#925. Is travel photography ethical?

By pascaljappy | Opinion

Nov 06

There are hard questions that take us to dark places and which, most often, we’d rather not ask ourselves ๐Ÿ˜‰ This one of them, particularly in times of Flygskam and Greta Thunberg as nominee for Peace Nobel Prize. Whether we agree with the young Swede superstar or discard the whole movement as an unrealistic bag of tripe, the question doesn’t go away: is it ethical, for those of us who can, to travel around the world with expensive gear just to assuage a personal itch for collecting photographs of distant places?

Perfection, just next door

First of all, I don’t want this to turn into a debate about Greta Thunberg or her ideas. Whether or not we agree with her conclusions, her premises are unassailable and I wish more of us had the cojones to mobilize crowds around things we care about (and I know many DS readers are actually doing that: creating photography calendars to raise funds to maintain wild places, donating art and time to hospitals, promoting values and education via local clubs … you gals & guys know who you are, thank you and kudos to you).

Neither should this be a forum about ecology. There are better suited outlets for that discussion. I’ll just work on the assumption that we can all agree that whatever we do has an impact on our environment. It’s inescapable Newtonian fact. Flying emits CO2, among other things that seem to elude our dear leaders. Cameras require manufacturing and few industries are as distasteful, energy wise, as silicon wizardry. Ditto lenses and their rare glasses. And let’s not even consider batteries, the unlikely saviours of our planet, apparently (according to this paper, it takes 100 times more energy to build an alkaline battery than it will produce during its use phase and its compounded greenhouse gas emissions are 30 times that of the average coal-fired power plant, per watt-hour. Ouch.) Cards, storage, lots and lots of it, judging by the responses to my “backup strategy” posts. Printing: ugh … paper uses tons of water and some chemicals. Inks don’t grow on trees either (although you could argue cochineal carmine does).

Does this make us monsters?

Spiders are only monsters in our subconscious

There are probably many ways of looking at this. Plato would have unilaterally deemed us all monsters, for example. He didn’t hold poets and painters in very high respect for seeing only the surface of things, never knowing their true essence, and for bringing falsity to his perfect society. So, it’s fair to say his words to and about photographers wouldn’t be the kindest (based on his first argument, can we disagree entirely?) And what about dear Susan Sontag, who described how a world based on imagery was necessary for predatory capitalism to bloom majestically, and declared that travel had just become a pretext for collecting photographs?

Let’s try to consider just two othere ways (of looking at the question). The two I find most interesting (and, conveniently, most efficient at lowering guilt levels ๐Ÿ˜‰ ๐Ÿ˜‰ ๐Ÿ˜‰ )

Life in a bubble

1 Finger pointers should buy mirrors

Yes, our hobby is one with detrimental negative impact. There is no way around it. And traveling for work or to visit family is every bit as bad.

It is, however, a little bit too convenient to point fingers at a group of people or a mode of transport without taking a look at a bigger picture.

Did you know, for example, it takes 18 years of constant use to compensate the carbon footprint of a TGV (electric fast train) track renovation? Electric trains may have low CO2 emissions (let’s not even talk about how clean nuclear power and solar panels are) but infrastructure, it sure don’t.

Did you know, funner fact, that the carbon footprint of a large steak is as much as 100km of air travel? And let’s not even mention how much water is used to bring the big juicy into a plate, or even consider the animal suffering in some slaughter houses (France has had recent scandals about this and I doubt it’s the only country with horrible practices).

And how about this? Did you know a pair of jeans uses up 2000 gallons of water along its manufacturing process, and travels on average 40 000 miles before it lands in a shop?

So, shamers, if you’re daily meat eaters and binge on cotton clothing, you may want to clean up your act before your finger pointing.

Dead flowers. Should we refrain?

Until we get a global evaluation of our total footprint, and not just a flimsy report of our C02 emissions during 3% of our lives, I’m not really listening. My house is almost passive, heating-wise. My food is 95% vegetarian. I mostly buy clothes from ethical and ecological brands. My family’s total weekly rubbish fits in a small shopping bag, everything else is composted or recycled. I have de-polluted a dying plot of land and brought back birdlife and other fauna to what was basically a ruined portion of the Earth after decades of vine culture by a pesticide freak. I work from home and don’t commute. I skype with my clients for 95% of meetings.

