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International Photographic Taboos

Updated on January 10, 2017
LuisEGonzalez profile image

I enjoy photography and have been doing so professionally and independently for over 30 years. Hope you enjoy my hubs!

Depending on the country, photographing an umarried lady is taboo

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Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0 | Source

Some common taboos; religious ceremonies, groups of people, anything death related | Source
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This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. | Source
Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0
Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0 | Source

What are taboos?

Taboos are almost universally common. Everywhere you go there are bound to be some things, customs and actions that are considered to be bad luck, insensitive or even taboo to be photographed. Like almost anything, photography is included in the taboo list.

First, what is typically considered to be a taboo; "A taboo (tə'buː, tæ'buː) is a vehement prohibition of an action based on the belief that such behavior is either too sacred or too accursed for ordinary individuals to undertake, under threat of supernatural punishment. Such prohibitions are present in virtually all societies. The word has been somewhat expanded in the social sciences to include strong prohibitions relating to any area of human activity or custom that is sacred or forbidden based on moral judgment and religious beliefs. "Breaking a taboo" is usually considered objectionable by society in general, not merely a subset of a culture." Wikipedia

There are several reactions that can ensue if your photographic experiences are contrary to local customs and beliefs. From an unappreciative look to a certain jail sentence and probable confiscation of your equipment.

In many Asian countries photographing three people at the same time; in the same photo, is considered very rude. The belief is that one of the three people, mainly the one in the center, will soon die. Perhaps this originated from the number 3 being an odd number.

Taking photos of fish while they are next to a person is also considered to bring bad luck. Capturing an image of a young lady next to a man that is not a relative, husband, fiancé etc. is considered to bring bad luck to this young lady as she will no longer be able to marry an eligible bachelor.

In many if not all Islamic countries you may not take a photo of any religious artifact or engraved image, as this is strictly prohibited in the Koran. But be at ease as you can be extremely certain that there will not be any such image to photograph. It is also quite rude and insensitive to photograph the bottom of anyone's feet, since the soles of your feet and your shoes are always stepping on the lowest and most unclean things possible, like dirt.

You are not encouraged to photograph the faces of women either nor should you attempt to photograph any unaccompanied female. You are not allowed to photograph inside any religious buildings such as mosques without first obtaining permission and only then of very limited portions of it and you can rest assured that a constant security detail will be like your shadow at every step of the way.

In many South American countries taking photographs of dead people is viewed as rude and insensitive and in some cases as a lack of respect. Neither should you photograph people at a funeral or the viewing of a deceased relative. The soul of the deceased will be trapped in the photo and will be unable to reach Heaven. Similar customs abound in Asiatic countries.

Buddhist countries do not allow photographs to be taken of any religious sites, buildings or images, nor of worshipers. Doing so can result in a brisk beating or scolding.

In some parts of Africa some tribal customs prevent you from taking their photographs without asking first and will usually require a token of gratitude; a small gift or a trade. With some tribes you must first become an honorary member, go through a ceremony and only then will you be allowed to photograph. In some parts of the globe take a photo of a man's possession, like a camel, and you'll end up paying more for taking the photograph than if you would have bought the camel instead.

Modern taboos are almost strictly related to photographing anything that is remotely associated with the military, such as in airports, government buildings, equipment, personnel, guard stations and so on. Violate any of these rules and you will probably not only lose your equipment but your freedom as well, albeit mostly temporarily. This is especially true in countries with a very rigid political establishment and even fewer political freedoms.

Nudity is almost universally not acceptable to be photographed, but this is mostly due to decency standards. However in some countries there are parts of the human body that cannot be photographed or videotaped or even illustrated, under any circumstance, such as in Japan where photographs that show private body parts, especially if hair is included are strictly against the law and punishable with heavy fines. Even if one is involved with the pornography industry.

Countries like Thailand have strict policies against photographing political personnel and photographing the feet, any part of the feet. Similarly, photographing at religious ceremonies is not allowed either.

Like in the United States, Canada and most of Europe, photographing children without the parents permission is frowned upon. Photographing any child without clothing, no matter how innocent the photo might be is strictly prohibited too.

There some parts of the world where you are not looked upon kindly if you happen to photograph anyone wearing a costume, specifically if a mask is involved and it happens to be of a monster, or with religious undertones, such as the devil. The soul of that person can become trapped within the spirit of the character or assume evil traits associated with the figure.

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What to do before traveling

The safest practice is to do a thorough research of the location that you are planning on visiting and learn as many of the local customs as possible.

Local travel centers and tourist destinations have personnel that will assist you with this.

If you find yourself with the opportunity of taking a good photograph but are unsure if it is allowed or if the local customs permit it, then simply ask politely.

If you are told that you cannot take the shot, then by all means do not take it.

Missing a photogenic opportunity is definitely less traumatic than having your equipment confiscated, destroyed, or worse being thrown into jail. Keep in mind that you're not in Kansas anymore Dorothy.

Just as you expect foreigners to respect the laws and customs of your country, so are you expected to do the same in their country.


Taboos about the body

Burials are always a touchy subject to photograph

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CC BY-SA 2.0 | Source

© 2011 Luis E Gonzalez


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    • Kathleen Cochran profile image

      Kathleen Cochran 

      8 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      If you look at my list of hubs you will see photography is a big part of my life also, although, compared to you, I'm just a beginner.

