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)

 

Culture

Money to Take Their Photo: Trophy Hunter Photography

Money to Take Their Photo: Trophy Hunter Photography

  Recently PetaPixel posted an article that created a huge controversy among its readers. So much so that they actually...
9 Emperor Gods Festival – Pt 4

9 Emperor Gods Festival – Pt 4

This is the last in a four-part series on the 9 Emperor Gods Festival that took place at the Tow...
9 Emperor Gods Festival – Pt 3

9 Emperor Gods Festival – Pt 3

  Just a suggestion, but you might want to read the the first two parts of this series before continuing. You can read the...
9 Emperor Gods Festival – Pt 2

9 Emperor Gods Festival – Pt 2

If you are reading this before reading the first part HERE, then you might be at a slight loss as...
Chinese New Year in 15 Photos

Chinese New Year in 15 Photos

Chinese New Year in Penang My wife and I have been back in Malaysia 10 days now. In that time...
Eid-ul Adha, Kapitan Keling Masjid

Eid-ul Adha, Kapitan Keling Masjid

I woke up today thinking I would go out and shoot some rain photos. It has been raining here for...
Swayambhunath: The Monkey Temple

Swayambhunath: The Monkey Temple

  You can tell by the past few posts by Jon McCormack and I that we filled out days shooting...
Life, Worship and Sitting around: Bhaktapur, Nepal

Life, Worship and Sitting around: Bhaktapur, Nepal

  Bhaktapur was the capital of Nepal until late in the 15th century. As a result it has many amazing...
Redux: Kathmandu’s Boudhanath Stupa

Redux: Kathmandu’s Boudhanath Stupa

  Kathmandu is a strange mix of Hindu and Buddhist culture. With only a few days to explore my friend...
Goodbye and Back to Hell With You!

Goodbye and Back to Hell With You!

This is the last post in this series. We have been looking at images from the 7th month of the...
A Night At The Opera

A Night At The Opera

  As I said in a previous post, the Hungry Ghost month is full of performances of puppet shows and...
Kai Xin’s Hungry Ghost

Kai Xin’s Hungry Ghost

    Yesterday I was told that there would be a Chinese opera in Georgetown. It was supposed to be...
The Goh Family Puppet Show

The Goh Family Puppet Show

  I struggled whether to post this as a multimedia or just a series of images for you to enjoy....
The Maasai

The Maasai

In the last post I wrote about my time with the folks at the Kilgoris Project in Kenya. The project...
The Kilgoris Project

The Kilgoris Project

  This week I had the privilege of photographing the extraordinary work being done by The Kilgoris Project in Western...
Wallpaper for Chinese New Year

Wallpaper for Chinese New Year

  I am heading out tonight for a month of travel. I join Jon McCormack, Gavin Gough and Leslie Fisher...
Luck Happens: Kek Lok Si Temple

Luck Happens: Kek Lok Si Temple

 click on the image to view it larger   Last night, Scott and Tim, two of my ex-pat friends decided...
Thaipusam: Photo Walk Participant’s Images

Thaipusam: Photo Walk Participant’s Images

  This weekend was filled with endless screams, the rolling of eyes, bodies being pierced by spears, the sticking out...
Thaipusam Day 2

Thaipusam Day 2

  For the past few years that I have been covering Thaipusam I have always shot using a flash early...
Kashmir Pt 4: Portraits of Kashmir

Kashmir Pt 4: Portraits of Kashmir

  As I wrote the in first three posts in this Kashmiri series, the light was not so great for...
Kashmir Pt 3: A Slice of Life

Kashmir Pt 3: A Slice of Life

  In this 3rd segment I offer you a look into everyday life in Srinagar. The city of Srinagar is...

Eid-ul Adha, Kapitan Keling Masjid

warningI woke up today thinking I would go out and shoot some rain photos. It has been raining here for the past two to three weeks. I was getting stir-crazy and needed to get out. As I was getting dressed I kept hearing the speakers of the local mosque in the background talking about something. Then it occurred to me, today is Eid-ul Adha! Holy cow..well, holy cow, goat and any other halal animal. Continue reading

Kashmir Pt 1: A Gujjar Wedding

Gujjar men wait just out of the snow for the wazwan to begin.

