Should You Pay To Take Photographs Of People When Travelling?

February 04, 2024

At Prayer, Khiva, UzbekistanAt Prayer, Khiva, UzbekistanWomen at prayer. This mosque doubles as a tourist attraction, but is well-frequented by locals.

At Prayer, Khiva, Uzbekistan, in a tourist area jointly used for prayer.
Fujifilm X-T4 (IR), Fujinon XF8-16mmF2.8 R LM WR, f2.8 @ 1/3 second, ISO 1600.

There have been many wonderful debates about the ethics of paying people in foreign lands to take their portrait. Some photographers think it is quite okay, others think making a payment develops an expectation in the locals from photographers who follow. Somehow, I think people in our modern age, wherever they live in the world, are savvy enough to know there's a value in being photographed.

Some subjects will give you that value freely and without any expectations. Others will ask to be paid for their involvement. And still others simply don't want to be photographed – so they are easy to deal with!

When we look at the history of photography and the travel genre, the idea was to capture authenticity. Somehow, they argued, the act of paying a local to be in your photograph interfered with this authenticity, despite the fact many National Geographic photographers have been paying people to be in their photos for decades!

I'm not in agreement with the authenticity argument, or it being unethical. If someone saw me in the street and asked to take my photograph, I probably wouldn't charge to pose for a few seconds. On the other hand, if they wanted to spend half an hour with me, then it would be reasonable for them to offer to pay. Why is it any different for the people we photograph? And if we are travelling in a country that's not particularly wealthy and a subject asks for a couple of dollars, why wouldn't we pay? In fact, if this is the situation, surely as guests in their land we should keep some change ready to make a payment if required?

However, it's true that if you pay for a portrait, then your subject will be posing for you and you won't get a candid shot. There's no doubt you will end up with a different type of photograph, but is that a bad thing? In terms of authenticity, the question isn't one of commerce (whether you pay or not), it's whether the photograph is posed or unposed. That will make a difference to the type of portrait you make, but it needn't affect the authenticity of the photographs you're capturing.


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