Money to Take Their Photo: Trophy Hunter Photography

Indian women in the step well near Kheri Gate, Amer, Jaipur, Rajasthan, India. These are local women we met, asked them to pose and paid them. We spoke with them to great length and worked out the details for our group to shoot. Once it was over, they were happy and we were happy.

 

Recently PetaPixel posted an article that created a huge controversy among its readers. So much so that they actually took down the article, though you can still find the original article on the author’s site. The PetaPixel article was entitled, “How to Deal with Locals Who Ask You for Money to Take Their Photo” and created a stir because of its hugely ethnocentric bias. Now, let me stop here and give a caveat. Some of you might feel I have no “dog in this fight”, meaning, I have nothing to add because I myself am a middle (upper middle) aged, white male. Three strikes right there. But let me suggest that I might be able to add a little insight to this debacle as I have over 23 years of living in Asia under this expanding belt of mine.

How Did We Get Here?

First off, the article was written from the perspective of a Westerner rather than a global citizen. I don’t even know where to begin, when every paragraph is headed up with a photo of a white person having their picture taken with a local resident. It just felt creepy from the start. Then with statements like, “For instance, be aware that many middle-aged men who ask for money are planning to buy alcohol”  or “As you may know, developing countries are very money-orientated cultures.” Seriously?  Wow, they just lost any credibility they may have had in two sentences.

Dare I say, we are looking at this through the wrong lens. We are asking the wrong questions. The question isn’t, “Should we pay people for their photos?” The more interesting and maybe a more important question is “How did we get here?”

Before the advent of the ubiquitous digital camera, before the democratization of photography and travel – back when travel was rare and a kitted out SLR or rangefinder was unheard of – people traveled for a different reason. Sure, the uber rich took safaris to the “Dark Continent” to take home a trophy they bagged from the comfort of their Land Rover. Out of that horrible experience grew the rarer still photo safari. As yet, the photographic workshop was something of dreams.

Travel for Travel’s Sake

Back in the early ‘90s when I first moved to India we lead tours. Not photo tours – real honest-to-goodness tours, based in culture and education – my wife and I spend two years in language and culture acquisition before we hung out our shingle (so to speak).

It was during these two years that we learned less about how to say something and more about why Indians say something. It is taking time like this that you learn to view a different culture with an open mind. You learn never to say words like, “They always…” or “ They never…”. Because you learn that the truth is, there is always someone breaking the stereotype. In culture, there are no absolutes.

When people joined our tours, they came to learn and experience this vastly different culture of India, the camera was an afterthought for the most part. It was only there to take home memories, not make a trophy. Locals enjoyed having their photos made and the thought to ask for money for something like a photo was absurd. They would no sooner ask their friend to pay them for a photo then they would their new foreign guest. How rude would that be!

Trophy Hunter Travelers

But then around the turn of the century something happened. It is what sociologists call the democratisation of knowledge and technology. With the digital age and the internet came the ability to travel both virtually and physically and do it cheaply. Cameras became cheaper and more available to the masses. Everyone wanted to be Steve McCurry and photograph their “Afghan Girl.”

Without going into the debate about McCurry’s ethics of setting up photos, the big difference is McCurry was on assignment. He was one of the few and the elite that were charged with telling a story about a culture. The rest of us just dreamed about the opportunity. But now the masses were able to afford a DSLR and a 70-200mm lens and a cheap ticket to the Taj Mahal and now everyone can try be McCurry. And to be honest, with amazing results. Some amazing photos filtered up through the centillion of pixels burned over the years.

On our tours, we had a rule, that you could not take a photo until everyone in the group asked our hosts at least one question. Contrived – but it made sure people interacted with our hosts.

 

The Disillusioned Travel Photographer

But something happened. Everyone (yes, I am now generalizing) has started to become jaded. Both photographer and subject now feel things are due them, entitled. As a photographer, that leads photo workshops myself, I have seen participants lose patience in the exploration of culture and want to simply get the photo and move to the next one.

We are missing the travel experience. I venture to say there are too many photographers who visit a country or culture and never see it with their naked eye – they only view it with through their camera lens. They don’t stop and drink the tea, or to smoke the hookah. They don’t bother to explore. They don’t ask questions of their host. Heck, they don’t even have a host!

Locals have gone from being hosts to becoming makeshift models. I am not talking about professional or even semi-professional models. At the risk of starting another flame fest, my workshops are known to hire locals to work as a model, we pay them well for their time and their services. What I am talking about is the shopkeeper or tradesman that sits and does their daily routine.

