Pay or not to pay for travel portrait


Quite often I get asked weather I pay my subjects for permission to take their photographs. This topic has been debated on internet over and over. Opinions vary from person to person and here is my take on it. And let's get this out of the way first. I am discussing the payment for permission to take the photograph and not touching on topic of photograph usage. Also this article is about travel portraits dealing with people I never met before, that I meet during my travels.

Let's assume you are a regular person who travels for a holiday and wants to come back with some memorable photos. Should you pay to people for taking their photographs or should not?  It is a million dollar question and it is hard to give straight answer. Or should I say the best answer would be "It depends". But that doesn't help too much, does it? When I started my travel endeavors I was probably at the same position as you are. I had no idea. And I was quite naive as well. Seeing smiling children running towards me quite willing to pose for photograph made me feel comfortable until I they started to repeat "money, money....". I learned hard way that good things don't come easy. Over the years I developed a feel for this and I am able to gauge fairly well whether the situation will lead to monetary compensation or not. 

Generally I try to avoid situations where I would  need to pay the subject. It is not always possible. Many times the face is so interesting, I already have the picture in my head and I see the cover of next National Geographic issue. That is when I just bite the bullet. I am joking of course. Ultimately it is up to you to decide. When approaching people, the best way I found is to use common sense. Whether you will need to pay or not, depends and it will vary on your destination, local culture, race, their exposure to foreign tourists and many other factors. For example some areas not exposed to tourism may be very photography friendly but same situation might turn the tide when people are actually confronted with huge cameras and lenses that they never saw before. Common sense and sensitivity is the key here.

By far the best way to take portraits is a situation when I am able to spend some time around my subjects and I don't mean five minutes. Whenever it is possible I allow some time for people get familiar with me and my presence. I let them see my camera so they know what I am doing. If I am able to be around for some time and have some conversation with them, there is a good chance I will be able to ask them to have their picture taken and most likely for free. In situation like that it is also much easier to grab a candid shot as well. This will also depend on the destination. In some countries people are not exposed to tourists extensively and they are also naturally curious. They do not ask for money and if you show them some photographs on the back of your camera, you may win them over completely. Some of the good examples from my travels were villages in Bhutan and Laos. I didn't even have to ask for permission. The asked me if I could photograph them and all they wanted was to see the result on the back of the camera. Other extreme are places or people who will not allow you to take their portrait, no matter what. It can be for number of reasons. Bad experience, religious or spiritual reasons. For example people of Red Zhao tribe from regions of Northern Vietnam do not want their photographs to be taken for spiritual reasons. You can sneak in a shot or two but you probably do it in a hurry trying not to be noticed. Most likely it will result in bad photograph and also in case you get noticed it might raise alarm and cause angry or even hostile behavior. Always respect the local culture, people and do a research. In case of Red Zhao tribe with this knowledge I won't be trying to take their photographs, nor offering money for it. The only acceptable way for me would be a situation when I would be asked for it. Best advice I can give in this situation is to be respectful. If photograph won't happen,just move on. There is plenty of other photographs waiting to be taken.

In some places the local people learned about the strength of tourist dollar. They openly offer to be the  subjects in exchange for monetary compensation. I encountered kids screaming at me "picture, picture". That is usually a giveaway it will not be for free. Generally I try not to pay when I photograph children. I have to admit I did in the past but nowdays I rather move on. More often than not these children are exploited by parents and used as a source of income for the family. This may for example keep them of the school and I am strongly opposing that. Over the years I learned to gauge the situation. Sometimes I get it wrong but in majority of cases my intuition won't fail me. There are cases when it is better to offer something else instead of money. Buy some fruit, give them pens, notebooks, hair clips for girls or any other small presents. Quite often this works and those small presents can be useful to children. Distributing candies and sweets might not be a good idea as some remote places and communities lack any kind of dental care.

There was a situation when I was literally hunted by a person who wanted money for taking his picture. This particular case was a fake sadhu in Kathmandu's  Durbar Square. I encountered him on 3 different trips. He was roaming around the square in bright yellow outfit, too clean too neat, with his face freshly painted.  It was quite clear this was a business for him. I refused his offer as I wanted more genuine subject but for many tourist this would be an opportunity to establish a "business relationship" and get some more significant time with subject. In this case I moved on and I was later rewarded by better opportunity. There are few more sadhu's in that area and they look more genuine, should I say dirtier, more worn down. Those were the subjects I was more interested in and I got few shots with them. In this case it was for monetary compensation. I found the faces interesting enough, They didn't "hunt" for me. I approached them. I entered their"private" space in order to take their picture. I felt I needed to reward them for it. I could probably take the photograph and walk quickly away but it felt wrong.

As you can see there are many situations photographers can find themselves in. To sum things up. Strive to photograph without paying the subjects, Only do so when you are convinced the shot is worth it. Always have your eyes open, observe the scene, gauge it, and if you feel it is the right moment, make your move. If time allows, try to engage in conversation and make people more comfortable with you. Show interest in them, their lives and things they are doing. Do not offer money when your common sense tells you it is unethical. Avoid paying children. I did that mistake in the past but I learned that doing so can have consequences that affects children's life. Instead either find subjects that are willing to pose for free or give them small gifts of some sort. Excellent idea would be an instant print. If you own a small portable printer like Fuji Instax SP-1 or Fuji instant camera, that would be definitely a door opener. If you notice any sort of hostility, do apologize, put the camera down and move on. Make sure you keep the promises you gave to people.

So here are few tips you can employ to get your travel portraits

  1. Do your research. Learn about people living in your destination. learn about culture, habits. Ask fellow travelers..
  2. Always respect people, their personal space and privacy. Do not stick big lens into their face without asking.
  3. Use your common sense. Ask for permission to take picture. If somebody looks rather angry when they see you with camera, move on and find another subject. In time you develop a feeling for situation and ability to gauge it.
  4. if you can, try to employ a local guide or fixer who can help you in certain situations.
  5. If a person agrees to pose for you for monetary compensation, agree on the price first.
  6. Once you establish your relationship with subject, be ready and be quick with the shoot. Most likely you will have couple of seconds only
  7. Show them a photograph on the back of the camera if you feel it can loosen them
  8. If you promise them a print or digital file via email, make sure you keep your promise! I cannot stress this enough.
  9. Try not to pay children for photographs. Instead give them small gifts if they agree to that.
  10. Last tip would be to take your time. Do not rush from place to place. You won't be likely taking too many good photographs. Speed traveling is not the way to take good travel photographs of any kind.

Hope this helps you when you go for your next trip. I also would love to hear about your experience and observations. I have still lot to learn myself. If you have any questions, you can always reach me here via comments, via email or contact page.