Thursday, 17 September 2015

POV | The Dark Side of Travel Photography?

Photo © Magnus Brynestam-Courtesy of Travel Photographer Asia
A recent article appearing in the popular 500px ISO photography website dealt with the "dark side of travel photography" which, according to its author (DL Cade), would be crossed into when the images involved vandalism, animal cruelty, and doing outright harm to the environment.

No argument with the noble notion that travel photographers should not cross that line, however one of the examples given in the article involves the unique technique of “Yin-Bou” fishing using
cormorant birds in the Li River. I think there are far better examples to highlight the article's point, and here's why.

It seems that Jimmy McIntyre, a a travel photographer,  had recently captured an image he had wanted for quite a while. In China, standing waist deep in the Li river, he finally shot a portrait of the famed cormorant fishermen.

Mr McIntyre realized that the fishermen weren't fishermen any longer because they made more money from tourists and photographers by posing for these atmospheric photographs. He also realized that to get the classic shot of a fisherman with the cormorant spreading its wings, the fisherman had to grab the bird by the neck, dunk it in the water and bring it up...whereupon the cormorant would spread its wings to dry them.

The article's argument is this is an example of animal cruelty, and should be discouraged by self respecting photographers.

However before agreeing too quickly, let me make the following points:

1. As per Wikipedia, cormorant fishing is a traditional fishing method in which fishermen use trained cormorants to fish in rivers. Historically, cormorant fishing has taken place in Japan and China since about 960 AD.  It's an ancient tradition that has also been followed by fishermen in Greece and Macedonia to this day.

2. I asked Dennis Cox, one of the leading travel photographers of our generation, (and one who has photographed in China countless of times), as to his views since he photographed the cormorant fishermen countless of times. He informed me that dunking cormorants by their necks was done by the fishermen long before photographers arrived on the scene to make these images. That's how they were traditionally taught to catch fish. 

3.  Another point raised by Dennis is that the Li river became so polluted that the fish disappeared, leaving the fishermen with no means of livelihood. It was the local professional photographers, followed by the foreign professionals who started paying them to as compensation for the loss of income and the change in their livelihood. Then of course, came the influx of tourists.

There are many examples of similar situations, and the one that comes to my mind as I write this (although there's no involvement of animals) is the Inle Lake fishermen in Burma, who are no longer fishermen (if they were at all), and are merely "models" for tourists to snap their shutters. The other example involves the Omo Valley tribes in Ethiopia who are turned into fashion models and made to wear incongruous and ridiculous headgear made of vegetables and fruits, just for the sake of a few snapshots....and paid more than they would make in a traditional occupation, destroying their culture and traditions.

It is sometimes difficult for those of us influenced by Western values and aesthetics to appreciate that certain local customs and traditions are best left alone, and that we should not meddle with them too much. Let us be as noble as we possibly can while we photograph, but let's also be mindful of unintended consequences of any actions we may make.