The guest photographer (and that is what we are, a guest) walks up, sticks a camera up, takes a photo and walks away. Often without even an exchange of pleasantries and no knowledge of what is unfolding in front of them. In doing this we, the photographers have treated them as disposable models and so why would they not want to be paid? Photographers doing this do both a great disservice to themselves as well as the culture they visit. They are missing the “story” and they risk portraying a stereotype of the culture they are visiting. I am guilty of this, it is too easy to do. It is hard to take time, to slow down, to talk with someone that might not even speak your language.

2 Steps Forward, 1 Step Back

This is a tension I have lived with for years. I find myself taking one step forward and two steps back. Clients, want a trophy photo, they want to feel their time is well spent. In other words, they are getting what they have paid for. I understand this. But there are bigger forces at play here. As a workshop leader, I need to curate my clients’ experience so they they get what they want and in doing so we respect the culture and society we are a guest in.

So what do we do about it? The genie is out of the bottle and there is no putting him back. We can’t change a cultural revolution or in this case a technological one or the side effects it has had on the world we live in. We can only change ourselves. We can only be responsible for who we are and how we react to the culture we are visiting.

I think we need to structure our workshops as experiences rather than events or hunts. In an experience we take time to participate and to enter into a shared time of discovery. Both by us as well as by the culture we are visiting. The experience is the end, the goal. On the contrary, a hunt is about one thing, the trophy. Whatever it takes to walk away with a trophy and damn the culture, full speed ahead.

Somehow, as a workshop leader, I need to make the experience and the discovery just as much a part of the trip (maybe more) as the trophy. By doing this we lessen the impact we have on our hosts, we educate and promote cross cultural understanding in a time where this is of the utmost importance. Maybe, just maybe, we can start a new revolution or awakening in travel photography.

 

Related links:

DEAR BEGINNER, YOU MAKE RIPPLES!
BE A CULTURAL INSIDER AND GET BETTER PHOTOGRAPHS. (PT.1)
BE A CULTURAL INSIDER AND GET BETTER PHOTOGRAPHS. (PT.2)

 

Matt Brandon Vlog 13: Photographing Iconic Scenes

In this video I look at my struggle to photograph the iconic Tak Bat, alms giving ceremony that takes place every morning in Luang Prabang, Laos. The inherent problem with photographing something that has been photographed millions of times is there is very little chance of making a unique photo.

In this video, I explore my struggles at photographing an event that has been happening every day for who knows how long? This was not an easy task, and frankly, one that I think I failed at. But we learn from our failure, and this is why I am sharing the experience. The big difficulty is the culturally sensitive limitations that are put on the visitor during the Tak Bat, and rightly so. Here are just a few are:

  • Keep your head below that of the monks.
  • Don’t touch a monk.
  • Don’t use flash
  • Keep a distance from the monks.
  • Be respectful of the devotees.
  • And a few more.

 

This was my first time to watch this event. We choose to go out where there were not tourists. It was an area that my host knew and had relationships with the devotees. We check with the devotees if we could sit where we sat. They granted us permission. Honestly, I was extremely tempted to use flash, but I resisted and did not use it. Granted, I did push the boundaries on proximity to the monks and in looking back, I probably wouldn’t do that again. But in my defense, we asked, and we got the locals devotees approved. I sat on the ground, so I was never above even the smallest monk. I say all to help you understand the extent we went to be both culturally sensitive and still get the photo.

In this video, I also give photographers a quick tip on how to better view your vertical (portrait) images on the back of your camera’s LCD.

Below are the images that appear in this week’s video.

 

Here I was literally sitting in a drainage culvert to get this angle.

 

This was close to what I imagined. But without using a flash, the morning clouds proved why too bright and overpowered the scene. My attempt to burn in some sky was useless and did more harm than good.

 

By switching locations and shooting across from the procession I focused on the devotees rather than the monks. This was better but I don’t like her hand in front of her eyes.

 

This is perhaps the best image as I manage to arrange all the element close to what I want.

 

Later that same day we stumbled on a gathering of monks. It was like a school assembly.

 

Children get bored with assemblies no matter what the culture.

 

This photo is my favorite image of the trip. So much emotion and life in this photo.

 

Here is one of those images that you see a setting and you wait for someone or something to enter the frame. That is just what I did here.

 

Early the next day we went back out to my host’s neighborhood and saw a group of local monks leaving the local Wat (temple). Knowing they would return in 30 minutes or so I set up across the street and got this.

