Ethical Considerations for Cross Cultural Photography


Representing others though images is a powerful act that has many ethical implications. Photographers that step into a culture different from their own have great opportunity to shift the world’s attention and give power to people who would otherwise never have their story told. National Geographic attributed a great photograph with the power to “explode the totality of our world, such that we never see it quite the same again.” (Draper, 2013) In a visual universe such as ours, where light is the fastest known way to transmit data, images have the power to convey ideas nearly instantaneously. This is a tremendous power.

Surely, other media, like poetry or music, have the power to connect people as well, but no other media can speak a thousand words faster than an image. Society has been aware of this fact for a long time and cross cultural photography has been connecting people of different cultures nearly as long as there have been cameras. A notable early cross cultural photographer was Edward Sheriff Curtis who spent years documenting Native Americans in the early twentieth century. (Horse Capture, 2001) His portraits offer a rare look at what Native American life was like one hundred years ago. Despite the obvious high quality of his photographs Curtis’s work remains controversial even today. Though he meant well, Curtis approached his subjects from the arrogant, paternalistic, attitude that was the norm at the turn of the twentieth century and as a result, his photographs are often criticized for their lack of authenticity. (Dickinson, Ott, & Aoki, 2006)

Photographers still deal with the same ethical dilemmas that Curtis did a century ago. That is, with the power to represent others in a timeless technology, like a photograph, comes a great responsibility to portray the subject accurately and fairly. Many of these ethical challenges stem from the narrow frame of context provided by even the best photograph. A photograph, for as much as it can contain, cannot show everything, and because of this, cross cultural photographers should be careful with work they publish for a mass audience. Zachary Rosen elucidates: “so much of a photograph’s meaning is not captured within its frame. What is not confined to the frame is the social environment within which the image was created. This social context can profoundly affect the way we experience and interpret images and shouldn’t be forgotten, particularly with images that are thrust at us by the media.” (Rosen, 2013) There are many ethical considerations to telling a story on behalf of someone else with only a few images.

Often called travel photography, both amateurs and professionals shoot pictures of other cultures but ethical issues really only come into play when the photos are used for mass distribution. For the purpose of this article I will consider anyone who takes pictures in a culture that they themselves are not a part of, with the intent to publish, as a cross culture photographer. Furthermore, it should be noted that the guidelines laid out in this article are written with photographers in mind but that these ideas will also be of benefit to those who use their cameras to produce videos as well.

Africans blending tradition, technology, and politics, in Kenya in 2014. 

Africans blending tradition, technology, and politics, in Kenya in 2014. 


Ethical Considerations for Cross Cultural Photography

            Photographers who document cultures other than their own should carefully consider how they portray people that they know little about as a culture and little about as individuals. Photojournalists rely on their own morals as well as the code of ethics laid out by The National Press Photographers Association or NPPA. This code of ethics outlines what photojournalists and documentary photographers should and should not do with sixteen different rules. (National Press Photographers Association, 2013) These are excellent guidelines and should be considered and followed by all photographers not just those who work in journalism exclusively.

Though the list of ethics laid out by the NPPA is an excellent guide for ethical photography, many cross cultural photographers do not consider themselves to be photojournalists, and may feel that these ethical guidelines do not apply to them. Any photographer who publishes pictures for a mass audience should consider the NPPA ethical rules as well as the ethical considerations outlined in this article.

Like it or not, pictures of other cultures, published widely, are generally seen as representative of that culture as a whole. This becomes problematic because photographs inherently have a small frame: they show less than they leave out. This can easily lead to inaccurate impressions and stereotypes and is why context is so important in cross cultural photography. Photography that originates and is published within the same culture is generally far less dependent on context because much more of the context is already known by the audience. When depicting cultures that the audience is less familiar with, on the other hand, context becomes far more essential if one is to avoid disseminating inaccurate impressions or encouraging stereotypes. The idea of context in photography is important and ties in with all the remaining ethical considerations that this article will discuss.

            Another consideration for cross cultural photographers is the focus of the photograph. While there is certainly value in exploring what makes cultures different and unique often times cross cultural photography focuses solely on the differences between people and as a result excoticizes them. The exoticization of other cultures is problematic because it is dehumanizing and can lead to apathy in the audience. After seeing a culture portrayed in images as being different (exotic) from the audience over and over the audience loses their ability to identify with the subjects in the photograph. In this way exoticization of cultures makes them harder to relate to and harder to empathize with as an audience.

