How Much is Your Selfie Worth?

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How much is your selfie worth ethical travel

By Guest Author: Meaghan Ashley

When I was in the eleventh grade, I went on a school trip to Italy and Greece. It was my first trip abroad and I took more than 4,000 pictures with my clunky digital camera. That was in 2008.

Eight years later, it seems like every middle class citizen has a smartphone equipped with a camera to rival the quality of a professional lens. Moreover, we have Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and any number of other photo sharing social media.

Travelers are able to share their adventures with friends, family, and strangers the world over from almost anywhere, at any time, often in real time. There’s much more sharing, more blogging, and more competition. More followers to impress, more “likes” to be had. So how far will we go to get the perfect shot?

Sometimes, the perfect profile picture comes at a price, and sometimes, the repercussions can be much darker than we might imagine.

Before we begin, I would like to say for the record that I am not trying to make anyone feel guilty about the things they have done or the photos they have taken. I believe that, in most cases, people have good intentions and that those of us who have supported unethical tourism operations have been completely unaware of the realities behind our Insta-worthy shots. 

But the reality is that our photographic endeavors can have devastating effects on the environment, on others, and on ourselves.

In this article, I’m going to describe seven real photographs that may look pretty on the surface, but come at a cost. 

Environmental Impact

Sometimes we concern ourselves with getting the perfect shot so much that we forget to think about how we are harming animals or the environment in pursuit of a great picture.

#1: The Elephant in the Room

The photograph: A young man and woman are perched on a rustic yet regal-looking seat on the back of a magnificent Asian elephant as it lumbers slowly through a lush jungle. Their hands rest lovingly on the elephant’s head.

The couple are wearing carefully coordinated, brightly patterned, Asian-inspired outfits and their tans are glowing in the tropical heat. With the application of the perfect filter, the scene appears as though it was plucked from the pages of the most magical fairytale.

People comment how beautiful, how romantic, how lucky. “This is on my bucket list!” they say.

The reality: Neither the well-meaning commenters nor the elephant-loving riders are aware that the majestic animal was taken from her mother as a baby and subjected to a brutal program of abuse and conditioning known as phajaan or “the crush” – as in crushing the elephant’s spirit – so she will submit to human interaction.

The howdah on her back, which normally holds two adult tourists and may carry an additional child or two, causes permanent spinal injuries. It may also create sores on her back, which could become infected, as might her feet.

She is underfed and watered, she works for ten hours per day, and she suffers severe psychological damage due to her isolation from other elephants. After knowing all that, is it really worth it to get a photo atop one of these gentle animals?

#2: Blossoms & Bliss

The photograph: A young woman in a lovely sundress stands in front of a Japanese cherry tree full of exquisite blossoms. She exudes joy, laughing as a shower of delicate petals falls like snow around her.

The photo is captioned with a line from “Cherry Blossom Ending” by the Korean pop group, Busker Busker. People comment, “so gorgeous,” and “Love this!”

Cherry Blossom Profile Picture

The reality: This is not a Pocahontas moment candidly captured as a soft spring breeze swirls petals around the girl. Actually, her boyfriend stands just outside the frame with his hands full of blossoms, staging the effect.

Okay, confession: I’ve just described my own photograph, which you can see above. In my case, my dear boyfriend picked up petals from the ground to create the cherry blossom rain, so there was no damage done to the trees.

Around the same time, however, I read an article about several Chinese tourists in Japan who were caught shaking, kicking, and climbing the iconic trees in their efforts to get the perfect picture. In this case, numerous trees were damaged. All in pursuit of a selfie.

#3: Tiny Tortuga

The photograph: A beautiful, beaming woman poses on a sun-soaked beach, holding a baby sea turtle up next to her face. People comment about how amazing she looks in her bikini, how cute the tiny turtle is, how beautiful the beach looks, and how jealous they are of her life.

The reality: Moments before this photo was taken, the woman and her partner were strolling over the sand when they spotted the hatchling. Delighted, the woman immediately stooped to pick it up and her partner began eagerly snapping photos as she posed.

Seconds later, a man begins shouting at them and, startled, she drops the baby onto the wet sand from a height of about four or five feet, a significant distance for such a tiny, fragile creature. 

