Taking Pictures with Flash and Other Ways to Be a Jerk While Traveling

We all have pet peeves. If you don’t then you are an incredibly chill human and I’d love to know your secrets. After spending the majority of my life traveling, I have developed a bit of a list. Yes, I am a bit of a rule follower, but only in the name of safety, preservation, and respect. Those are the three main topics that this article will revolve around. It isn’t meant to name and shame – although I do – but rather to help you to be a better traveler and less of a jerk.

People fall into two categories. The first being ones who know, but don’t care. They think they are above the law and rules do not apply to them. If that is you then you are a jerk. The second group, which I am hoping is the majority, is a sincere lack of knowledge. If that is you, awesome, I am glad you are here now, and please share this article if you found it informative.

6 Ways to Be a Jerk While Traveling

1. Taking photos with the flash on.

In a world dominated by Instagram posts of incredible sights we all suddenly want to be a photographer. You know exactly what I am talking about. Everyone wants their shot even if it is exactly the same as everyone else’s. Photos serve as actual proof that we went somewhere, but in today’s age of photo manipulation, these lines get blurred. In the process of attempting to replicate a photo, you might end up breaking the law and/or permanently degrading a natural site or piece of art.

I want to begin by discussing taking photos with flash. There is often clear signage that you are not allowed to take photos with flash before entering a building or room. Typically you see this with religious buildings and museums.

Firstly, you shouldn’t even be using your flash – ever. It is 2021 and cameras, especially on your phone are well-equipped to deal with low light situations. The standard flash that comes with your camera is not even that great and often only works up to a few feet in front of you. That is why you see professionals with large adjustable flashes.

If you are visiting the Sistine Chapel and think, “Hm, just one won’t hurt”, think again. You aren’t the only person who thought this. Which, by the way, NO photos (flash or not) are allowed to be taken in the Sistine Chapel. There is a unique story there, but the current policy reflects the standard.

Stop flashing caves

Caves are a very popular tourist attraction that often does not allow photography with or without flash. Of course, every time I visited one there was at least one person in the group who felt they were above the rules, and you can most definitely bet they had the flash on.

Caves have specific climates that encourage the growth of stalagmites and stalactites and the introduction of new light or warmth could produce algae or moss instead. It is a delicate ecosystem that can be thrown off pace with a few photos.

Why you shouldn’t do it

Some works of art, such as paintings and textiles, are susceptible to damage from direct light. Many museums block natural light and use filters to protect the paintings. The lights that they do use are often calculated for that space and directed to avoid damage to the art.

Full disclaimer, I dug deep into Google for this one. I read a lot of studies to try and determine if this is true or an old tale. Some will argue it is a tale, but the bottom line is that there is always -some- proof that light will destroy works of art, regardless of how quickly that happens I vote let’s preserve it for generations to come.

How to avoid this behavior

If you are using auto settings on your camera, familiarize yourself with it before you leave the house. Don’t forget to turn off the flash. If you aren’t sure, fire off a test shot before entering the building.

Asking permission beforehand is the perfect way to avoid being a jerk!

2. Illegally entering or climbing sacred sites.

Sacred sites or places of pilgrimage are sites of spiritual importance found across the globe. They span across cultures and religions and throughout human history. From man-made sites such as Saint Peter’s Basilica, Mecca, the Pyramids of Giza, or Chichen Itza, to naturally occurring ones like Uluru in Australia or the Devil’s Tower in the US.

Not all sacred sites are buildings that are places of worship. For some indigenous groups, these sites are spiritually or culturally significant, and might not be obvious at first glance. This is why it is important to educate yourself before you travel. It is your duty to read up on the customs and rules of law before crossing international borders.

Sacred sites sometimes provide additional rules for entry, such as how you should dress and interact with the site, and for some sites, you might be denied entrance for not complying. Many of them do not allow photographs or video.

Stairway to Being a Jerk

A quick search will yield a shocking number of videos showing individuals climbing the Pyramids in Egypt and often involving a fine or getting arrested. These people are fully aware it is illegal and wrong but clicks and views outweigh the local culture.

The Pyramids of Egypt are some of the oldest man-made sacred sites in the world, and the last remaining World Wonders of the Ancient World. The large pyramids are tombs often in complexes with temples close by. If you wouldn’t climb tombstones in a cemetery why climb the Pyramids?

uluru is a sacred site in australia

The Returning of Uluru

Uluru is a large sandstone formation found in Northern Territory, Australia. As one of the most iconic natural landmarks of Australia, it received a high number of visitors. In 1985, Uluru was returned to the Pitjantjatjara Aborigines with a few conditions. They requested that no one be able to climb Uluru, but that was not granted.