But I drive a car that’s too big and thirsty for my strictest needs, mostly alone. And I fly to the UK to visit relatives and friends, and travel further out at the first opportunity to visit and snap other countries. No one can criticize the latter part without taking the first part into account. We’re all different, we all do good and we all do bad. Let’s not allow the shamers to highlight only the bad (and let’s try to crank up the good whenever we can. eg: How to Cut Down on Carbon Emissions When Traveling).

End of an era

2 What if a negative impact could be a positive impact?

So yeah, when shamers take a close look at their global footprint, they can be taken seriously. But that’s just a defensive argument based on petty mathematics.

I have a more interesting point of view. Heck, it’s almost spiritual in its grandeur ๐Ÿ˜‰

If you think of it, the two dominant forces in the world are entropy and purpose. Don’t leave, I’ll keep it short.

Gee, the man makes sense, don’t you think, Gwynne?

Energy use doesn’t really matter. Energy dissipation does. The fact that we are depleting some cleanly isolated reserves and spreading the fumes all over the globe is basic entropy.

It’s not inherently bad, though, and that is my point. The Earth does it all the time, the kook. It takes high energy photons from the Sun, does it’s stuff of creating life and radiates it all back to the heavens in the form of pesky, low power, infrared photons. It’s just plain littering of the universe, it is.

Thing is, it creates and maintains that little thing called life in the process. The Earth destroys raw potential energy differentials by warming up the universe and creates high level organisms in the process. It dissipates, at low level mechanics, to create order at a higher level one.

That idea regulates our entire lives and univserse. Entropy is (best) used to create higher-order systems (called complexity) from lower-order ones.

It’s how our bodies work. It’s how evolution works. It’s all OK and natural (and we have no choice anyway ๐Ÿ˜‰ ) so long as there is a higher purpose to the use of entropy. And I think that, if we travel with a higher-purpose in mind, it may well be OK to burn fuel for it.

Elegant use of resources

We can waste resources on cheap jeans or on high-fashion.

We can travel to collect selfies and let our ego dominate us or to create photographs that will speak to others, better understand cultures, build bridges. So let’s not judge the fact that we travel without taking into account why we travel. What’s in it for others and for our personal evolution?

Greta Thunberg’s crossing of an ocean on a sailboat may be a highly symbolic gesture, but it seems like a big opportunity waste if, in the same time, she could have mobilized people in 10 cities rather than 1. I’m sure mother Earth would have tolerated the expense knowing the outcome.

What good we do in our travel matters more than whether we are traveling or not. Or so it seems to me. So, rather than focus only on travel footprint, we travelers owe it to the rest to find a higher-purpose to our travels. We evolved into sentient beings, not to be swayed and molested by mindless crowds but to exercise that sentience for the good of all. Let’s try that, even in small doses ๐Ÿ™‚

Ripples, minimized

Bonus track: is Art the highest-purpose, most human thing we get to do ?

Maslow described a hierarchy of human needs, apparently. Physiological needs, safety needs, love and belonging needs, self esteem needs and self actualization needs. I say apparently because it’s not a pyramid and Maslow never said it was. Some people willingly forfeit safety and physiological needs for self esteem, for example, but most won’t. Still, there is an automatic upwards drive at play in most of us.

Anyhoo, if you think about it, only the upper rung is purely human in its scope. Physiological, safety and love/belonging needs are shared by a dog and its owner alike, by a gorilla and it’s photographer. Making money is no different than fly-hunting by a bat. Very rich people are often just alpha pack leaders. Humans expressing great animal talent. This is a bit unfair to animals: they usually stop hunting when satiated, greed is a purely human illness.

It could be argued that self esteem is rooted in fear. So let’s consider that a grey area.

My neighbbours. Do I really need to fly to the other side of the world?

Self actualization is purely a need of our human condition. It’s why the alpha males donate so much to charity: it makes them feel more human than coyote. It’s why artists continue pushing hard even when they can’t make the rent. Self actualization is all about finding meaning. Art (creating or collecting) is all about expressing meaning.

So, traveling to create art that connects with others could be one of the noblest possible uses of our resources. Yes, we can travel for humanitarian reasons and help others and that’s an even more important (and Zen) way of self actualizing (the two being by no means mutually exclusive). But making art connects us to others, and no shamer in the world can tarnish that.

At the end of the day, we can chose to travel like the self-centered idiots who harassed geishas for selfies, causing a photography ban in Kyoto or travel to open up to others, build bridges and make art. Oh, and gear choices can have an impact as well.