The most common method of communicating in Africa about and on behalf of Africans. 

The most common method of communicating in Africa about and on behalf of Africans. 

Before They Pass Away

            Before They Pass Away is a very large photography project by Jimmy Nelson about traditional cultures from around the world. The project reached its pinnacle in the fall of 2013 when Nelson’s publisher, teNeues, released two versions of the same book titled Before They Pass Away. The standard edition of the book is large and sells for €128.00 but the XXL edition of the book, as it is known, is even larger and sells for €6500 which is about $8931.The book contains hundreds of pages of photographs of people from around the world dressed in traditional or tribal clothing.

For three and a half years Nelson traveled the globe taking pictures of thirty-five different groups of people. (Cade, 2013) His photographs are highly staged, complete with props and costumes; Nelson even brought an assistant to help manage all the different camera equipment. The result is many high resolution photographs that are incredibly stunning. They really are beautiful pictures and have been highly acclaimed by a multitude of media organizations. (Nelson, Before They Pass Away The Project, 2013) Certainly, everyone can agree that Nelson’s photographs are beautiful. However, not quite everyone agrees with Nelson’s ethics or motivations.

For many, the name of the project, Before They Pass Away is the first and only context provided to explain the project. Before They Pass Away connotes a fairly simple concept: this project is a documentation of tribal cultures before they, somehow, pass away. (Cade, 2013) Nelson himself attempts, through the extensive marketing campaign associated with his book, to add a layer of complexity to the project’s title. “In 2009, I planned to become a guest of 31 secluded and visually unique tribes… I wanted to create an ambitious aesthetic photographic document that would stand the test of time. A body of work that would be an irreplaceable ethnographic record of a fast disappearing world.” (Nelson, Before They Pass Away The Project, 2013) Even so, Nelson is often vague, and what he hopes to accomplish is not always clear.

A quote from Nelson that appears in a CNN article and a piece for the New York Times states “I’m not an anthropologist. I have no education. But it’s inescapable to notice that in the 45 years I’ve lived, so much changed, so much of traditional culture is vanishing so quickly that there’s this imperative to document it… What I’ve tried to do as an artist is to gather cultures, tribes that have an aesthetic power, living in environments that are pristine, and document those worlds.” (Trebay, 2013)

Nelson attempts to explain his qualifications for undertaking this project in most of the interviews he does. “Nelson doesn’t pretend to be anything other than what he is: a working photographer with a romantic, idealistic view of the planet. “I have no technical qualifications after my name. I’m not an anthropologist. I’m not sociologist. I’ve never written a book, but I have observed,” he says. “I have observed things, people and places that most of us will never observe, and I think I am allowed an element of a voice to communicate what I feel about that.” (Waheed, 2013) From these confused motives, the ethical considerations of Before They Pass Away begin to emerge.

Amina Waheed, writing for Al Jazeera America, describes the general problem facing Nelson’s project: “When it comes to a Western explorer-type documenting native cultures in far-flung lands, any element of voice can be problematic. These kinds of projects have a long history, with foreign cultures typically represented as exotic and inferior – curiosities to amuse and bewilder more civilized eyes.” (2013) Waheed addresses the chief ethical concern for critics of Nelson’s photography: excoticization.  Though, there is certainly value in recognizing the diversity of the human race, Nelson focuses his images solely on the most dramatic differences between these traditional cultures and his own.
            Nelson also runs into trouble with the degree to which he enhances and stages his pictures while still claiming to “document” these cultures. There is some debate in the photography community as to when it’s OK to ‘enhance’ pictures and how ‘true’ to the scene each photograph should be. Many photographers have their own opinions and ethical standards as to how much to tweak a photo in Photoshop but most agree that when it comes to documentary photography, or photojournalism, less is more. Zachary Rosen seems to agree on this point when, writing for the blog Africa Is a Country, he argues that Nelson’s scenes have been “deliberately constructed to capitalize on the photographer’s own vision of these groups.” (2013) For this reason it seems a stretch to call Nelson’s work “documentary” or “photojournalism” when it is clearly staged, artistic, photography. The consequences of this are subtle but important: Nelson’s work does provide society with photographs of these tribes but because of their staged nature and lack of authenticity society has gained little in way of documentation as to the way these tribes live. “He [Nelson] calls himself a “collector of truth,” but how much truth can fit into a work rendered in two dimensions, telling visual stories curated by an outsider? Personal strongholds of identity are often invisible.” (Washuta, 2013)