Uluru holds spiritual significance to Aṉangu. They have requested no one climb it as not to disturb the site and so that no one will get hurt. It has been shared that the local communities have a deep sense of responsibility for the safety of people there. At least 36 people have lost their lives attempting the climb and countless others needed rescuing.

In 1966, a chain-link handrail was installed without the Anangu permission and against their wishes. Visitors continued to climb as it was not explicitly prohibited, only requested by Anangu to refrain.

After some very disrespectful behavior, the conversation began again. As of October 2019, you are no longer allowed to climb Uluru and the handrail has been removed. The path where people climbed to the top will forever be imprinted.

A positive story to come from educating the public about the preservation of sacred sites is one about sorry rocks. Rangers at Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park receive packages of rocks taken from Uluru by tourists often accompanied by letters of apology. Tourists claim they wanted the rock as memorabilia, but since learning about how sacred the place is to the Anangu they have since returned them.

Read | Why Supporting Local Tourism is More Important Than Ever Before

Why you shouldn’t do it:

Climbing these sites is disrespectful to the local community. Every step or touch to a site is contributing to the degradation of the materials. Have you ever noticed a spot of discoloration on a statue where people rub or touch? It is slowly eroding away.

Sacred sites are labeled so because of their significance to a group of people. They might not be sacred to you, but that doesn’t diminish their importance to others. Be a decent human.

How to avoid this behavior

Just don’t do it. You are in a sacred place, so respect it as so. Alternatively, this is a great resource for learning about visit sacred sites. BBC also created a great guide for religious tourism etiquette.

3. Breaking the law

I shouldn’t have to include half of the things on this list, but as they say “this is why we can’t have nice things”. There is something peculiar that happens when some people go on vacation. Suddenly all rules seem to go out the window and the further some go, the fewer rules they seem to follow.

Breaking the law can be as simple as chewing gum or holding hands with your partner or as complicated as immigration law or saying something against a government. Rules vary vastly across the globe. Did you know that in some parts of Australia and Mexico it is illegal to shout offensive words in public? How about that wearing camouflage clothing in Uganda can result in a jail sentence? Or that you can be arrested for public displays of affection in UAE?

During closures earlier this year, a woman entered Yellowstone National Park illegally and was burned while taking photos near Old Faithful. Because the park was closed she had to drive 50 miles before encountering help. She was flown to a hospital for medical treatment.

breaking the rules while traveling are costly
Speaking from experience…. Here is a story about me breaking a simple rule that resulted in a huge headache and a hefty fine.

Ignorantia juris non excusat

Latin for ‘ignorance of the law excuses not’. At least once a month someone in Facebook travel groups makes a post claiming there is a scam in Prague. They explain their story at length, and how they were fined upon entering the station. The reality is that there are signs everywhere claiming you cannot enter certain sections without a ticket – or you risk a fine. It is not the country’s obligation to have every sign in English, but it is yours to understand the laws.

Why you shouldn’t do it:

It is disrespectful and it can be costly (via fines). No one enjoys paying fines or serving time, especially while on vacation or in another country.

How to avoid this behavior

Research local laws and regulations before you travel. This includes immigration laws, required vaccines, religious observances, all the way down to how to buy and use a ticket for the train.

4. Misbehaving at archaeological sites

This is probably the most difficult section for me to write. We all have that hill we will die on. This is mine. I have such a deep love and respect for humanity and our creations that it is nearly impossible for me to sympathize with someone who participates (knowingly) in the destruction of archaeological sites.

Do not climb archaeological sites if you are not allowed. In most places, you are not allowed. Firstly, because of safety. There is no way to ensure the safety of some ancient structures. Secondly, every step you take or piece you touch is contributing to its erosion.

Some walls or structures might look mighty and strong but many are incredibly old and one misstep can leave it crumbling, ruined, and someone very hurt.

Souvenirs from the past

I know you really want that pottery shard or arrowhead and it is really amazing that you have found one, but did you know that moving (and removing) these items disrupts the archaeological record? You may look at it, photography, or even sketch it, but moving it corrupts the information archaeologists could have retrieved.

Archaeologists corrupt the record every time they remove an item, but they are trained to record all of the information beforehand. They often have maps sketched out, specific measurements of the artifact, where it was found, details about its position, what other items were found around it. One-piece can tell you very little but the context of surrounding artifacts will help paint the picture of our past.