      We lived in Saudi Arabia for a while and there you could get arrested for photograghing anything - even buildings. We were far out in the desert once at something like a national park. A group of women ask me if they could be photograghed with my daughter. I assumed it was because my daughter was a blue eyed blonde. They were draped in black, even with veils over their eyes, which was the Saudi way. But they wouldn't let us take the same shot with our camera.

    • LuisEGonzalez profile imageAUTHOR

      Luis E Gonzalez 

      8 years ago from Miami, Florida

      fastfreta: Thank you very much. The enjoyment you obtained from my hub is a big part of why I write them.

    • fastfreta profile image

      Alfreta Sailor 

      8 years ago from Southern California

      Luis, I happened to catch a question you posed in the Forum, and I just had to come over, and read some of your hubs,I'm glad I did. This was a most interesting, and informative hub. This one I will Tweet, Like on FB, and Digg it, that's how well I liked it. I'm beginning to travel in my old age, and I take lots of pictures. It's good to be educated as to the correct protocol when it comes to taking pictures in other cultures. Thank you so much. Voted up, useful, awesome, interesting. I'm also bookmarking it, for future reference.

    • Credence2 profile image


      9 years ago from Florida (Space Coast)

      A most interesting and informing article, I had know idea of international etiquette in this area. Obviously, you are well travelled and experienced. I am most please for the opportunity to be part of your team

      thanks, Cred2

    • kaitiaki profile image


      9 years ago

      Stationed in the Philippines, I was told not to photograph people sleeping, as you might steal their soul. Also, if I want to take a photo of a beggar for a "human interest" characterization of their face, I will always give some coins and then ask for a photo. They are usually very accommodating. Thanks for posting this.

    • jrsearam profile image


      9 years ago from San Juan, PR

      Fascinating...great hub Luis.voted up and awesome. JR

    • fucsia profile image


      9 years ago

      Very interesting! The photos are very beautiful. Thanks for sharing!

    • David Warren profile image

      David Warren 

      9 years ago from Nevada and Puerto Vallarta

      Interesting and great photos'. Amazes me how so many Americans' seem to lose their idea of manners and common sense when visiting foreign countries.

    • agvulpes profile image


      9 years ago from Australia

      Thanks Luis for these great tips. Sometimes it is just common courtesy to ask first, sometimes it is against the law! I have a policy of 'If in doubt - don't'

    • BkCreative profile image


      9 years ago from Brooklyn, New York City

      Very nice and I hope Americans heed this because Americans tend to have a serious flaw when it comes to travel and taking pictures.

      I've traveled extensively and it is only the Americans who will see perhaps an elder sitting in a market, selling flowers or spices, and will whip out a camera and take a picture of the person - even move in close - as if the person were an unfeeling object. When I say that is so rude they look dumbfounded. When I say we would never put up with a foreigner coming to America and whipping out a camera as we sat on a bench at a bus stop or run up to us to get a close-up while we are eating in a restaurant - they act as if it is not the same insensitivity. In fact we'd be ready to fight if someone treated up like an inanimate object. Where is the moral compass here or common sense?

      Thanks for a great hub. Rated up.

    • Denise Handlon profile image

      Denise Handlon 

      9 years ago from North Carolina

      "Yes, Yes!"

    • LuisEGonzalez profile imageAUTHOR

      Luis E Gonzalez 

      9 years ago from Miami, Florida

      To everyone; thanks for the comments and kind words. This encourages me to keep the hubs coming.

      Again, Thanks!

    • Denise Handlon profile image

      Denise Handlon 

      9 years ago from North Carolina

      Luis-very interesting and informative hub. I'm glad I didn't miss this one! Thanks for researching and sharing so much useful info. I remember attending a Native American Powwow and filming the opening ceremony for a school project. As I sat in the stands I had a clear shot of a very large N.A. male pointing at me from the floor and doing the 'cut' sign across his neck. It took a moment for me to 'get it' but when it finally dawned on me I immediately stopped filming. You are absolutely right on when you mention to check the acceptance of the culture's beliefs about photographing. I did not know that it was taboo to film the opening ceremony of the Powwow. My video camera could easily have been confiscated, but was not. Voted up

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      LuisEGonzalez: Very well presented, as usual. Many moons ago I learned firsthand that here in the United States the Amish would prefer not to be photographed. Voted up + useful + awesome

      Kind regards, Stessily

    • randomcreative profile image

      Rose Clearfield 

      9 years ago from Milwaukee, Wisconsin

      Neat idea for a hub!

    • Alastar Packer profile image

      Alastar Packer 

      9 years ago from North Carolina

      A good reminder Luis to...when in Rome..On a first visit to Europe took some photos of the top-less girls at an outdoor party, they didn't mind a bit. You are correct of course about the taboos, some of which sure are fairly strange to westerners.

    • Eiddwen profile image


      9 years ago from Wales

      Very interesting indeed and thanks for sharing.


    • breakfastpop profile image


      9 years ago

      This is fascinating. I had no idea that these taboos even existed.

    • profile image

      Lynn S. Murphy 

      9 years ago

      Very interesting. These are topics I've not looked into but will be doing soon since we have tentative plans to travel to Ireland. Can't wait.


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