I watched this very scene unfold before my eyes. Unbeknownst to the aforementioned couple, this baby sea turtle was one of the eight from the Kuta Beach Sea Turtle Conservation Program that my friends and I were releasing into the ocean

But this woman, it seemed, was so caught up in getting a cute selfie that she didn’t realize she was obstructing this baby turtle’s journey to the ocean.

#4: King of the Jungle

The photograph: A young woman kneels on a large rock in the middle of a golden sea of savannah grass. Green acacia trees meet a smooth blue sky at the horizon. The girl’s hand is placed gingerly on the back of a sprawled juvenile lion.

Remarkably, the predator is looking directly at the camera, his eyes like two deep wells of gleaming honey. People comment how cool, how brave, how adventurous. “I want to do this!” they say.

The reality: “Lions are like models,” the guide says. “They love to have their picture taken.” But the lion is not actually looking into the camera; he is eyeing a piece of meat that is dangling from a stick near the photographer.

The lion was bred in captivity and separated from his mother less than a week after birth. When he grows too big to be safely handled and can no longer be used for tourist encounters, he will not be released into the wild, as the tour company may have promised, but will most likely be slaughtered for the lion bone trade or traded to a canned hunting operation.

There, the “model” will have his photo taken one last time, an image that hauntingly echoes our girl’s profile pic: a tourist with a rifle kneeling next to the sprawled carcass of the King of the Jungle.

Impact on Others

Often times we’re so concerned with getting a picture to post on Instagram or Facebook that we don’t think about how what we are capturing will affect other people. 

#5: Human Zoo

The photograph: Three generations of women with dark hair and identical chocolate brown eyes sit on a bench before an array of brightly colored pashminas and hand-carved wooden figurines. Each wears a white top, a long skirt, and a colorful headdress, but the eye is drawn immediately to the shining coils around their necks.

The young girl wears nine rings, while her grandmother sports more than twenty, giving her the appearance of having an elongated neck. The comments vary from “Beautiful!” to “That’s gotta hurt,” to “Child abuse.”

Kayan woman ethical travel photography

The reality: For about the price of a movie ticket, you can visit a Kayan village in northern Thailand. These settlements are often called “long neck villages;” a nickname that refers to the heavy brass coils the women traditionally wear around their neck. 

The villages frequented by travelers were built as tourist attractions in 1985. Some Kayans, living in Thailand under refugee status after having fled the civil war in Myanmar, were given work permits to live in the villages. As the main attraction, women who wear brass coils earn an extra salary, which may be reduced if the women are seen using modern technology. 

Villagers rarely profit from the entrance fee itself, but they can sell handicrafts and charge a fee for photos with tourists. While some women report feeling pressured to wear the coils in order to receive the extra income, some are proud to uphold their cultural traditions. I am not here to pass judgement on the ethics of this practice, but to question whether these women are exploited for it.

I am not going to blacklist this attraction; my advice is simply to do your research before you book a tour. Try to find a private guide to take you to his or her own village instead of a third party tour company. Ensure your money will benefit the villagers directly, and consider purchasing a souvenir (at a fair price – don’t insult them).

Extend your stay beyond the typical quick stop for a photo op and take time to talk with the villagers and learn about their culture. Above all, behave respectfully during your visit. Remember that these are human beings, not animals in a zoo, not animatronics at Disney World, and not props for your photos. They are human beings, and they deserve to be treated with dignity.

#6: Au Naturale

The photograph: After a long trek, a group of men and women stand triumphantly on a mountaintop. They are facing away from the camera, gazing down at the clouds drifting over the breathtaking view below. Their clothes lie in heaps at their sides.

They are intoxicated with their accomplishment, liberated, exhilarated. They are one with nature. People comment how awesome, how daring, how funny.

The reality: You probably already know how this one ends. This scene took place on Mount Kinabalu, Malaysia’s highest peak, and one considered by many locals to be sacred. The tourists’ actions were regarded as deeply disrespectful.

Moreover, the incident was believed to have angered the mountain spirit, resulting in the earthquake that struck six days later, killing eighteen climbers on the mountain. Of course, there is no scientific evidence to suggest that the nude tourists triggered an earthquake, but that is not the point.