If you removed all of the arrowheads of an area that will be excavated later there will be a gap in the data and possibilities for misinterpreting the site. If you think you have found something impressive don’t be afraid to contact a local historical society, university, or professional archaeologist to let them know.

Now there is another side to this which most are not aware of and that involves the looting and selling of artifacts. These activities take place especially during times of conflict and in recent times during lockdown (here, here, and here). These criminals are taking advantage of suffering to add more wealth to their pockets. It is disgusting and inexcusable.

Colosseum at sunrise in Rome, Italy

Ancient graffiti

This has to be one of my biggest pet peeves of all time, in fact, it feels more like a dealbreaker than a pet peeve. There are absolutely no excuses as to why someone would write, carve, or deface any archaeological site. I will forgive someone for climbing the pyramids before I even consider forgiving someone for carving their name into the Colosseum. Not in this lifetime. Call me petty if you’d like.

This happens way more than you would think (read more, here, here, here, and here). All of those articles came up in a quick search so I imagine there are countless others. Don’t write on or carve words into something that isn’t yours. Period.

Why you shouldn’t do it:

It damages the sites and destroys the archaeological record for future generations, removing items and especially vandalizing or selling artifacts is illegal.

How to avoid this behavior

Don’t do it. Read signs, be aware of your surroundings, and educate others if you see humans behaving badly! The Society for American Archaeology has created a short guide to help you with site etiquette.

5. Leaving your trace

Leave no trace is a framework or philosophy concerned with conservation. It consists of seven principles; plan ahead and prepare, travel and camp on durable surfaces, dispose of waste properly, leave what you find, minimize campfire impacts, respect wildlife, and be considerate of other visitors.

When we are out in nature it can be easy to forget there are many ecosystems around us and when we step off of a path, pick wildflowers, or leave food out while camping we can have a negative impact on the environment. Something as simple as a campfire produces charcoal that can alter the radiocarbon dating of archaeological sites. Food can attract small animals which can disturb the area or larger animals which can pose a threat to human safety.

litterbugs not wanted.

I can’t believe in 2021 that I have to say this… STOP THROWING YOUR TRASH ON THE GROUND. There is no excuse, don’t do it. If you do, you are a jerk. Litter can be are extremely harmful to the ecosystem. Recently, I’ve noticed more and more trash on trails and in nature. It is really exciting that more people are visiting nature and hiking trails, but please remember to hold your trash until you find a garbage can.

Read | How to Travel More Sustainably

Instagram tourists

I can’t write about Leave No Trace and not shame those who are publicly engaging and promoting in this type of activity. The famous super bloom scandal has also continued into wildflowers, lavender, etc. Thankfully, some locations are now creating specific areas for creators to visit without harming the environment or the crop.

Why you shouldn’t do it

Nature is fragile and deserves our love and respect. Without nature, we would not exist. Pieces of trash can be consumed by small animals or enter waterways causing contamination or blockages. Animals are dying because they are consuming our trash or getting tangled and sometimes maimed.

How to avoid this behavior

Carry a small bag for trash with you so that you can pick up litter you might see on your journey or to hold your own trash. Here are some tips for enjoying and preserving sites of importance.

6. Dressing inappropriately

I get that you want to look good on vacation, but there are local customs that should be respected. If you wouldn’t wear your bikini in the local grocery store, why are you doing it at the seaside? Be mindful of your surroundings and local customs.

When traveling to some countries (see: Iran, Dubai, Greece, Qatar) it can be a matter of law determining what you wear – specifically for women. In some other places, it is merely a cultural practice and it is polite to respect that.

Many religious or sacred sites will not allow entrance unless your shoulders and knees are covered.

While jewelry isn’t inappropriate, it can make you a target for pickpockets. This can be very common in major cities across Europe so it is something to be mindful about.

Why you shouldn’t do it

It is disrespectful. It can be costly in terms of fines. You might also miss out on activities or sightseeing due to inappropriate dress.

How to avoid this behavior

Research the local customs and culture to see what is typically worn by the local population as well as tourists. Some countries do have very strict laws around their dress code so prepare in advance.

Conclusions

I know this article may sound a bit cranky or self-righteous, but I think we need to talk about some of these topics more often. People tend to forget that travel has consequences and implications. You become an ambassador for your culture and your country once you cross national borders. Your interaction with people can influence how they understand your culture for years to come.

All I am asking is for simple, mutual respect. Subscribe to the ideals of Leave No Trace and keep your mind and heart open. Travel is an incredible experience that can introduce you to new perspectives, interests, food, etc. Remember, it doesn’t cost anything to be nice and to follow the rules – but breaking them could cost you!

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