally grabbing at their kimonos or hair ornaments), residents of Gion’s private lanes have fought back. Tourists are issued with leaflets explaining the ban, warning notices have been posted and surveillance cameras installed.

This is the latest attempt to preserve what Mimiko Takayasu, head of an association of local residents and shop owners leading the initiative, calls “Gion’s traditional atmosphere”. Kyoto’s tourist authority has previously launched a multilingual app and web page instructing foreign visitors in the social rules of this traditional city — but that, it seems, hasn’t been enough. So will the new vigilante approach work?

“The law is difficult to enforce,” says James Mundy, from specialist operator Inside Japan. “According to Van Milton, one of our Kyoto-based tour leaders, the signs threatening the fine don’t seem to be putting tourists off taking pictures. I think it’s more a cry for greater cultural understanding from the growing numbers of tourists.”

Tourism is often at the frontline of culture clash. Japan is a destination dense with cultural no-nos, a nation bound by etiquette. But in a global age where the ‘when in Rome’ edict has become such an obvious rule to live by, basic etiquette — and with it, respect — shouldn’t be so easily ignored.

This isn’t, of course, about the polite way to hold your chopsticks. It’s about reasonable exchange. A geisha’s appearance is part of her currency. It’s reasonable that there should be objection to this being taken without even a ‘please’ as payment. It remains unclear where funds from the residents-imposed fines will go, but if the district simply considered it a tourist tax for the culturally insensitive, would people blame them?

Ultimately, this is about power and consent. In a country suffering from skyrocketing visitor numbers, locals — including geishas — are overpowered. The World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) estimates Japan received a record 31.2 million foreign travellers in 2018 — a whopping 262% increase since 2010, making it the third-most-visited destination in Asia.

“With the tourism targets set by the Japanese government, Kyoto as a cultural capital was always going to see a rapid rise in visitors, many of whom travel with big companies who aren’t particularly concerned about local culture and etiquette,” says Mundy. “Inside Japan advises customers of the new law but I’d say most are well travelled, culturally aware and keen to learn anyway.”

The Japanese government has launched a campaign to tempt tourists away from overflowing honeypots like Kyoto to equally deserving destinations, where, no doubt, there’ll still be clumsy cultural stand-offs. But perhaps without mob rule, common sense will have more chance to reign.

Five steps to taking ethical travel photos

1. Ask permission
A smile and a gesture to your camera will convey this request in most languages. Ensure there’s a clear answer before you continue.

2. If in doubt, don't take the picture
If you’re unsure of consent, don’t take the photo.

3. Avoid awkwardness
If you feel uncomfortable taking the photo, your subject probably does too.

4. Share the photo with your subject afterwards
Once you’ve taken the photo, offer to show your subject the screen and/or send them the photo. It’s easy to do so in a digital age, and this sort of interaction can foster better travel experiences.

5. Learn the law
Religion, convention or local law may forbid certain photos being taken; religious ceremonies, women or children, and private residences are among the common no-nos.

Discover more ways to be a responsible traveller

Published in the Jan/Feb 2020 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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