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Tuesday, May 1, 2007

The Tipping Point

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

Grace And Discretion. I’m not a global economist, but the evidence I’ve seen in the last 25 years of travel demonstrates that the gap between the rich and poor nations is getting larger, and the desperation of the poor in the countries often visited by tourists can be overwhelming. That desperation can often translate into aggressive behavior toward visitors, especially visitors with cameras.

The Tipping PointIf you find yourself in a situation like this, the key is to keep your cool and consider the larger view. Although you may have scrimped and saved and worked tons of overtime to save up for this trip, in the eyes of the locals, you’re still unspeakably rich. You’d like to take their picture, and they know it, and it doesn’t take a Harvard MBA to see the potential for making money here, even if the only thing you have of value to the potential customer is your image (ask any supermodel how this works).

The key is to be discreet, selective and polite. I’ve seen inexperienced travelers get so overwhelmed and annoyed that they literally throw money at people, grabbing their shots while in retreat. Just because there may be a quid pro quo of money for pictures, that doesn’t mean it can't still be a civilized and fun exchange. Maintain your sense of humor, try to charm and relax your subject, and keep a positive tone to the whole exchange.

If you find yourself being mobbed, just walk away until you can work with only one or two people. If you’re doing the instant-picture thing, be especially discreet; word of free pictures travels fast, and you can easily find yourself facing an entire village, each person wanting a Polaroid. That’s why I avoid pulling out the Mio unless there are only one or two people around and not large groups.

If the exchange between you and your subject is still pleasant, you’ll get better pictures and the whole experience will be positive. In some places, especially where the locals’ colorful outfits and traditional clothing is particularly photogenic, there are long-standing traditions of tips for pictures. I visited the Sacred Valley of the Incas in Peru, where the indigenous people still wear beautifully colorful serapes and unusual hats. On my arrival in Cusco, the tour guide on the airport shuttle bus explained that the people were happy to pose for photographs but expected a tip, or "propina" in Spanish, of one sole (about 30 cents). It actually was a liberating experience to know that a tip was expected and what the going rate was. I got a roll of coins before hitting a colorful marketplace and had a wonderful time with people, getting good pictures and having fun with my subjects, and we all came away with good feelings about the encounter.

With both mass tourism and global poverty on the increase, it’s likely that we traveling photographers will be faced with more and more "pay-to-play" photo opportunities. It’s not an ideal situation, but until conditions for everyone in the world are as ideal as they are for us, the best we can do is to remember the basic rules for all good travelers: Be polite, sensitive and nonjudgmental, and leave behind only good will (and maybe a couple of Polaroids).

Visit www.bobkrist.com.


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