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Tuesday, May 1, 2007

The Tipping Point

Paying subjects to photograph them is a complex issue with no easy answers


The Tipping PointFor anyone who travels and photographs, it’s an all-too-familiar scenario: You’re walking down a street in a far-off destination and you spot an interesting-looking local wearing the traditional clothing of the region—a wonderful potential portrait subject. You begin to approach the person to start up a conversation, and you’re sized up immediately: your clothes, your equipment, your lack of the language.

Suddenly the shoe is on the other foot, and the hunter becomes the hunted. Your subject’s hand shoots out, and you know—even before you hear the words, "Baksheesh!" "Propina!"—that you’ve reached the tipping point.

The question of whether or not to pay for pictures when photographing abroad is one that has haunted traveling shooters for a long time. As mass tourism has grown into a mega-industry, the world has seen a growing gulf between the very rich (that’s us, believe it or not) and the very poor. It’s an issue that you’ll have to deal with more and more in the coming years.

In an ideal world, the interaction between a travel photographer and his or her subject would be strictly a cultural meeting of the minds, a pleasant exchange of time and conversation (and maybe a print at some future date), where both parties feel as though they’ve gained something from the encounter. But when one of those parties is carrying a piece of gear that could cost more than the other party makes in two or three years of hard labor, you’re not in an ideal world, and new paradigms evolve.

Although the practice of locals asking for tips in exchange for being photographed is widespread throughout the world, it isn’t the custom everyplace. If it isn’t the custom where you’re traveling, don’t start it! Often, a well-meaning visitor wants to help by handing out a few coins, but it can snowball into a juggernaut of panhandling and begging that doesn’t help anyone.

Similarly, in some cultures, it’s an insult to offer a tip. Many of these cultures can be just as poor as one where tipping for pictures is widespread. Where societal norms preclude the idea of tipping, going around willy-nilly offering money for pictures will lead to a cultural impasse rather than a cultural encounter. So careful research always pays off, in both better pictures and better understanding.

But in many places, the tipping precedent is set. So what’s a well-meaning traveling photographer to do? A lot of the advice I’ve read simply says, "no tipping for pictures." It’s a noble but naive stance, and in many places that would result in "no people pictures," period. So here are a few real-world pieces of advice to help you get past the tipping point.

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