Signing off. What ways of mitigating our footprint can you think of? And what higher purpose can you find for traveling? What’s good for the planet usually also feels very good at a personal level.


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  • Rube says:

    Greta the Great sure does fly around the world a lot, and get her picture taken with so many of those non environmental cameras. Just sayin’

    • pascaljappy says:

      Yes, I know. If it’s for a good cause, then great ๐Ÿ™‚ I don’t even want to start that discussion, though. Too little information to base judgment on ๐Ÿ˜‰ Cheers.

  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    Ah – well this really will stir up up flurry of opinions from those specimens of humanity who suffer from “opinion-itis”!
    I’ve taken the liberty of discussing this with Greta – I have the greatest respect for her and for her views and efforts, after the way she infuriated our idiot Prime Minister. Who ended by suggesting she was probably a very nice young girl, if somewhat misguided and intemperate, but she really ought to head home and spend more time attending to her studies and her schoolwork.
    The only evidence that our Prime Minister is attending to HIS duties is that he has since reflected further on the subject and decided to put an end to freedom of speech in Australia, by banning all such bratty anti-big oil or anti-dirty coal discussions altogether.
    Greta very kindly suggested that flying was OK, so long as I don’t use a coal fired aerostat – a fully electric aeroplane, with storage batteries (made with lithium from my mines in South America) would be an acceptable alternative.
    Further discussion on this subject simply seems to wind up all the red necks, and they come out of their corners screaming. What we really need is noise cancelling ear phones.
    I don’t think we’ll get far with mirrors – aren’t they made using silicon, too? What would I know! – my brother was the chemical engineer in the family, and unfortunately he died 50 years ago – my knowledge of the subject is limited to stuff useful in crosswords. BTW – even breathing puts CO2 back in the air, and I’ve no wish to give up breathing, just yet.
    But hey – I’ve reached a point in life where I can confidently say I no longer intend buying further cameras or glass, I have pretty much all the ancillary gear I will need, and I am therefore of little or no further use to the photographic industry. Except I print my photos! (And worse – put them in albums!)
    When you asked if travel photography was ethical, I thought you were about to ask if we thought it was OK to photograph people without asking their permission, or something along those lines. And of course the modern solution to that one is simply use a stronger zoom – who’s to know? ๐Ÿ˜‰

    • pascaljappy says:

      I think the interesting perspective is the use/spend ratio. Yes, we are going to spend resources, but to what use. Those who like to point fingers at us often have a far worse footprint and don’t make any good use of it.

      Greta is probably a lovely person. It just infuriates me that a teen girl is needed for those stupid leaders to take any notice. Millions of people, activist organisations, research groups … have been battling for the climate for decades, but are not being listened to. And there comes a teen with no background and the media all take notice. How utterly cynical.

  • Michael Fleischer says:

    Hi Pascal

    Yet another great un-(easy) article with a lot of self-reflective questions to ask oneself and
    obviously accompanied by many a fine photo…especially am caught by End of an Era (Wow)
    + Dead Flowers and Gee…that one reminds me a Danish drawing artist Palle Nielsen’s
    apocalyptic drawings – worth looking up!

    The climate debate is very valid as we all have a responsibility to act as evoluted humans
    and ultimately all are dependent on living on a sacred planet; what would happen if it could
    decide to stop supporting its life supporting purpose for all that lives here?

    I think the greater issue is to be found inside the human ecology, being threatened from within
    each person, corroded by a profit/cynical/callous/self centred non feeling cultural promotion
    of way of life.
    Each living person can reclaim & act from responsible feeling/care/instinct and conscience
    we all are equipped with from birth and from those simple values try to reduce
    their consummation/waste sensibly and still enjoy life!

    Just one angle to the debate…


    • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

      I’ve been trying for decades, Michael. And to change everything about your lifestyle TAKES decades to achieve.

      I have yet to lay my hands on an EV, to take it another stage further.

      But I’ve slashed my dependence on electricity generated by coal fired power stations – natural gas – chemicals around the house, in the garden and in the food supply – household waste – water consumption – fuel (petrol/gasoline) consumption – plastics – paper.

      And now, it seems, on purchasing cameras and related gear.

