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)

 

A Podcast: Mitchell Kanashkevich

Mitchell K

Mitchell Kanashkevich

Mitchell Kanashkevich is probably one of the most talented photographers I know. He has gotten that way by shooting continuously. Mitch doesn’t stop — or at least not for long. It was during one of these quick respites that I was able to catch up with him and find out what he has been up to over the past two years since we last spoke. In a word: Africa. Mitch has spent the last year or more slowly traveling through Africa. In this hour long interview we talk about his adventures, misadventures and his entrepreneurial adventures. Mitch has started a new e-book publishing house called EyeVoyage where he has published his latest titled called Powerful Imagery: The Photographer’s Insight. As a special offer for Digital Trekker readers you can get 20% off your order if you use the code “DTREKKER20” on your check out.

Visit Mitch’s blog HERE.

Visit his Photoshelter archive HERE.

One of the coolest things about hosting a podcast on SoundCloud is the ability for listeners to comment on the podcast’s timeline – as it is playing. Feel free to give it a try. Continue reading

2012 Workshop Schedule

I’ve received several e-mails asking about next year’s workshop schedule. Realizing that my workshop page was not as easy to access as I had imagined (I changed the links location in the menu bar and have now made it more prominent.) I thought I would also highlight the current list of workshops I have running in 2012.  If you have been on one of these workshops and would like to comment, please feel free to do so. For more information on any of these workshops, you can simply click the photo or the linked title to take you to the workshop’s page.

Listed by date:

Thaipusam – Penang, Malaysia

February 4th – 11th, 2012

Join Gavin Gough and I as we photograph this visually startling event. Every year 800,000 Hindu Tamil and Chinese devotees of Muruga, the Hindu God of War, gather in Penang to celebrate Thaipusam. On the day of the festival, devotees will shave their heads and undertake a pilgrimage along a set route while engaging in various acts of devotion, notably carrying various types of kavadi (burdens) and participating in acts of mortification of the flesh by piercing the skin, tongue or cheeks with skewers. You can see some of my images from previous Thaipusam festivals here, here and here.

We will also be photographing the historic Georgetown, Penang. Georgetown is a UNESCO treasure and a sample of Colonial Asia in a time capsule.

 

Lhasa, Mt. Everest to Kathmandu Overland

April 22nd – May 4th, 2012

The overland route connecting Lhasa, Tibet with Kathmandu, Nepal is one of the most beautiful and and sought-out land routes in all of Asia. We had so much positive feedback from this trip in 2011 that we decided to run it again!  Tibet resident photographer Brian Hirschy and I will be co-leading this trip. Covering a distance of 600 miles, this workshop will take us from the ancient Tibetan capital of Lhasa to pristine high altitude lakes, winding ancient rivers, beautiful farming valleys, Everest Base Camp and over the Himalaya Mountain passes to the ancient Nepali city of Bhaktapur. We will be visiting the most famous monasteries and temples in all of Tibet while spending 13 days immersed in the unique Himalayan culture. Join us on the Roof of the World to get up close and personal with Himalayan culture and the adventure of a lifetime! See previous posts on this years workshop here.

Angkor Photo Workshop

July 16th – 30th, 2012

The Angkor Photo Workshop is limited to 16 participants. Don’t let the numbers fool you! With 4 instructor through out the workshop each and every participant will get plenty of face time with each instructor. This workshop is unprecedented, you will have one-on-one with four of your favorite photographers, Karl Grobl, Gavin Gough, Marco Ryan and myself as you explore and hone your photography, learn visual storytelling and learn software like Soundslides Plus, Audacity and Lightroom.

This workshop includes a multitude of activities including lectures, one on one instruction, critiques, assignments, and exploration of all things photographic. All done in one of the most visually exciting places on earth, Angkor Wat. But it doesn’t stop there, you will also visit Cambodia’s vibrant capitol city, Phnom Penh. Read previous posts on this years workshop here, here and the participants work here.