 

I had the privilege to host my good friend Jon McCormack around Kashmir this past week. We were able to visit some of my favorite places in a short three days. One of the highlights for us was the wedding of the daughter of an old Gujjar friend. If you are a long time reader of my blog you will know that Gujjars are a shepherd people living in Kashmir. Continue reading

Four elements that can make your images stronger

Laughter

I’ve been taking some online training with Media Storm this past week. The first lesson dealt mostly with audio production. Brian Storm made a point in passing that each audio clip must have texture, sense of place, context and mood. This is true not only for audio but for images as well. For any image to communicate a story effectively at least a few of these elements will probably be present.

First I’ll offer a definition of each of these elements. Then I will identify these elements in three images. Continue reading

Random Observations (in America)

This blog almost is as much about culture as it is about photography. As such, I felt this was a great little post to share with you – my well traveled reader.

I have a good friend that lives in India who is, at the moment, back visiting friends in the United States. Yesterday he posted these random observation. I asked him if I could share them with you because, as an expat American myself, they struck a code.

  • Today we drove through a brand new shopping complex in Queen Creek, Arizona filled with generic stores like Target, Bed Bath & Beyond, Kohls, etc. I’m pretty sure the parking lot for this complex has more parking than all of our city in Kashmir combined.
  • Americans leave a ton of space between cars when coming to a stop at traffic lights. Several times I’ve noticed we could easily fit our car from India in between two cars. And maybe an auto-rickshaw along with it.
  • Speaking of traffic lights, those things can be annoying. I’m used to driving in a city of 1 million people without a single traffic light. Funny how the stressful chaos of Kashmir driving can be missed when I’m in the overly orderly driving of America.
  • The lines you stand in while boarding a Southwest Airlines flight would have much less personal space if that was done in India. In fact, I doubt that whole boarding system would even work in India.
  • We don’t see many people walking outside. If there are any people who happen not to be in a car, then they likely are just exercising rather than utilizing walking as a form of transportation. Or they’re Asian.
  • Listening to an Oklahoma accent just puts a smile on our faces.
  • It may have always been this way, but politicians seem to spend more time dedicated to getting elected to than actually doing things for the country and people who voted for them.
  • TV commercials seem to be even more dumb than before. With many people just recording their TV shows and skipping commercials, do ad companies not care anymore?
  • It’s sad to see greed overwhelmingly dictate the future of college sports.
  • While sitting at a park eating a picnic dinner we saw a couple games of a co-ed adult softball league being played. That may seem normal to most Americans, but something about it stood out to us. Middle-aged men and women playing a sport together on a weekday evening. I can’t think of any recreational equivalent for that in our part of India.

 

Guest Post: Richard Tulloch

When I first started this blog my intent was to write about photography as well as culture and travel. I admit that the majority of the postings have been about photography. But, if you are one of my regulars you know that I often write about how the photographer interacts with the culture they are photographing. I have always been fascinated with cultures. To me, culture is the personality of a city or country. Recently, I ran across Richard Tulloch’s Life on the Road. I loved how he handles the stresses of travel and culture in a both witty and pragmatic way. Richard Tulloch writes for children and teaches writing around world.  Richard is an Australian who lives part of the year in Sydney and part in Amsterdam. His writing for children includes 151 episodes of the popular TV series Bananas in Pyjamas as well as numerous successful plays and books.

He travels the world ‘on wheels and legs’, teaching writing workshops, performing his solo storytelling show, and along the way contributing articles to newspapers, magazines and websites. His own popular blog is: Richard Tulloch’s Life on the Road.

I’m excited that Richard has agreed to contribute today’s post.  ~ Matt Brandon

The Ducky Potty Man

~ Richard Tulloch

As soon as I caught the vendor’s eye through the car window I knew I’d made a mistake. I was new to Nigeria. I’d just arrived in Lagos that morning, less than an hour ago. I’d shown a flicker of interest in what he was selling and now he expected me to buy it – a toddler’s ducky potty.

I didn’t mean to stare. I know that in these potentially awkward situations it’s best to hide behind sunglasses and feign blindness, or to speak loudly into a cell phone so you look like a busy man on a mission. After several stints in Asia and four whole weeks in Africa, I was an old hand at smiling politely and brushing away zebra necklaces, phone cards, Ladysmith Black Mambazo CDs and Rolex watches as if they were troublesome flies.