      I cannot comprehend why so many people don’t take this more seriously. There ARE only four alternatives [1 – no climate crisis – don’t act], [2 – no climate crisis- do act], [3 – climate crisis – don’t act], and [4 – climate crisis – do act].

      1 and 2 don’t matter, whatever happens.

      3 is a risk too far, and beyond contemplation.

      So 4 is the only one that makes sense. And there’s no point in arguing about who’s right or wrong. Follow Apple’s lead “we’re not going to discuss it – we’re just going to do something about it!”

      Maybe we need to rid the world of stupid politicians, who can’t get it. ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Pascal,

    A very thought provoking article and great images.

    Alas I think the world leaders, can we name more than a couple that are real leaders wonโ€™t do enough to curb global warming.

    As for me yes, we travel regularly by air as boats take far too long from down under to get anywhere. Better a full plane than a half empty one.

    Like you we endeavour to do our best and recycle where we can. Farmers markets are a favourite for local produce. Being a retired banker I also think of the small economic contribution we make to the smaller communities visited.

    I was thinking maybe I shouldnโ€™t finish the article a Day at the Racesโ€ฆ.

    Now as for gear as you well know Iโ€™m a gear slut end of story, again helping the economy of the world.


    • pascaljappy says:

      Well said Dallas! I agree entirely. You travel a lot and act super responsibly in other areas of your life. It’s a balance and no one should judge just side of the story. Plus, seeing your photographs shows that you are making the most of those travels, not creating collections of egocentric selfies. That’s cool ๐Ÿ™‚

      But why wouldn’t you finish the post?

  • Bob Kruger says:


    I have read Dear Susan many months without feeling guilt. I have found it an innocent pleasure. But Mr. Jappy has relieved me of that idyll. Thank you for an innocent pleasure now destroyed.

    It seems this blog is now dedicated to guilt, not one of the classic seven deadly sins I might point out (those being: pride, envy, anger, sloth, avarice, gluttony, and lust). Quaint concepts those. So am I now to feel guilt at taking a photograph with a camera in which there might be an alkaline battery after having traveled several thousand miles โ€“ by plane. Mon Deux. Is there not an innocent corner of life that is not overtaken by the hysteria surrounding a changing climate?

    Please do not destroy Dear Susan by injecting your personal ministrations. Please refrain.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Ah, Bob, I have missed my objective if you are feeling guilt ๐Ÿ˜‰ What I’m saying is that travel photography shouldn’t necessarily be frowned upon because what we do on those trips can be greatly beneficial to ourselves and others. Sorry for the confusion. Cheers.

  • Alan says:

    Wonderful article and photos, esp. dead flowers and end of era. Elegant use ain’t too shabby either.
    Re the text, I think you’ve captured the Great Dilemma very well. Do we all just give up and freeze to death? Or in the case of Australia, roast to death? I’m writing this on my natural-gas powered tablet and it will be forwarded to you on our nuclear & coal fired internet. The great pickle of life.
    So, for me, I’ll keep travelling while I can which likely won’t be that long regardless. Wearing a hair shirt won’t help.
    Lovely photos!

    • pascaljappy says:

      Ha ha, that made me laugh, Alan. Thanks for the kind words.

      I too think we must keep travelling, and try to elevate our game as we do so. That was the main point of my article, I should have said it more simply;)

  • Nancee Rostad says:

    Another thought-provoking post, Pascal. IMHO, DS is the perfect place to mention how we are all responsible for climate change in one way or the other, and that thereโ€™s no need to sit there feeling guilty about it. Small lifestyle changes do add up; however, simply acknowledging climate change (unlike the climate-change denying buffoon in the WH) can be a good first step. As far as airline travel goes, I really believe that international travel is very important as it gives one a global viewpoint and a better understanding of other cultures which can lead to more harmony and inclusion. Only 42% of Americans have a passport, and lord knows, we as a nation could stand to have a less divisive & superior attitude.
    I love Gretaโ€™s passion and Iโ€™m glad that sheโ€™s able to rally other young people to her cause. Itโ€™s the wake-call that is finally being heard. Kudos to her.
    End of an Era really says it all – such a strong image!

    • pascaljappy says:

      Thank you, Nancee! I’m really happy you feel this way. And yes, acknowledging our impact is a necessary first step, not just to try to limit it in small increments but also by trying to create more value from it.

      End of an era is a lucky shot. I noticed the silo in East London through a hole in a security fence. The whole was barely large enough to allow me to frame and there is a trace of the fence along the edge, which doesn’t bother me in this context.


