Tourist photography: should I pay locals who pose for me?
February 10, 2004 8:12 AM   Subscribe

What are your thoughts on paying to take pictures of people when traveling in developing countries? [more inside]

A friend and I got into a lively argument about this in Bolivia last year. I said it's bad, that it encourages dependency and makes it that much more likely that person will ask for a handout next time. I'd rather leave someone with the impression of me as a human being, through a smile or a friendly conversation, instead a walking wallet.

He said you're crazy - your camera is worth more than they make in a year. How could they not see you as a walking wallet? If you were in their position, you'd do the same thing. Besides, it's not an equal transaction - you walk away with a photo, they get nothing.
posted by gottabefunky to Human Relations (13 answers total)
I've always just asked the person (via sign language, if necessary.) If they agree or look indifferent, I take the picture. If they say no or turn away, I don't take the picture. If they hold their hand out, I decide whether it'd be a good enough shot to be worthwhile. Seems to work ok.

Either that, or get a really long lens.

Your friend is right: if you're in a touristed area, you already are nothing but a walking wallet to the locals, whether you're in Bolivia or Lake Tahoe.
posted by ook at 9:03 AM on February 10, 2004

Hmm. Interesting question.

Sounds like the reason for giving them money is not to actually pay them for their appearance in your photograph, since it is true that you wouldn't pay someone in a wealthier country for the same function, right?

So your gift to them is, in fact, charity, albeit with a justification, perhaps to keep you from feeling like you're patronizing them, or to help decide who, among all those poor people, you give money to?

Personally, I say do not mix charity with tourism. If you want to give them money, give them money, and if you want to take their picture, take their picture. To me, it's less ethically justifiable to give money to someone because they are more photogenic than someone who maybe needs the money equally. That essentially is like donating money to support only the parts of a society that appeal to tourists.

I say give a lump sum to a worthwhile local charity to alleviate the (perfectly natural) guilt that comes with being a comparable billionaire in third world country, then snap pictures freely and without guilt, knowing that in the end, having their picture taken is the least of these people's worries.

Just my opinion, though.
posted by Hildago at 9:45 AM on February 10, 2004

And when I say "you," it's the general "you," not you specifically.
posted by Hildago at 9:46 AM on February 10, 2004

I am most definitely against it.

When I was travelling around the Middle East, it was interesting (and yet distressing) to notice that thee difference in the attitudes of the locals seemed directly related to the number of tourists who visited that country.

In highly visited Egypt, you will be pestered to buy things at every opportunity. Children will follow you around asking for "pens" or "baksheesh" (money). The situation is so bad that it is almost impossible to form any kind of relationship with the locals other than as a source of money.

In relatively untouristed Syria, however, people were genuinely friendly and I experienced a traditional Arab hospitality that my experience in Egypt would have otherwise convinced me did not exist. I was able to relate to the people as people and vice versa. They seemed pleased to pose for photos and were happy that I had an interest in capturing a glimpse of their culture and lifestyle. It wasn't about money, it was about meeting new people and relating to them as fellow human beings.

I'd like to think that it is still possible to avoid spoiling places such as these through rampant, free-spending tourism. Paying locals so you can take photographs of them is the thin end of the wedge.
posted by filmgoerjuan at 9:48 AM on February 10, 2004

I spent much of this summer dragging various journos and photographers around some of the more unpleasant bits of the West Bank

This question came up more than once – suffice it to say that it was always the NGO photographers who felt embarrassed eating refugees’ food and not making any form of a contribution despite leaving with a hatful of usable material.

In my view much depends on what the images are to be used for. If you’re going to use them for advocacy and awareness-raising, then in many ways they pay for themselves. If you’re intending to profit from them – perhaps you’re a professional photographer – it can seem appropriate for the ‘trickle down effect’ to spread the wealth but in many cases we found that the offer was gesture enough. Pictures for personal enjoyment – well that’s a call that only you can make.

IMHO, a little contextual sensitivity and situational awareness will go a long way. Besides at the end of the day, they simply people like you and I and, for the most part, people like to have their picture taken – we’re all suckers for attention!
posted by dmt at 10:21 AM on February 10, 2004

If people ask for cash, give it 'em or don't take the shot; your friend is right, a tip can make a huge difference to people who might be living on a couple of dollars a day. If they don't *positively* say they want their picture taken, then don't take it. If you don't want to see a place spoiled by westernism/tourism, then don't go there (even self-styled back-packer/eco tourism types still have a large impact on the places they see).

Tourism is tourism; and anyone or any corporation that promises you that tourism will be an experience with 'unspoiled' local culture is either ignorant or hypocritical or both; you just can't take yourself out of the equation. But if you must go (and I do go), as dmt points out, contextual sensitivity is useful.
posted by carter at 10:29 AM on February 10, 2004

Response by poster: Thanks for the feedback. I've also noticed that the more tourists a place gets, the more likely people are to ask - often, demand - money to have their picture taken. Which, of course, is their right. The question is, is this the type of relationship you want to foster.

Lately I've tried harder to strike up conversations with people (with or without photos in mind), and then asked to take their picture (if I want) after making the personal contact. That, or buy something from them, if they're selling. I still grab the occasional secret "spy" photo, with a long lens or otherwise, often with a twinge of guilt (especially if they catch me doing it).

Another great icebreaker is an instant camera - they're getting really cheap now (kids models, or Instamatics from eBay) and spit out tiny photos in a minute. Take a few of these, hand them out, and you're in like Flynn.
posted by gottabefunky at 11:06 AM on February 10, 2004

Just curious, what does NGO stand for?
posted by drezdn at 12:15 PM on February 10, 2004

Non-Governmental Organization. Like the Red Cross, or Doctors Without Borders, or a host of others.

I agree with gottabefunky...I've handed out instant pics -- or if in a sufficiently-developed area, got addresses (e-mail and snail- ) and sent pictures later.
posted by Vidiot at 8:40 PM on February 16, 2004

People in less developed countries aren't exhibits in a zoo. If someone asks for money to have their picture taken, pay up. The money, that a tourist probably won't even notice is gone, is a positive effect on their wellbeing. If you don't like paying, put away the camera.
posted by normy at 8:53 PM on February 16, 2004

Saw a good pro/con argument on this on this photographer's web site last month.
posted by smackfu at 9:49 PM on February 16, 2004

IMHO, a little contextual sensitivity and situational awareness will go a long way.

Precisely. In the many discussions on this subject I had with fellow backpacker types all over the world during my many years of wandering, 'it depends' was usually the consensus at the end of the night.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 10:51 PM on February 16, 2004

Sebastiao Salgado usually glares at kids right before he takes their photograph -- otherwise they'll smile, try to act cute, etc.
posted by matteo at 1:44 AM on February 17, 2004

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