But this was new to me – a young man in a traffic jam (‘go-slows’, I was soon to discover they’re called in Nigeria) trying to sell ducky potties to passing motorists. I mean, when you’re caught in a traffic jam, in the heat and oppressive humidity, it’s possible that you might develop the need for a bottle of cool water, or an orange, or a bag of nuts, or a newspaper, or even a phone card if you have to let someone know that at this rate you won’t make it to the office for another five hours. Other enterprising vendors were already selling these items. It seems totally improbable that you’d suddenly experience an overwhelming urge to buy a ducky potty.

Who is this ducky potty man? I wondered.  What made him decide to sell potties by the roadside? Are they his potties, or is he an agent for someone who’s found a large batch of toilet items fallen off the back of a truck, and who now needs help to offload them?  How many potties does he sell in a day?  In a year? How much profit margin is there in selling a potty?  When he was a kid, did he aspire to be a potty vendor when he grew up?  Do his parents talk proudly about ‘our son who’s in Lagos doing something very big in potties’?

Is he hoping this potty business will be a temporary phase in his career; something to tide him over in hard times until a more glamorous and lucrative job turns up?  Is he maybe an actor between engagements, or a student putting himself through college?

The point is; the ducky potty man has no choice.  If he could do anything else in life, he wouldn’t choose to stand in the heat and the traffic fumes, hoping against hope that someone in the next car to inch past might just want a ducky potty.  If he had any say at all in what he could sell, he’d go for something with a bit more commercial oomph than ducky potties.

We fill our lives planning what we’d like to do, where we’d like our careers to take us, what our children will be when they grow up, deciding where to go on our next holiday. Such decisions cannot possibly be a part of the ducky potty man’s world.  There are an awful lot more people in his situation than there are in mine.

I raised my eyebrows at him, trying to indicate amused incredulity that he might think a big grown up boy like me might still need a potty. He put on his best pleading expression.  I shrugged. I didn’t even have any local currency yet, so I couldn’t even make a donation. The ducky potty man gave up, grinned broadly and gave me a cheerful wave.  I had to admire him. If I had to swap places with him, I don’t think I’d be grinning and waving very often.

The car crept away from him, and his place at the car window was taken in turn by vendors selling dog leashes, magazines and dartboards. ‘American International School‘, said my driver, pointing into the middle distance. I looked out the window, hoping to catch a glimpse of the place where I would be working as a writer in residence for the next week. All I could see was a group of nondescript buildings surrounded by other groups of nondescript buildings.

’How long until we get there?’ I asked.

’Depend on traffic,’ he said, ‘we must take long way round, then come back. This street, only driving one way.  Maybe a half hour more.’

The cars in front were still barely moving. My plane out of Nairobi had been cancelled the day before and I’d been awake all night waiting for the next flight to leave.  I was expecting to work that afternoon, so I’d boosted my consciousness with a few cups of coffee on the plane. Now the third and fourth cups were working their way to my bladder. There was nowhere for the driver to pull over. We were in the middle lane of a highway in a built-up area, maybe even within sight of the students and parents and teachers from the school.

I crossed my legs and wished I’d been able to buy a ducky potty.

Can The Right Photo Be No Photo?

We had such a great response from the last post, “What is your Un-Suck Filter” that I thought I would take the discussion over to ProPhotoCoalition.com and let others join in. So if you are interested in some ways to photograph people different than ourselves then by all means visit this link and give me your thoughts.

Hanoi, Vietnam

To view the EXIF data and a larger version, just click on the image.

Hanoi is quite a fascinating city. It reminds me a lot of Old Delhi in many ways–the crowded narrow streets, the mix of cultures both old and new. Suffice it to say, I like it here. The people are not super easy to photograph. They feel you are indeed, “taking” a photo of them and not giving back. I have tried to show them the image on the back of the camera but that doesn’t cut it. I didn’t bring my Pogo printer this trip–that might have helped. But frankly speaking there are so many tourists visiting this place, folks are rather jaded when it comes to having their picture made. What I find helps ease the tension when pointing a camera at people in situations like this, is to use a sort of barter system. A photo op in exchange for whatever they are selling. So if you find a photogenic subject that is selling fruit, try buying some from them. This drops some of the fear and suspicion and lowers their defenses and there will be much more of a chance you’ll get that shot. It is not a panacea and the shot you get might not be a candid, but it sure can help.