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.
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.