Some of the most spectacular sights worldwide are religious buildings, shrines, or sculptures. Think of the spectacular cathedrals of Europe, the Temples at Angkor, the Buddhist wats in Thailand, Laos and Burma, the Hindu, Jain and Buddhist temples of India, the mosques of Morocco or Turkey. Everyone wants to get a beautiful shot of the sun rising or setting over a temple or a tiny exquisite detail of a sculpture or fresco. Most religious sites allow photography, though some places don’t allow flash photography, as it interferes with others’ experience of the site. Some don’t allow tripods, particularly if the site gets very crowded.
While cultural sensitivity is always important, special sensitivity is required at religious sites. Here are some ways to be a welcome photographer at religious sites:
Show respect for the site. Follow the traditional signs of respect, covering shoulders or your head, or taking off your shoes before entering temples or shrines. While you will want to read about these customs ahead of time, guidelines are generally posted at much-visited places. Photographing people making merit, praying, meditating, making offerings should be done carefully so as not to disrupt their experience.
Don’t raise your voice, don’t climb on things not meant for climbing (that is, anything but stairs). Don’t touch the surface of paintings, frescoes or statuary as they can be damaged by exposure to the oils on your skin. Don’t try to brush moss or lichen from the surface of stones, as you will damage the stone.
Don’t pose people with religious statuary. I’ve seen people who I thought were otherwise culturally sensitive posing with, say Hindu statues, trying to mimic the poses. Imagine what they would think of a tourist standing on an altar in a European cathedral mimicking the pose of Christ on the cross!
When we visited Sri Lanka in 2007, I had read that they no longer allowed photography in the Dambulla Cave Temples. There was an incident several years ago when a Japanese tourist had her photo taken sitting on the lap of one of the Buddha statues. As a result, they stopped photography for a time, and they re-consecrated and repainted the Buddha statue that was desecrated. They now allow photography (including flash and including using a tripod) but the signs say that you cannot take photos of people, only photos of the paintings and sculpture. I think that’s a good guideline in general at religious sites.
After all these “don’ts” there are plenty of “do’s.” Do have a great time visiting Buddhist sites and taking pictures. It’s really easy not to break any of these rules and maintain a respectful presence while taking pictures and enjoying the rich artistic and cultural offerings.
And, if you like, have some fun checking out the many wonderful photos of religious sites in Southeast Asia at Cheryl’s SE Asia Travel Photos.