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.


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Vlog #15


This video was spur of the moment. Photographer friend Pete DeMarco and I decided at the last minute to go out and try to shoot a seascape at a local beach here in Penang. While waiting for the sun to drop we started chatting about the camera he uses, the Sony a7ii. One thing led to another, and this video was born.

The Sony a7ii is a very cool, mirrorless camera. It is full frame and-and yet small, as a mirrorless camera should be. But what intrigues me is it can use apps. Go figure! In this episode, we look at the Smooth Refection app. Pete demonstrates how to use the app, and its effects.

This week’s tip is about geotagging your photos with the Fujifilm Camera Remote app.

Please subscribe to my video channel and my newsletter. We are about to announce a new photo workshop, and newsletter subscribers get the first option to signup. Only after the first 24 hours has past will we release it to the public. Our last workshop sold out in less than one hour!

Smooth Refection App:

Fujifilm Camera Remote App on iTunes:

Fujifilm Camera Remote App on Google Play:

Remember to SUBSCRIBE to my channel:

Pete DeMarco’s links:




Planning your 2015 Photo Workshop schedule.

I have two workshops scheduled for 2015 and another workshop still in the planning stage at the time of this writing. So photo workshop schedule make sure you include these. Two completely different places featuring two totally different cultures. The first workshop of this year (that isn’t sold out) is the Kashmir Valley Photo Trek.  Everything you need to know about this is below. Please check it out.

The second workshop is the aptly named  Photography Tour of Bhutan run by the amazing photographer and my good friend Robert van Koesveld and with wife Libby Lloyd. I am flattered to be a guest instructor on this trip. The dates for this breathtaking tour are 18 September – 2 October 2015. Learn more about it HERE.

So while you are trying to make up your mind what workshop is best for you take a moment and read, workshop participant, blogger, musician, film critic, photographer and Renaissance man Fernando Gros’ blog post How To Choose And Make The Most Of A Photographic Workshop.


Sometimes the view is so amazing you have to put the camera down and just soak it in.

Sometimes you just have to put the camera down and soak in view.

Continue reading

Video Blog #10 Photo Interview with Fernando Gros and more…



Yes, it is true, this is a video blog post. I know you thought it was dead and gone. Well it was only sick. 😉  I have tried breathed into it new life. Well, I least I hopes to.

This Sunday I am off to Ladakh, India for a two week workshop. After Ladakh the group heads to Srinagar, Kashmir. Then in February, 2015 I head back to Rajasthan. The question begs answering are photo workshop worth it? Are they worth the time and the financial investment? So this issue we will look at the benefits of photo workshops. To do this I have an interview with Fernando Gros from Continue reading

The Workshop: Thaipusam

The Carriage


This is a catch up post for me. I have been so busy with this workshop I have had so little time to even sleep, let a lone post here. I am loving the excitement and the creativity our workshop participants are bringing to this workshop. Gavin and I went all out to find local and some not so local families for our participants to interact with. This is unique by all accounts. Very few, if any photo workshops have this kind of opportunity for photographers to inter into the lives of locals like this.

Even though we introduced our participants to their local subjects, each photographer is working on their own story. From the school teacher that is participating in his 26th Thaipusam – to the family that traveled 10 hours by bus from Singapore to participate in Penang’s Thaipusam because it has less restrictions than in Singapore.

Gavin and I were talking today how the real story is how in a few hours a mild-mannered insurance salesman or a big time banker can finds himself with an 8 ft carriage on their shoulders with 4 ft spears sticking in their sides or dancing in a trance with needles in their cheeks and tongues.

I can’t wait to show you our student’s the visual stories that come from this week.

By the way, Gavin and I have decided, we would like to offer this workshop next year. You might want to reserve your place soon!

A friend attaches the “vale” or small spears to a devotee’s torso.


The vales piece the skin.


Vales are put through the cheeks.


Sometimes the pales or kavadis are attached to the devotees bodies rather than carried.


Thaipusam: Pre-Workshop Prep

Gavin Gough and I officially start our 2012 Thaipusam workshop tonight, here in Penang. So yesterday met several of the families we have arraigned for our participants to follow and photograph during the festival. We also did a pre-workshop run through with the models we have secured for our participants to photograph.

We have found three lovely models, none of them are professional, but each one is beautiful in their own right. Not only were they beautiful on the outside, each had a something special on the inside as well and were a real joy to work with. I want to thank Victoria for bringing her skills as a makeup artist to play. (But Victoria, I think you had an easy job with such lovely ladies ;))

The young lady in the black outfit, called a kebaya nyonya, is Cindy Ong. I think I am going to take her home and give Jessie a big sister! Cindy not quite 18 years old is full of drama and is a natural at this modeling stuff. The next Jayshri Mennon or just Jay. Jay was not only a wonderful model but a huge help this week in prepping for this event. She has recruited most of her family as subjects for our workshop participants to document as they perform these important Hindu rituals. Thank you Jay. Speaking of Jay’s family, her sister Shri is making the orange sari look so beautiful. Between Cinday, Jay, Shri and Victoria how can we help not take a good picture?

The prep work for this event did not start yesterday, but months in advance. Sometimes I think people think all you have to do to make a successful workshop happen is just show up and teach. Far from it. Gavin and I have been working with the help of people here in Penang for close to a year to make this happen. We are excite to develop a unique and exciting workshop for our participant. Maybe in 2013 you can join us?

Another New Blogger: Brian Hirschy

Brian Hirschy is a photographer friend of mine who lives in Western China. He runs photo workshops in the Tibetan region of China along with doing a few other things to keep busy. The other day he posted a story about being freaked out in the middle of the night by strange voices. I haven’t laughed as much as I did last night reading this post in a long while. Read the full story HERE and enjoy. While there check out the other post. Brian is a talented photographer that loves China. You put that together and you get THIS.

© Brian Hirschy,

© Brian Hirschy,

Depth of Field: Nevada Wier Pt2

Yesterday we had a great response to part one of the Nevada Wier interview. Today you get the conclusion with part II. In this interview Nevada and I talk about her choice of lenses and as well other aspects of what it takes to get the great shot. Enjoy.

Be sure and check out Nevada’s website HERE and follow her on Twitter HERE.

Don’t forget, there are other interview in this series. You can find the all HERE.