Paying subjects to photograph them is a complex issue with no easy answers
By Bob Krist
International Commerce. In my travels, I’ve found that many of the most interesting-looking people are in the markets, shops and stalls that line the streets of developing countries. One way to work around the tip is to buy small items from these vendors, then ask for permission to make a picture. Even if you don’t need the fruit, vegetables, candy or trinkets they may be selling, your purchase has resulted in a net gain for your subject. In many places, that’s all it takes to gain permission for a couple of quick snaps.
With your purchase in hand, especially if it’s food, you can often use that as a small gift for, say, the mother and child sitting on the next corner who may be selling flowers or something to make the money for the next meal. You’re redistributing goods, and your subjects are receiving some material benefit from their encounter with you instead of a literal "pay-to-play" exchange of money.
Another indirect way for your subjects to gain materially from your encounter is to give them a print. Unfortunately, so many photographers have promised, and not delivered, prints to people that, unless it’s an instant exchange, your pledge to send a print doesn’t carry much weight. Until the digital revolution virtually killed the market for instant-picture cameras like those made by Polaroid, pros got around this by carrying one of these to give away instant prints to portrait subjects.
Polaroids are phenomenal ice breakers (even in non-tipping societies) and handing out a few has resulted in a number of great pictures for me, not to mention a few lunch and dinner invitations from subjects, as well. I even was once invited to a wedding in Portugal on the strength of a Polaroid given to an interesting-looking woman in traditional dress whom I photographed on the street in the Algarve (needless to say, I accepted)!
Alas, instant-picture cameras are becoming a rarity. However, the good news is that there are still a couple around. My favorite Polaroid model was the Mio, which is compact and easy to carry and makes wallet-sized pictures. It turns out that this model camera was actually made for Polaroid by Fuji and called the Instax Mini. Fuji still makes this camera and the film for the international market, and I order my replacement film from a camera store in Toronto. It’s a bit of a hassle, but the instant picture is such a wonderful tool for breaking the ice and getting people pictures overseas that I gladly put up with the inconvenience of tracking down and ordering the film.