 

 

Interestingly enough, this image was taken at the precise moment the florescent light in the archway was going off. Thus the yellow glow and the lack of light. It also gave it the best look and feel. The only real issue I have with either of these photos is that I have lost the story. These pictures don’t tell the story of the Tak Bat. These are just images of monks walking through a gate in the early morning.

 

Kuang Si Falls, another location that is practically impossible to get a unique photo of.

 

Downriver of the falls is this water wheel. I used off camera flash to light the wheel. Alou acted as my VALS (Voice Activated Light Stand).

 

 

Matt Brandon Video Log #11

Once again I attempt to start my VLOG. In this episode I talk about what I want to accomplish in these The new reboot of my video log. A small rant blog comments, a look at the Fujifilm X-T2, being a photographer and dyslexic/ADD and more.

Be sure to visit the http://thedigitaltrekker.com
http://mattbrandonphoto.com

Please Subscribe to my YouTube Channel.

Don t miss out on my Newsletter.

The On Field Media Project, Teaching NGOs to Tell Their Own Stories

Digital Storytelling.001

“Photographs are the portal to one’s first impression of a non-profit’s mission via their website. Having amateurs do that work is always a serious compromise. The staff might know the stories but that doesn’t mean they can translate them into effective visual narrative. Just my opinion.” This was a recent comment addressed to me on Facebook after I posted about our recent On Field Media Project training in Africa. I left this persons name off the quote because they deleted the comment, I am not sure why. Maybe they had a change of heart. But I know there are other photographers who feel this same way. To me, this is old, classic, and somewhat colonial thinking. It’s a antiquated mindset that has to be challenged. Continue reading

PetaPixel Playing With The Truth

 

 

NPPA-ID

In a recent blog post the tech/photography site PetaPixel suggested a workaround for getting more camera gear on your next flight. The solution is, just lie. Forge your own press credentials and say you are with a media service. Apparently the major airlines have deals for traveling media professionals and will allow extra baggage for just $50 a bag. As a traveling photographer always worried about weight,  I read through the PetaPixel article with interest. That is until I reached the bottom of the post when author DL Cade quoted Canadian photographer Von Wong (another Fuji x-photographer) who said, just make your own credential. “Boom. Instant proof.” Seriously?  Continue reading

I Don’t Know

 

On the set of Indian Summers.

On the set of Indian Summers.

 

Recently, I listened to a Freakonomic Radio podcast by Stephen Dubner and Steve Levitt. This episode was titled The Three Hardest Words in the English Language. So what are these three words? Not “I love you” and not “floccinaucinihilipilificationpseudopseudohypoparathyroidism and pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis“. According to Dubner and Levitt they are “I don’t know”.  I think I agree.

Why do we have such a hard time saying these words? I can only assume it is because we don’t want to come off ignorant. Everyone wants to appear competent. Fair enough. Let’s face it, we do need to be good at what we do. We need to put in the many hours it takes to become an expert or at least well qualified in our field. Then do we risk coming off as ignorant and incompetent if we say I don’t know? I guess to some people we might. Continue reading

Just because you can, should you? The ethics of images sales.

A Taoist man lights a candle at the Goddess of Mercy Temple in Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia. Does he care what I do with his image?

A Taoist man lights a candle at the Goddess of Mercy Temple in Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia. Does he care what I do with his image?

I’ve been ruminating over some ethical issues.

Recently, I had a business ask to use several of my images, and they were willing to pay a decent amount of money. It’s not like I’m rolling in the dough (who is?) and I can afford to turn business away. But in this case, that’s exactly what I did. I turned them away for one simple reason: I did not have a model release, and there was no way I could obtain a release on those images; therefore I felt I could not in good conscience deliver the images for this business to use to generate revenue.

Continue reading

Does your world view influence your art?

How do you view the world?

How do you view the world?

 

There is a question that pops up every so often about how much does world view influence our work as photographers? To answer that we need to define world view. One dictionary puts it like this:

world view: world·view  (wûrld’vyü)
n. In both senses also called Weltanschauung.
1. The overall perspective from which one sees and interprets the world.
2. A collection of beliefs about life and the universe held by an individual or a group.

I can work with that. Continue reading

Ken Burns, “All story is manipulation”

Ken Burns: On Story from Redglass Pictures on Vimeo.

This is a short, but challenging film with Ken Burns, one of the premier documentary film maker of today. In it Burns says, “All story is manipulation”. As a visual storyteller is this something I can buy into? Do I believe this? When it comes down to it and I am honest with myself, I think I agree with him. Continue reading