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Far too often, I find myself browsing through travel photography online. I probably have an unending list of other things I should be doing, but I can’t help looking through images of calming, aqua-blue Mediterranean waters, vast African plains covered by towering trees, and other faraway places, daydreaming of experiencing them one day.
There’s no doubt travel photography captures incredible images of foreign lands and cultures, but what happens when these images are set up? Should set-up shots be seen as artistic expression, or do they make travel journalism faker?
I was reading MediaStorm Guide to Setting Up Shots on MediaStorm’s blog. In the article, Eric Maierson, a producer at MediaStorm, talks about why photographers and videographers should not set up shots because it deceives the viewer and is ethically wrong.
As soon as you ask your subject to perform a movement again, whether it be asking them to walk across the room another time or open their car door again to get a different angle, you are setting up a shot. The work loses its sense of accuracy and authenticity, according to the article.
“When you ask a person to repeat something, you’re no longer documenting what’s real. You’re making your subject act,” Rick Gershon, Director of Photography at MediaStorm, said in the article.
Journalists may have the best intentions in setting up a shot to better express a place or culture, but doing so can make the final piece lose its honesty. It seems more like a reproduction rather than a natural action or environment.
When you set up a shot, it also changes the relationship between the journalist and the person being recorded or photographed. “Setting up shots breaks down the authenticity between subject and documentarian; the last thing you ever want to do,” Maierson said.
Yes, asking a Spanish flamenco dancer to repeat a step or telling a Buddhist monk to relight a candle in a temple could help you get a killer image. But repeating actions rather than capturing ‘real’ ones blurs ethical lines and misleads viewers.
However, some circumstances out in the field may require set-up shots. Maierson mentions three situations where setting up is allowed: “portraiture, it’s cousin the video portrait, and the interview. Here, it’s clear to all involved that the subject is posing.”
* For more discussion around the ethics of travel photography, see the curriculum of the MatadorU Travel Photography course.