Also troubling, Nelson never gives his subjects an opportunity to speak for themselves, and instead seems to use them only as models (props) to tell his own story. This is one of Nelson’s greatest ethical violations; to boldly claim that these societies are going to “pass away” and then give no opportunity for them to speak for themselves about this passing is wrong. When Nelson talks poetically about his own story with the backdrop of tribal photos his subjects become merely props in another Western tale of adventure in faraway lands. Again, Rosen provides analysis: “Like Curtis before him, Nelson produces artificial images, dressing subjects in traditional attire, stripping them and their environments of objects deemed to be foreign and posing them to his liking. He is in effect, attempting to determine what is authentic as an outsider, denying the dynamic histories of the people he stalks.” (2013) This is seen throughout Nelson’s website and in much of the marketing material that has accompanied the release of his book.

The most troubling example of this ethical breach can be found in Nelson’s twenty-minute YouTube video that was released along with the book in November of 2013 apparently as a pilot for a potential television show. The opening scene is of Nelson, speckled with mud, waving his hands and face close to the camera in a strange, witch-crafty, way. As this strange opening scene concludes powerful music builds and a gruff narration of epic proportions describing Nelson begins: “He was on the road, the journey of his life, two years through desert & jungle, alongside rivers & mountains, unbearable heat – biting cold, nothing could stop him…” (Nelson, 2013) The video’s intro goes on to show Nelson performing various primal screams and yells from the tops of various mountains while the narrator definitively shouts “he’s a maestro!” and other compliments about Nelson’s work.  Very little of the video talks about the people or culture that Nelson is photographing and never do the people being photographed get the opportunity from Nelson to speak for themselves.

A week after releasing this video it was taken down by Nelson and replaced with the same video excluding the epic intro. One YouTube commenter, Craig Proud, hints at why Nelson might have decided to change the video: “By the sounds of this film, it's like Nelson was some sort of super hero sent from the West to document these poor tribes. When in actual fact, he's just some knob utterly concerned with making a name for himself rather than accurately depicting these people in lives that they are possibly quite happy living.” (Proud, 2013)

There are also numerous practical problems with Nelson’s project. The Before They Pass Away photo series implies that the cultures being photographed are going to ‘pass away’ and that they must be photographed so Western society can remember them. Elissa Washuta counters this by writing that “often, onlookers expect indigenous peoples to remain static for the entirety of their existence, failing to consider their long histories of change before contact with outsiders.” (2013) Other critics have argued that the cultures being ‘documented’ do not need saving anyway.

            One Maori blogger wrote, “Your [Nelson’s] title for the body of work is hugely misleading and the impression people will get is false... I'm simply saying that Maori people are not part of a dying breed and we don't need to be portrayed as such …We're alive and well and will be for many, MANY years to come… Jimmy Nelson, you may have been trying educate people and say 'hey, look at these amazing people, in this amazing place, and how great their culture is, you should check it out', but that's not the understanding or impression I took from this. You take good photos, there's no doubt about that, but I believe the premise for your book is just plain wrong…  I'm telling you here and now, that we're far from passing away. Kind regards, J.D The Maori.” (D, 2013)

            Nelson is capable of providing an adequate defense of his work as he did when interviewed for stories on CNN and Fox News. “We as humans love beauty,” said Nelson. “Unless it’s beautiful we won’t look at it.” (Berard, 2013) “By illustrating these people in a grand aesthetic, romantic, idealistic and iconic way, I'm trying to attract the public's attention to a subject matter that they wouldn't normally be interested in," the photographer explains.” {C}(Soffel, 2013){C} Writing for Salon, Elissa Washuta, supports these critiques: “Nelson’s mission is built on a horrifying assumption: that these indigenous peoples are on the brink of destruction. He couldn’t be more wrong. The Māori people, featured in Nelson’s book, make up 15 percent of New Zealand’s total population, and the 2012 census estimate of 682,100 Māori residents is part of a consistent upward trend. Seven seats of the Parliament of New Zealand are designated as Māori. Their communities have been impacted by colonization and the resulting warfare, disease, land loss and assimilation. But, although contact brought changes, far from being erased, the Māori people continue to thrive.” {C}(Washuta, 2013){C}

            Ultimately, Jimmy Nelson has done an excellent job of taking beautiful portraits of these people. He’s created images that may not depict how these tribes actually live but will serve as beautiful artistic impressions of these cultures and for that he should be commended. There are, however, many ways in which his works could be improved. Cross cultural photographers across the industry should carefully consider the ethical implications of what they do because there is immense potential for good.