The point is to be aware of local religious and cultural beliefs, customs, and laws, and to respect them at all times.

Full disclosure: I, too, am guilty of posing topless for a photo on a mountaintop (sorry, Dad), and I can’t explain my motivation to do so. It was the first time I’d ever climbed a mountain and my two friends and I seemed to be the only people within miles.

It seemed like a good idea at the time. Despite the fact that I did this in my home country, on a lonely mountaintop, where the only creature likely to stumble upon the scene was a moose or a bear, the Kinabalu story opened my eyes.

I realized how easy it is to get caught up in the rush of adventure and forget to consider the potential consequences of my actions. I am a firm believer in spontaneity and have even been called a “risk-taker,” (sorry, Mom), but I would never want to commit an act that would insult another person’s cultural or religious beliefs.

Impact on Ourselves

Sometimes photos we take can come with consequences that we may not realize ahead of time.

The previous example (#6) fits this category as well. Following the incident on Mount Kinabalu, four foreigners were arrested, imprisoned, fined, and deported. The story was well publicized.

Respect is paramount when we travel (and when we’re at home), not only to avoid offending others, but also to protect ourselves. Getting into trouble with the law is an experience that I doubt makes it onto any of our bucket lists; getting into trouble with the law in a foreign country can be infinitely more complicated, or even downright scary.

#7: Sickly Sweet

The photograph: A happy family is gathered around a picnic table in a green, wooded park. The great Smoky Mountains rise impressively above the trees. The mother holds a toddler in her lap.

The bright-eyed baby’s hand is extended toward what probably appears to him to be the biggest teddy he’s ever seen, but is actually a real, live, hulking bear. Unbelievably, the bear is affectionately licking the child’s fingers. The faces in the photograph register shock, awe, and delight.

The reality: Unfortunately, this photo never became a reality. The bears of Smoky Mountains National Park have become habituated to the presence of humans; in fact, they now associate humans with food and frequently visit campsites and picnics.

When this family was approached by a hungry black bear, the mother decided to smear honey on her baby’s fingers and offer the animal a lick. Instead, the bear ate the child’s hand.

Related: Eco-Friendly Products for Responsible Travelers

How can we learn from this?

More and more, the tourism industry is capitalizing on our desire for the perfect profile pic. Many tourist attractions now offer opportunities to purchase a souvenir photo taken by a professional photographer. 

Animal attractions, such as elephant trekking camps and walking with lions, advertise the photo op as one of their main selling points. Others, such as koala cuddling and tiger temples, seem to exist solely for the purpose of sending tourists home with an extraordinary photograph.

I would like to reiterate here that I am not trying to demonize anyone who has ever ridden an elephant, picked a flower, broken a rule, or posed with a wild animal. I simply wish to offer some advice.

As we Snapchat our way through life, it is important to remember that, contrary to what Shakespeare said, the world is not a stage and its people, creatures, and florae are not merely players and props. Our actions can have serious consequences for the environ ment, for others, and for ourselves.

So how can you optimize your impact?

1. Do your research. Learn about the local laws and customs to ensure you behave as respectfully as possible. Research any animal attractions you plan to visit to determine whether they are ethical, and choose to boycott those institutions which exploit animals or otherwise harm the environment.

2. Ask questions before, during, and after your travels. Does this benefit the local community? Is it eco-friendly? Do you mind if I take your picture? Is it okay for me to touch this? Am I allowed to walk here? What have I learned from this trip? Did I have a positive or negative impact?

3. Be aware of your surroundings. There is an entire Wikipedia page dedicated to people who have been killed in selfie-related accidents. Seriously. Additionally, do not try to feed or touch wild animals. This can be dangerous for both parties. As the saying goes, “a fed animal is a dead animal.”

4. Trust your instincts. If something doesn’t feel right, it’s probably because something is wrong. Last summer, a group of friends and I visited a Luwak coffee plantation in Bali. Something about the caged civets made me feel uneasy, as caged animals always do. Later, we learned that wild civets are captured, caged, and fed a diet consisting almost entirely of coffee beans in order to keep up with the demand for the famous “poop coffee.”

