The Ethics of Photographing Slums

My eyes are filled with tears because of the smoke. The plastic particles in the air are irritating my lungs. I’m climbing this mountain with my two friends.

The ground under my shoes feels funny. It softly cushions my steps, like fresh and loose soil, but it also tangles my feet every now and then. It is an awkward mass, this mountain of pressed trash. It consists of very different materials and yet is an entity. A mountain of poison. Not only for the body but also for the soul.

And pigs everywhere! I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many pigs walking freely in the wild. Is that appropriate husbandry? I feel as though I’m starting to understand why some religions refrain from eating pork. If, by eating pigs, I eat what pigs ate, then abstaining might be a better choice.

These are my thoughts as I am climbing this giant mountain. I am cold, numb, and have to keep up my emotional wall up to be able to bear what I see. Children are climbing everywhere on this mountain to collect plastic bottles in giant trash bags to later sell them for a starvation wage, which is, even in an Indian context, far too little to justify the health hazard of the work.

Women in colorful Saris walk around and create an abstract contrast to the brown-grey mass of garbage. Three young men fill a bag with trash and I ask them “Ey Bhaya, kya main aapka tasvir kheech sakta hun?” Can I take a picture of you?


I am baffled. It rarely occurs that Indians reject your request for a picture. But I also understand why. The feeling of shame sits deep in the members of the Safaikarmchari community. The self-esteem suffers from the vicious cycle in which those people are trapped. People who were born at the wrong time at the wrong place.

My companion tells me: “Don’t need to ask. If you ask, they will say no. Just make picture.”

Tutorials for Photography

Tips and tutorials for travel photography are diverse and numerous. I have read books, watched videos, listened to TED-talks, and researched on blogs. My favorite YouTuber is Thomas Heaton. He does photography in a very calm and focused way. His videos taught me how to set up my camera for landscapes, how to find the right light by getting up early and how a good composition works. My images are probably not as good as his, but I am on a good trajectory.

But I am more interested in people. I am fascinated by the closeness of the photos of Oded Wagenstein, whose books, TED-Talks, and podcast-interviews I read and listened to. His portraits tell stories and that makes them outstanding. I also love the portrait of Winston Churchill by Yousuf Karsh because it also tells a story. Before shooting it, Karsh pulled the cigar out of Churchill’s mouth, to break down the guard of that famous world politician.

My idol however is Sebastiao Salgado, whose project Genesis was my first step towards photography. I remember how I saw his images in the souvenir shop in the London Natural History Museum, regretting that I did not have the time to visit his exhibition. But I finally got his book as a present and a little flame started to burn. When I finally (accidentally) saw his exhibition in Ljubljana, I became fascinated. I already understood a little more about photography, but what I found there was unimaginable for me. Salgado’s book Exodus made me cry, while the story of his life showed me that photography is more than just taking pictures. It’s taking stories.

Travel Photography and Ethics

All these people and experiences have taught me how to shoot good pictures. But they did not tell me one thing: how do I deal with my position as a photographer? Photography can be just aesthetic. Portraits, fashion, and landscapes. People join for a project and then walk away. Or you hike up a mountain at the right time and shoot. That is one thing. But it is a different thing to take pictures of the life of humans. Especially in travel photography.

I don’t like the term “travel photography”, by the way. It is a western term and often means that a white man goes out and takes pictures of exotic people and places. What is travel photography for us is generally the everyday life of others. You will hardly ever find a portrait of a German with the hashtag #travelportrait. But the business is big. Travel hashtags run crazy on Instagram.

But the debate about that title leads us to another topic: the asymmetry of power between photographer and photographed. In most non-western countries, the rights regarding one’s own image are widely unknown. And if it is known, it is hardly implemented. I could theoretically upload pictures of anyone here and no one could complain. The photographed people would struggle to file an action even if there was rule of law. I could do what I want, without consequences. Do I want this? How do I get consent in photography? I did not find a tutorial for that.

I am quite straightforward in the communities in which I live, though. It’s a kind of exchange for me. I am permanently forced to take selfies. There are videos of me dancing at weddings that are shown to me by complete strangers. In India, do like the Indians do. These are my friends whom I take pictures of and put online and who take pictures of me and put them online. At least I try to take care that people don’t look bad in my photos. But what about strangers?