Improving Cross Cultural Photography

There’s a great potential for good in cross cultural photography and many photographers are already producing stunning images, ethically, and with great social benefit. The main thing these photographers have in common is that they’re good people. There are many guidelines for photographers shooting in other cultures but most of them boil down to being a good person. This is not to say that those taking bad pictures are characteristically bad people but that being good to the people you photograph tends to lead to better and more ethical pictures. For improving cross cultural photography this article will focus on two main points; making connections and serving as a platform of expression.

Many photography sages, like Michelle Wong, encourage beginners to make connections: “Documentary photography needs to have a connection between the composition of the photo, the subject and the story.” (2012) Connections are important between the photographer and the subject and between the subject and the audience. These connections are what make photographs good and often make them ethical. When a photographer makes a connection with their subjects they enhance their ability to take high quality photographs from subjects who are acting more authentically. However, making connections with the subjects is often much easier than making a connection with the audience. Connecting an audience of one culture with the subjects of a photograph from another culture means showing what people have in common rather than focusing on their differences. Photographs that tell universal stories and convey basic human emotions and ideas can be points of connection across cultural and geographic oceans.

Cross cultural photographers creating images for mass publication should consider whether their photos will connect or divide people. Keeping this in mind will prevent the photographer from publishing pictures that excoticize individuals. Even individuals from opposite sides of the planet have more commonalities than differences and good photography can show this.

Lola (Akinmade) Åkerström is a travel photographer from who has written about the importance of connecting with one’s subjects. In her article Åkerström outlines five key points to help make a connection between the subject and the photographer. She points out that the ethics of photography can be simplified to respecting others. “Connecting with people ultimately boils down to respect.” (Akerstrom, 2008) Other points made by Åkerström include remembering that photographing people is not the same as photographing landscapes and that human subjects should not be treated like scenery. “Whether it is through eye contact or some other form of personal acknowledgment, you have to engage them. This transforms them into living, breathing beings.” Åkerström’s article also encourages cross cultural photographers to smile, communicate, and to simply observe daily life before trying to document it. By following these guidelines herself Åkerström has become a widely published and successful photographer. Though her images sometimes lack the ‘epic’ aura that Jimmy Nelson is often credited with she can rest assured that her images are authentic and ethical.

Another point of importance to consider when documenting across cultures with photography is that of purpose. Every photographer who finds themselves with the responsibility of telling someone else’s story or documenting a culture to which they do not belong should consider the ethics of their pictures and should consider serving as a platform for expression. Photographers who serve as a platform for expression to their subjects do not inject themselves into the story but instead provide the tools (beautiful pictures and a mass audience) for the subject to tell their own story. In this way the photographer acts as a megaphone or soapbox allowing important stories to be told. Just as a megaphone enhances the voice in a story, a photographer acting as a platform for expression, can enhance their subject’s ability to be heard.

Photographers with the ability to publish pictures for a mass audience have a responsibility to their subjects to ensure that their story is told fairly and accurately. Cross cultural photographers who take pictures with their own agenda and motives risk using their subjects as props and not providing proper context to their pictures. This can dehumanize people, perpetuate stereotypes, and over simplify complex stories that have real human impact. The best way to avoid this is to simply act as a platform, megaphone, or tool, for the subject to express through. So long as the photographer gives each side of the story the chance to express themselves they can be confident that their pictures will contain adequate context and that their subjects will be fairly and accurately represented.

Many photographers already subscribe to the ethic of serving one’s subjects – so much so that there are even organizations of photographers dedicated to promoting social justice through photography. One such organization is Human Exposures – they are a group of photographers who “use photography, books, film, education, and advocacy to increase understanding and engender humane response.” (Human Exposures, 2013)

Witness is an organization dedicated to documenting human rights abuses through pictures and video. (Witness, 2013) Witness not only documents these issues but creates educational material for those learning how to promote social justice through video. Encouraging and educating photographers to become activists is at the heart of what Witness does.