 

Depth of Field: Ami Vitale

AmiVThis past September we where fortunate to have Ami Vitale as a guest instructor on our Ladakh Lumen Dei photo workshop. It was a great experience and I deepened a friendship. Hear me when I say, Ami Vitale is the real deal. She is a true, in the trench, get dirty photojournalist; And she’s one of the best out there. She’s tough, street smart and incredibly talented. But she’s also sensitive and very caring about the people she’s around. I don’t mean other photographers, though she is that as well. I mean, to the people she’s in and among photographing. I learned a lot from her over those two weeks. Ami taught me to slow down, and not just photograph the moment but to enjoy and savor.

Our paths first crossed many years at a Any Thing Mac, a local Mac repair shop in New Delhi.  Ami was covering Kashmir and I was living there and we both had Mac issues. I had no idea who she was. I thought to myself, this little lady is going to get her self blown up if she’s not careful. I think she was thinking something similar about me. This last September was the first time we actually got to shoot together. I certainly hope we get to do it again.

Ami’s work has appeared in all the top magazines; National Geographic, Newsweek, Time and more. She was named Magazine Photographer of the Year by the National Press Photographers Association, and Photo District News recognized her as one of 30 image makers of the future.

Visit her website and gallery HERE.

I hope you enjoy this interview with photographer Ami Vitale.

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.

 

Depth of Field: Nevada Wier Pt1

This week I had the delightful experience to interview Nevada Wier. Nevada is one of the best travel/world photographers shooting today. She not only has an eye for the story but she pushes the boundaries of conventional photojournalism as well. In these interviews she explained to me how she gets joy and fulfillment from experimenting with flash and angle of view she also talked about technology and how it has helped today’s photographers. Like so many of the great photographers of our day, she proves my point that the really great photographers are also really nice people. Today I am posting part one and then tomorrow I will post part two. I hope you enjoy this Depth of Field.

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

Depth of Field: Gavin Gough Pt 2

Gavin Gough

I had a lot of good feedback on yesterday’s interview with Gavin Gough part 1. I think you will also enjoy the conclusion of that interview today. Gavin and I had more fun that I think we were allowed to have in an interview. As you can tell most of our time was spent swapping stories. So sit back and enjoy.

Depth of Field: Bob Krist

Bob Krist

Bob Krist

Yesterday I had the privileged to do a phone interview with Bob Krist. You know Bob from his work with National Geographic and National Geographic Traveler.

As an editorial photographer, Bob’s assignments have taken him to all seven continents and have won awards in the Pictures of the Year, Communication Arts, and World Press Photo competitions. During his work, he has been stranded on a glacier in Iceland, nearly run down by charging bulls in southern India, and knighted with a cutlass during a Trinidad voodoo ceremony. He won the title of “Travel Photographer of the Year” from the Society of American Travel Writers in 1994, 2007, and again this year at the 2008 convention. In 2000 his work was honored at the Eisenstaedt Awards for Magazine Photography in New York City.

Bob’s books include In Tuscany (Broadway Books, NY), which features 270 pages of his photographs of the region and is a collaboration with author Frances Mayes. It spent a month on the New York Times bestseller list. He also photographed the coffee table books Caribbean and Portrait of the Caribbean and Low Country: Charleston to Savannah (Graphic Arts Center Publishing), A Photo Tour of New York (Photo Secrets Publishing, San Diego), and Impressions of Bucks County (Old Mill Productions, New Hope PA).

An accomplished writer as well as a photographer, Bob is a contributing editor at both National Geographic Traveler and Outdoor Photographer, where he writes a travel photography column. His how-to book Spirit of Place: The Art of The Traveling Photographer (Amphoto Books, NY) was hailed by American Photographer magazine as “the best book about travel photography we’ve ever read.” His newest book Travel Photography: Documenting the World’s People and Places was recently published in the Digital Masters series by Lark Books. He lectures in Washington DC as part of the ongoing “Live at the National Geographic” series. He teaches photo workshops for the Maine and Santa Fe Photo Workshops, National Geographic Expeditions, and Linblad Expeditions.

This was a very casual interview, more like a conversation with an old friend. The interview went rather long. I could have edited it down, but I thought you might enjoy the whole thing. So here it is in two installments. I hope you enjoy it.

 

You can find Bob’s Website & Blog HERE.

Visit his portfolio HERE.

You can listen to more Depth of Field podcasts HERE.

Part 1

Part 2