  • philberphoto says:

    Pascal, many thanks for such a clever, responsible post. I would like to offer a few comments. First, in accordance with the biblical teaching “let he who is without sin throw the first stone”, I only want to listen to preachers who actually live by their teachings. Greta Thunberg’s trip to the US was such a farce and fraud, going there by race sailboat (zero-carbon), but not mentioning that it had caused 5 people to fly to NYC to sail the boat back, instead of her father and she just flying there and back, with a lower overall carbon generation. But without world attention of course. World attention (media etc…) which is hardly carbon neutral….
    Second, you look at how photos are obtained. I look at how they are spread. Sure the Internet is not carbon-neutral, let alone carbon-free. But sharing an image on a world-wide basis is a way for the many to -sort of- travel vicariously. This way we get to follow Dallas in his far-away travels without boarding the plane with him. And, for one physical traveler, DS has tens of thousands of virtual travelers….
    Lastly, there are so many images that matter in the best possible sense. X-rays have saved tens -hundreds?- of millions of lives. How about video surveillance that catches criminals. And images for education? Or is that bad too, Mrs Thunberg, as you shun yours one day a week the better to shame others?
    So, yes, I feel ours is a positive job or hobby that I can enjoy responsibly. Responsibily is the word in my book…

    • pascaljappy says:

      Thank you Philippe. You make an interesting point saying that we follow travelers. Since that inspires and educates us all, the impact is not limited to the personal travelling. So it is great use of resources.

  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    There is of course no climate change – ask practically any well known head of state!

    That is why people in Britain are drowning and we are having more bushfires, in more states, earlier than ever I can remember. Oh – and today’s going to be the hottest ever November day since records were first kept.

    But that doesn’t mean there’s any climate change.

    On a different point – travel isn’t necessarily by [diesel powered] ocean liner or [avgas fuelled] airliner. It can be a stroll down the road, for some. I can remember being escorted through the fantastic forest country near Pemberton in the South West of this state, by a passionate local resident. Each step I took was carefully checked, to ensure I did not tread on any of the local flora. The place was a magic world. No wonder he was so passionate.

    Reading this article reminded me of it – and this is a “must read”, for ALL landscape photographers.


    • pascaljappy says:

      Hear hear.

      The forests around Pemberton are superb and there is a track that leads to the great dunes on which you can actually walk right to the sea (very long hike, tens of miles, but so eyewateringly beautiful). My son is going there in March and I can’t wait to go back myself. But, in the spirit of what you are wirting, there are very nice walks locally that I should think of doing again ๐Ÿ™‚

      Thanks for reminding us !

  • Pascal Ravach says:

    My preferred post to date, dear Pascal J (more “cool” than Pascal 1, 2, 3… right?)

    In 74, aged 16, I chose Ecology for university… well, it didn’t exist yet; the orientation people stared at me, clueless ๐Ÿ˜‰

    Reading you, I’m each time stunned how some of us have been through the same reflexions, choices, dilemmas…
    The whole chain of creating, transporting and using, from a salad to a plane, is sometimes so complex that it’s impossible to grab it all…
    What’s important is to be conscious and to care…

    Regarding Art, I go even further than you.
    Why do people on an isolated and very poor island create Art since prehistoric times?
    In our decadent societies, focused on”utilitarism”, possession, status, art became the last step, the one for those having all the rest… another “status and possession symbol”…
    I see involved artists and involved intellectuals the same way; the latter don’t crystallize archetypes in perceived forms, but both are “finders of the invisible”… and as we all know, like St-ex said, “the essential is not visible to the eyes, only to the heart”… so for me Art is not an after-though in life… it is essential, period.

    About Greta, why all this noise around her? Because she made it spectacular and shakes the morons in charge; yes, the boat trip is easy to dismiss… but it changes nothing about the validity of her concerns.
    But gee, she is one after thousands of ecological activists!
    From the Indian women fighting Union Carbide in Bophal to Marie-Monique Robin fighting Monsanto….

    And if you want to see ecology and photographic art reconciled at the highest level – and yes, they traveled – just look at this book: Minamata, created by W. Eugene Smith and Aileen M. Smith, his wife of Japanese origin, in… 1975!

    Pascal R

  • Nick says:

    I like travel photos.I think I learned a lot from you too.

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