AnthropoGraphia is a nonprofit organization “committed to the denunciation of human rights abuses through high-quality photography.” (AnthropoGraphia, 2013) AnthropoGraphia even hosts a photography contest that awards the best human rights and social justice photographs every year. For AnthropoGraphia photography is seen as a means and not an end. “Visual narration is, indeed, a very powerful tool when used to bear witness in denouncing human rights violations.” Many photographers and organizations have, in recognizing the power of photography, dedicated their work to improving our world.

Click the image to watch a great TED talk on this subject. Phil Borges is a photographer that does very similar work to Nelson but takes a very different approach. What do you think?  (or use this link:  )

Click the image to watch a great TED talk on this subject. Phil Borges is a photographer that does very similar work to Nelson but takes a very different approach. What do you think?  (or use this link: )



            The power of images is not something to be taken lightly. Photographers have had to consider the ethics of the images ever since Edward Curtis photographed the American Indians in the early twentieth century. By excluding context, using subjects as props, or inaccurately portraying scenes, photographers can perpetuate stereotypes and other socially problematic and unethical ideas. Cross cultural photographers should consider the ethical implications of their work and seek to improve the industry as a whole by following the suggestions outlined in this article. Focusing on connections rather than differences, and serving as a platform of expression, are two great ways for photographers to improve the ethics of their work.

            It’s important for photographers to consider the ethics of their own work, but of course, there is always room for improving audience intelligence as well. An audience who immediately spot unethical or otherwise problematic photographs can help improve the medium as a whole. Zachary Rosen calls for consumers of cross cultural photographs to increase their awareness of these issues. “What is clear is that we must train our eyes to place what we are seeing in context. We must become more visually literate.” (2013) Fans of photography can improve the ethics of the cross cultural photography industry by pointing out ethical violations as they see them and refusing to support projects that perpetuate socially destructive ideas.

            Cross cultural photography has the power to connect people from different cultures around the world. By considering the ethics of their pictures, cross cultural photographers can change the world for the better. Images have immense power to do great social good if we can only learn to use this power ethically.



Works Cited

Waheed, A. (2013, November 22). America Tonight: Through the lens: The world's dying tribal cultures. Retrieved from Al Jazeera America:

Washuta, E. (2013, November 24). The wrongheaded obsession with “vanishing” indigenous peoples . Retrieved from Salon:

Witness. (2013, December 10). About Us. Retrieved from Witness:

Wong, M. (2012, November). Tips for a Career in Photojournalism. Retrieved from Apogee Photo Magazine:

Akerstrom, L. (2008, September 25). Travel Photography: Connecting with People. Retrieved from Nomadic Matt:

AnthropoGraphia. (2013, December 10). AnthropoGraphia. Retrieved from AnthropoGraphia:

Berard, A. (2013, November 15). Photographer captures breathtaking images of world’s vanishing tribes. Retrieved from Fox News:

Cade, D. (2013, November 22). Photog Travels the World and Photographs Ancient Cultures that May Soon Disappear. Retrieved from Peta Pixel:

D, J. (2013, November 11). We're Not Dead Yet. Retrieved from JDHQ:

Dickinson, G., Ott, B. L., & Aoki, E. (2006). Spaces of Remembering and Forgetting: The Reverent Eye/I at the Plains Indian Museum. Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies , 27-47.

Draper, R. (2013, October). The Power of Photography. Retrieved from National Geographic:

Human Exposures. (2013, December 10). About - Mission Statement. Retrieved from Human Exposures:

Horse Capture, G. (2001, April 23). Edward Curtis, Shadow Catcher. Retrieved December 5, 2013, from PBS:

Katz, A. (2013, October 31). ortraits of the Authenics: Photographing Ancient Cultures Before They Pass Away. Retrieved from Time Magazine:

National Press Photographers Association. (2013, December 10). Code of Ethics. Retrieved from NPPA.ORG:

Nelson, J. (Director). (2013). Before They Pass Away by Jimmy Nelson [Motion Picture].

Nelson, J. (2013, October). Before They Pass Away The Project. Retrieved from

Proud, C. (2013, December 2). Before They Pass Away. Retrieved from YouTube:

Soffel, J. (2013, October 23). Tribal beauty: Photographer gives snapshot of vanishing way of life. Retrieved from CNN:

Rosen, Z. (2013, November 27). Before They Resurrect the Nobel Savage. Retrieved from Africa Is A Country:

Trebay, G. (2013, October 18). Fashion & Style Images From the Edges of the Earth. Retrieved from The New York Times:



All content created by Daniel Lombardi. Copyright 2017.