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Fake Photo Stories for Sale

Unveiling the truth behind fake travel photography - how staged scenes and manipulated encounters shape our travel expectations and experiences. Read about my experience in Vietnam.

Women dry fish in the southern province of Ba Ria, Vietnam

I typically aim for a positive outlook, but recent eye-opening experiences have compelled me to shed light on Fake Travel Photography. It's quite common for us to choose our destinations based on images we've seen. Sharing these photos sets expectations for those relying on internet inspiration for travel decisions. The higher the expectations, the harsher the blow of potential disappointment – something I've personally encountered.

Staged Shots

I might have been a bit behind the curve, as I only discovered staged travel photos last year. Until now, I believed some photographers simply happened upon remarkable scenes by luck or persistence. However, I've learned that for many, this isn't the case.

Photographers capturing a staged situation of a farmer heading to work with his buffalo in Xiapu, China. Photograph by Gilles Sabrié, for New York Times

Welcome to the Chinese province of Xiapu, which has become a hub for staged travel photography tours. Here, groups of photography enthusiasts gather to capture unrealistically manipulated scenes. Joining such tours results in the mass production of fake stories, focused on gaining followers interested in social media fairytales.

What's more shocking, such photographs often win big competitions worldwide.

You might argue that a beautiful photo is just that, whether candid or staged. And you'd be right – photography is subjective. There's a vast spectrum of photographic approaches, from journalism to fine art. However, in travel photography, this practice brings about negative consequences, which I'll dive into shortly.

with our photographs they want us to share their craft with the world.

Women who invited us in to showcase the proces of making incense sticks in the village of Quang Phu Cau, Vietnam

Fish Trap Village had become a living museum, relying on modeling for photographers as its main income source

Photography Tours

This article doesn't aim to shame photography tours. Rather, I encourage finding tours that enhance the essence of travel photography through their work.

My initial experiences with photography tours in Vietnam were positive. I captured authentic situations and even interacted with locals, learning about their crafts. Once, we were even invited by strangers to observe their work, understanding that with our photographs they want us to share their craft with the world.

Yet, there were moments when I felt uncomfortable about taking photos. For instance, at the Fish Trap Village in Thu Sy, I realised the picturesque setup was staged just for my visit. All the items were placed in perfect compositions with models fitting the scene perfectly. There was even smoke to emphasise the light rays. Everything was so perfect, that it felt like cheating. As fishing methods evolved, single-fish traps were replaced by fishing nets and The Fish Trap Village had become a living museum, relying on modeling for photographers as its main income source. This realisation marked my first encounter with the problem in staged travel photography.

There's also a dilemma here – creating photo setups ended to be the only source of income for these craftsman and by doing so, they also keeping their tradition alive - so what's wrong with this?

Authentic moment showing women putting out the incense sticks to dry in the yard in Quang Phu Cau Village, Vietnam.

My Experience in Fishing Village

Last year, I was amazed by a photograph of a woman drying hundreds of trays of fish in Vietnam. This photo won the travel category of the 2021 Sony World Photography Awards, known as one of the most prestigious photography competitions out there.

It sparked my interest in photographing people engaged in their traditional crafts. While studying this photograph, I discovered it was taken at a small family-run factory. As photographers tend to keep their locations private, I knew I was on my own to locate it. After extensive research, I narrowed down the area to a small district and found the factory by scanning satellite images for similar patterns.

Accompanied by two Vietnamese friends, we arrived at the factory and were immediately noticed by a local. Without a word, he pointed us towards the factory, as if he knew what we were looking for. Upon arrival, we were swiftly confronted by a group of women loudly expressing their stance.

Despite our excitement to witness the workers' daily tasks and even willingness to compensate them for allowing us to photograph, we were shocked when the women informed us that their fish factory is currently a very popular photo setup for photography tours and they are aware of "photo market prices" and quoted us with a set price of $125 for pretending to work.

When our friends explained that we hoped to capture genuine moments of their real work, they burst into laughter. Later, we discovered that nobody here works in the way we had seen previously on the internet. The price they demanded was steep, almost equaling the entire monthly earnings for the factory. The photography setups had transformed this family run factory from a place showcasing traditional crafts into more of a photo studio business, unfortunately affecting the kindness and motivation of the people involved.

Our friends negotiated for us, agreeing on a price for 10 minutes of their time. We had invested so much effort in finding this location that we didn't want to waste the opportunity, even if the situation we wanted to capture was completely staged. However, after 5 minutes the workers asked us for more money. And when we said that we don't have more - they all left. Leaving us alone at the empty yard. With the feeling of disappointment.

My Approach to Travel Photography

Taking tours or hiring guides is common in travel photography. In my case, I seek guidance not to manipulate situations but to ensure we're in the right place at the right time to capture genuine moments.

My journalistic approach to travel photography focuses on real-life situations. I never instruct subjects to pose or perform beyond their natural actions. This ensures the authenticity of my photographs, fulfilling the expectations of those visiting the same locations.

Woman making bamboo baskets in Quang Phu Cau, Vietnam. I asked her to move to the opposite side of the room to get a more interesting background.

To be fair, if my subjects agree to be photographed, I allow myself to suggest moving towards better lighting or a nicer background. Just like with the man sitting in the doorway in the bamboo basket village, trying to shield his face from the sun (see below).

After taking a few portraits of him, I asked if he could move towards the light. The difference between these two pictures is striking, and my suggestion didn't change the narrative of this situation.

Although I believe adjusting lighting or position doesn't compromise authenticity, the staged photography business alters people's behaviour, turning genuine encounters into transactional exchanges.

Final Thought

In conclusion, while visiting rural areas in countries of South East Asia, you'll find locals naturally friendly and helpful. However, increasing popularity and financial gestures from visitors might change their perception, turning photography into an expectation of a quick way to earn money, as seen already in the Suri Villages in Omo Valley, Ethiopia.

This doesn't mean we shouldn't compensate for someone's time, but it doesn't always have to be financial. Sharing your photograph, engaging in conversations, or showing interest in someone's work fosters a deeper connection beyond a mere financial transaction and leaves a better impression of foreign photographers.

Read our other articles about Vietnam

In the beginning of 2024, we spent over 4 months traveling around Vietnam. By staying longer in Vietnam, we were able to visit places off the beaten path, where regular tourists don't usually go, and create comprehensive guides for you to plan your travels.



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