5. Share your experiences. We travelers love to share our stories, so this one should be easy. If you discover an unethical tourist attraction, tell the world about it. Conversely, if you come across a company or organization that is working to better the community and/or the environment, tell the world about that, too! Awareness is half the battle.

Elephant's World

About the Author

Hailing from eastern Canada, Meaghan Ashley is wildly passionate about music, animals, drawing and travel. During the week, you’ll find her teaching English to kiddos in South Korea; and on the weekends she can be found drinking wine, planning future travels, reading a good book or exploring the country she calls “home” for now! 

Interested in learning more about Responsible Travel?

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We want to hear from you!

What do you think about the ethics of travel photography? Have you witnessed people going too far? Have you taken a picture you feel badly about later?

Comments (6) on “How Much is Your Selfie Worth?

  1. petiteatlas@gmail.com says:

    Great article! This has been on my mind a lot lately as i recently read about "voluntourism" – traveling to other countries for both volunteering and travel purposes. It was pointed out that it does more harm than good- often lacking any long term change and, worse, exploiting people/communities for photo opportunities. I will surely keep this in mind during my travels.

    • ktdieder@gmail.com says:

      Great Elvia. Thanks for your comment. It’s something that is always on my mind while traveling, and I strive to hopefully do more good than harm.

  2. Robert says:

    Thank you for this article! I currently live and work in a developing country where I am writing a child protection policy for a local government ministry. From a child safety perspective I would encourage people to think very carefully before photographing / posting photographs of children. How would you feel if a stranger photographed your child and posted it on Facebook? Is the photo appropriate? Who is your audience? Is the child put at risk by being photographed or being exploited so that photos can be taken by tourists?

    I would also invite people to think about privacy more broadly. How would you feel about a complete stranger taking photos of you in your private life and publishing them via social media? I didn’t use to but now I ask first if it is OK to take a photo (if the photo is portrait style i.e. you can clearly see that persons face). Many people are so flattered to be asked…I once asked a couple in Vietnam if I could take their photo and the husband was so proud of how beautiful his wife was. She was thrilled as well because her husband loudly and proudly spoke of her beauty, so she had the biggest smile. It was really lovely and remains one of my favorite photos.

    • ktdieder@gmail.com says:

      Thanks for your comment Robert. It seems like you’re doing some great work for child protection. Thank you for that. I agree, if you’re taking a portrait style picture of someone, you should always ask them if it is okay. I want to meet more people like the couple you met in Vietnam. The best pictures are the ones with stories behind them like that!

  3. nataliya@styletomes.com says:

    Fantastic travel piece, Meaghan! Couldn’t stop reading your well written cautionary tales and behind the scenes descriptions of some of the most sought out moments.

    I’m not a travel expert, but I set aside several of my young years to travel and explore the world. I absolutely love travel photography and frequently tow camera gear in lieu of changes of clothes. The one time I felt like something was wrong was fairly recently.

    I did a camel ride in UAE in one of my more "luxurious" trips. I figured that due to the reputation of the hotel they would take care of the animals. I’m still not sure if there was actually anything wrong or if the behavior was unusual (don’t really have much experience with camels), but things felt off.

    The camels were kept on extremely short leashes tied to the trees, with no freedom to move or lay down, when we arrived. Then when a camel acted up as someone tried to climb on top, the owner smacked it hard with a stick several times. I was so appalled. I really wanted to leave at that point but the owner said something about it just being disciplinary and it didn’t hurt the camel etc etc etc. And no one else seemed to have a negative reaction! Long story short, that was one of the worst experiences I’ve ever had. I felt so bad for the poor creatures. I wish I didn’t get on and just demanded my money back.

    Ultimately, travel consciousness comes down to knowledge. I think if people have more information about their impact on the environment and the actual damage caused to ecosystems, animals, and cultural communities, they would take better care.

    Fantastic job at keeping everyone well informed and aware of their choices!


    • ktdieder@gmail.com says:

      Thank you for your comment and for sharing your story! I’ve never heard about or considered the possibility of the mistreatment of camels for the purpose of tourism. It just goes to show how important it is for we as a community to share our stories so future travelers can make informed decisions. Thanks again, Nataliya 🙂


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