Should you pay for photos? The ethics of travel photography

Five Kuai Photo


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 have never experienced the population of China reacting to tourism like they did in Tibet. From Disney-like monasteries to beggars, the impact is obvious.

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.

Ta Shi Lhun Monastery

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.

Tibetan Yak

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:

  1. Road trip on the Himalayan Shelf
  2. Lhasa: City of Sunlight, City in the Sky
  3. In Tibet, People’s Liberation Army (mostly) out of site, but not out of mind
  4. Attn: Crayola — a new color for you — Tibetan Blue
  5. Tibetan Cloudscapes
  6. Tibetan Prayer Flags Littering Roof of the World
  7. Should you pay for photos? The ethics of travel photography
  8. 29 Minutes and 15 Seconds on Mount Everest
  9. Desertification stretching from Inner Mongolia to Tibet
  10. ‘The journey not the arrival matters’
  11. Namaste and welcome to Nepal
  12. Kathmandu: The greatest place on earth to get lost
  13. Kathmandu: Full of mystery, culture, history — and trash
  14. ‘A journey is best measured in friends, rather than miles’
  15. Who has the strongest necks in the world?
  16. Hey hey, they’re some monkeys
  17. After the Himalayan: The Terai
  18. Watch where you step: Chitwan National Park
  19. At the end of the road: Pokhara
  20. Final Destination 8 (in 3D): The luckiest travelers in the world
  21. Tibet to Nepal: ‘The Journey Not the Arrival Matters’

12 thoughts on “Should you pay for photos? The ethics of travel photography”

  1. Excellent article. I think you may have answered your own question: what you might pay a Tibetan nomad is “meaningless on a western scale.”

    I’ve had the same thing happen to me with adorable children in Southeast Asia. The minute you take a photo, their parents (or random adults, who knows?) come from out of nowhere asking for money.

    In our mind, there’s a conflict, but I think we have to let compassion rule in this situation and just hand over a little bit of cash.

    1. Thanks for the note Nicole — I agree with the compassion part. In that, thats a better indicator of how we should act. I just have a hard time when it directly relates to photography. I’m sure its an underlying feeling that as a photojournalist, if you pay for a photo you have deceived your readers and crossed an ethical line. The photo becomes somehow, less true.

      I’m happy to give money to poverty stricken people as well – but I’m not sure if giving someone cash is actually the most effective way.

      On one hand — you get money directly to an impoverished person. On the other hand, perhaps your money would be more effective if you gave it to an NGO or group who understands the environment, problems, etc.

      Or maybe, both is the answer :)

  2. Great aricle Jonah,and I completely agree with you. Not only does paying for a photograph make it less real (in a way), but it also aids the negative impacts of tourism and sets a dangerous precedent for those who come after.The way I see it, giving money for a photograph is definitely not the same as giving a random begger money and doesn’t necessarily aid the person you’re giving it to. It might even lead to people taking advantage of others, especially children.

    That being said, I do often have twinges of guilt when taking photos on my travels though, especially in impovrished areas. Although the photos are generally taken for me, I have sold a few. Despite my annual donations to NGOs like you mentioned,I still feel like I am in a small way taking advantage of someone else’s poverty or feel bad that it is interesting to me and my friends and family back home. I would imagine some others feel like that too.

    I’ve been living and traveling in China for a few years now and have never personally expreience this, but I haven’t been to Tibet yet. I have epxerienced being ripped off and aksed for money more times than I can count in other ways and it often makes me very skeptical of people that approach me. I took a trip to XinJiang a while back and while in Kashgar several small children came up to me and asked for me to take their picture. I was certain that they wanted money or had some kind of scheme going (some kids in Henan pulled this on me two years ago and tried to take my wallet while I was distracted) so I refused until I saw how upset they got. It turns out all they wanted to do was see the picture after I had taken it. I felt so bad about being mean to thenm at first that I went to a print shop got copies made, when back to the place I had seen them the next day and gave them the copies.

    1. Thanks for the comments Ellenor. Like most things in China, I find the honesty of Chinese to be fairly dichotomous. I’ve been ripped off so many times, I always have a shield of skepticism up (especially when buying things). However, this really sucks when someone is honestly trying to help you are has no intention of taking advantage of you. I had a really odd 3-days in Xi’an once, where it seemed like everyone was being super suspicious and sketchy – but than when our interactions ended, nothing ever happened. I had a Shwar cooker on the street invite me back to his house. We drove on bicycles for a long time out of town, till there were no street lights, and everything looked very dodgy. My friend and I were kind of expecting to actually be robbed it got so shady, so we got ready to bolt – eventually, the guy feeds us, gives us beer and sends us on are way with a smile. Another time, strangers kept insisting that they help us find the right bus – they spent so long helping us we were sure they would ask for money. When the bus left, so did they – no questions asked. Just a friendly wave.