Photographing the Slum

I have now been living with the Safaikarmchari community for more than four months. I know their stories and know the lethargy that influences their life. The doubts, the alcoholism, the work with trash and dirt, and the vicious cycle in which the people are trapped.

I know that the people are smart, friendly, and, most of all, unimaginably hospitable. They are open for talks, are inviting, and love selfies.

I have found my own project. We have visited a slum in Kolkata. A friend of my friend Vimal. The scenery was impressive from a photojournalist’s perspective. I have seen a lot in India. That happens when you live with the lowest subcaste of the lowest caste. I have seen families whose houses consisted of nothing more than a cupboard, a TV, and a bed on which all seven family members slept.

But the Belgachia slum was different. It showed the situation from its most inhuman side in images that spoke for themselves. I am still coughing from the burning plastic that invaded my lungs two weeks ago. The slum is located directly next to a giant dumping ground that burns day and night. The smell, smog, and trash are the main part of people’s everyday life. And yet, guests are welcome, cared for in the best way, and treated with care. It is easy to make friends here if you want to make them.

Conscious Photojournalism

A week after my first visit, I decided to go back to Belgachia to take pictures. I want to visually capture the life of the communities that I have already theoretically captured in the past months. My project would have a topic: the lives of the lowest caste in India. No travel photography, but instead photojournalism. One topic, many pictures. Maybe a message to the people who see the images. But how do you capture misery with respect? How do you get consent for images that some people might see as shameful?

First of all, I must not listen to my companion and “just shoot,” but I have to ask or at least take a picture so obviously that it would be easy for people to reject the picture. If people say no, they say no. Then I have one image less, but I can sleep better at night knowing I did something good. That’s the most important rule.

The argument that I only get staged images that way doesn’t hold water with me. With a little bit of patience and experience, you can take pictures without any posing. Or you use the pose as a form of character and narration. That is the art of portraiture.

The second thing that I can do is to listen to the people, to get in touch. Not to go to the scene, shoot, and run away, but to stay overnight, drink tea with the people, and talk. That is wondrous and provides trust, which will also affect the quality of the images. I cannot get to know all the people in my photographs, but if I deal with the community, I have done my best.

Poverty Tourism vs. Photojournalism

There is a risk of becoming a poverty tourist. Or worse, to exploit it for business purposes. It became quite obvious to me during a conversation at a tea stall.

“You know, many people come here in a car, get out and shoot many pictures. This slum is very famous. They just come, shoot, leave, and sell the pictures. This is why many people here are suspicious about people with cameras.”

I felt bad. Was I one of many who used their position to take good pictures? Yes and no. My position definitely is of great use. But my motivation is different. I do not want to sell images of poverty, I want to present stories. I sit with people and try to find out more. I do not want to picture them as poor as possible, to sell the image to fundraisers. I want to meet people with respect. Maybe I do not always achieve that, but to try is all I can do. Somehow it is important to show these stories. We need to permanently be reminded of the realities of hunger, war, and modern slavery.

I will definitely shoot images that people will not like afterward. That also happens without photojournalism, with snapshots by friends or passport pictures, for example. I am not perfect, and I can only do my best. But when I consciously act and decide that I did not abuse my position, I can say that I acted in a morally good way.

Every situation is different and there aren’t many tutorials for ethics and morality. I want to meet people with respect. I show them my images, check if they are happy and try to get a feeling of what they like and they don’t. That is often difficult because their ideas of aesthetics often differ from mine. I am happy when I hear comments like “Wow! Hero pic.” Or when people see my images and want to be photographed themselves. Then I know that I have consent and that people trust me.

And as long as I am aiming for that, then I know that I’m doing it right.

The photos in this article were a glimpse into my two days in the Belgachia slum. I would love to read your comments, suggestions, and critique.

About the author: Nils Heininger is a photographer, author, anthropology student, and camel lover. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. He is currently working on his Anthropology M.A. thesis, exploring the culture of India. He lives with the Balmiki community and enjoys the simple life. You can find more of his work on his website. This article was also published here.