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.



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.

The Tipping PointWith 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.


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).


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