Note from Jonah: This is the continuation of a photo series from the Great Himalayan Mountain Range. The photos document a journey by car, foot, boat, plane and elephant from Tibet to Nepal.
I gave the woman above 5 kuai (60 cents) after taking her photo … Every since, I’ve felt horrible about it. I didn’t intend to do it, I just got stuck in an awkward situation. Let me explain …
I’ve been to some of the poorest villages in China. I’ve eating dinner with a family in Anhui Province, where their annual income was less than $100 per year. I’ve been to a town in Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region where sand is taking over lands and livelihoods. However, never in rural China has a beggar ever asked me for money. Although this is different in cities — beggars are still very rare compared to anyplace I’ve ever been in the developing world.
Furthermore, no Chinese person has ever asked me for money to take their photo. In Tibet, traditionally nomadic people are waiting at vistas hoping to be photographed as a way of making money. Tibetan monasteries charge an entrance fee — however, on top of that if you want to photograph, an additional fee is often charged — sometimes, the additional fee is per room. Meaning you pay an entrance fee, and every room you photograph has an additional fee.
The room above in the Ta Shi Lhun Monastery cost 10 RMB to photograph ($1.49). Should I have paid?
While I have seen these actions and practices in other countries — I had not seen it anywhere in China. This part of tourism brings up a tough ethical question for travelers and photographers.
Should you pay for a photograph? What makes it more tough, is the amount of money you pay is almost meaningless on a western scale.
My attitude is: You should never pay to take someone’s photograph. If they don’t want to be photographed, that is fine — and people should respect that. By paying to photograph rural people, you fuel a very negative occurrence of tourism’s impact on people and places. Every time a traveler pays to photograph someone, it makes this form of economic gain one step more viable for rural people and in turn, aids in the disintegration of traditional lifestyles and culture.
Having said this; I admit, this is much easier said than done. For example, if a street beggar gets me at the right moment, pending on their attitude I might give them money (non-photographically speaking). The woman in the top photo was asking for money. For whatever reason, I reached into my pocket to see what type of small bills I had. After I gave it to her, I realized she was selling me the right to take her photo.
So I took it. I’ve been mad at myself ever since.
I took the above photo of a Yak on top of a mountain on a pass near the Drigung Monastery. It was just standing there eating. However, instantly after — the owner of the Yak charged at me demanding money for photographing his Yak. This was after the incident with the lady and I refused.
But then I felt bad for saying no to him. It didn’t seem like I could win — however, by refusing to give him money I felt I made a more ethical decision.
The ethics of travel photography are very difficult — especially given the purpose of your photography. Are you taking the photo for a magazine? For your Facebook page? To show your grandmother? Simply for yourself?
I do believe foreigners should not pay subjects to be photographed; however, I also understand the reality of assignments, the pressure of the value of the dollar and the feeling that you can help someone in a small way.
I believe if you minimize your impact on the people and places you visit you will leave the places more authentic for other travelers while helping to preserve global culture and our physical environment. Paying people for their photograph is doing a disservice to ethnic populations, other travels and our global society.
Road Trip on the Himalayan Shelf: If you’re just joining now, here’s what you’ve missed:
- Road trip on the Himalayan Shelf
- Lhasa: City of Sunlight, City in the Sky
- In Tibet, People’s Liberation Army (mostly) out of site, but not out of mind
- Attn: Crayola — a new color for you — Tibetan Blue
- Tibetan Cloudscapes
- Tibetan Prayer Flags Littering Roof of the World
- Should you pay for photos? The ethics of travel photography
- 29 Minutes and 15 Seconds on Mount Everest
- Desertification stretching from Inner Mongolia to Tibet
- ‘The journey not the arrival matters’
- Namaste and welcome to Nepal
- Kathmandu: The greatest place on earth to get lost
- Kathmandu: Full of mystery, culture, history — and trash
- ‘A journey is best measured in friends, rather than miles’
- Who has the strongest necks in the world?
- Hey hey, they’re some monkeys
- After the Himalayan: The Terai
- Watch where you step: Chitwan National Park
- At the end of the road: Pokhara
- Final Destination 8 (in 3D): The luckiest travelers in the world
- Tibet to Nepal: ‘The Journey Not the Arrival Matters’