      In both situations I was so certain they were going to ask for something (or worse), I almost didn’t even communicate with them.

      There must be some type of cultural blind fold on me sometimes, cause its not clear who is trying to rip you off and who is just being friendly. Thanks for your comments.

  3. Interesting points and comments folks!
    I’ve been travelling around China since early 2004 and have been some really remote corners of this vast country… I have never had anyone ask me for money so that i could take a picture of them.. until 3 weeks ago in Xinjiang.

    An older Gentleman was sitting at the entrance of a dead city and invited us into his house. Having been to the area multiple times, I thought it an act of hospitality until he kept insisting we take pictures. something felt wrong so we didn’t… sure enough, after a few minutes, he pointed to a sign hanging on a tree that specified 5rmb/pic/person!!!

    we ended up arguing about paying/not paying then finally agreed to pay him 5rmb for all the pics we took… The sign was there in this case, we just didn’t see it but I was quite mad at the time.

    Maybe for professional photographers it’s different but I take pictures as memories of these trips and journeys so having to pay/argue is not a pleasant memory and I don’t usually care to take one in that case…

    1. Well, I don’t care who you are or what you do – I think avoiding conflict is usually a good idea. Your statement brings up a common expat situation though:

      What is your threshold, or breaking point on aggravation vs. money?

      I’ve seen this a million times. Someone’s trying to rip you off. You know it, they know it — AND, they know you know it. You can argue and fight over the money – but when it is small enough, often times I’ll say “screw it.” I’d rather give you 5 kuai, than have to sit around here talking about it anymore. My threshold for dealing with these things isn’t so high that I’m not willing to pay to have a more peaceful existence.

      However, I have many friends that really disagree. They say, its never acceptable to let someone take advantage no matter how little money it is (on principal) because it will fuel the occurrence in the future. By standing up for ethical behavior you help future travelers.

      While I agree with that, I still never want to waste time arguing over money and furthermore, since it seems to happen frequently concerning transportation, I hate to not take a ride over 20 kuai and instead have to take an extended bus ride (or standing room only train ride). I think its a big enough philosophical difference in opinion, that these two types of people shouldn’t travel together.

  4. I’ve lived in Tibet since 1998. I am a Westerner not a Tibetan, but I cannot agree with you. In the end, I feel that taking photographs is an invasion of a person’s privacy. In my experience, the professional photographers are the worst at this infringement. I have seen people clicking photos rapidly sometimes as close as inches from a person’s face. The photographer seems greedy. I have pitied the “objects” being photographed.

    A Tibetan sees the expensive 4 wheel drive vehicle stop. Strange foreigners pour from the car – some of them weighing as much as a small yak. They carry small cameras and large cameras with telescopes on them. They walk around us getting into position. They try to joke with us in order to get “their” photographs. They especially like to photograph our oldest and poorest people. That is how they want to remember us. Then talking with there buddies they jump back into their vehicles and drive off to another location where they can do the same. Who knows, probably the foreigners with the telescopes on their cameras will sell their photographs and I will see the old beggar of the village in a calendar. I feel angry that a rich foreigner who can afford to have people drive them all around the countryside, who can afford to surround themselves with camera gear, will not give me anything for the photo of me delights them so much.

    I don’t feel that I can do justice to their situation. Imagine yourself working around the house in the West. A car full of strange speaking foreigners with large cameras stop in front of your house. Some stand and photograph you from the road. With their large telescopic lens, you know they can see the beads of sweat on your forehead. Some ask permission to photograph, others don’t. Some times their tour guide will walk across your lawn with some of the tourists in tow. The tour guide chats with you while the foreigners click like they have found the first alien from Mars. They especially like to shoot photos of your grandmother in a wheelchair on your porch. Then they get in their car and drive off. This may happen several times a day (Tibetans in some towns may see numbers of carloads of foreigners per day.) Now, you may not want money, but I bet you will definitely feel offended.

    I think the desire to not leave an impact is over-controlling. We are leaving a social impact just by showing up and shooting photos of people. To them it feels like we are showing up, taking things from them, and then running off without in anyway helping the people that we are using. They are part of our world, we are part of their world. What right do we have to try to keep them the way that they are? Do they want to stay that way?

    I think shooting photos is a form of dehumanization. I remember a sign I once saw in an Amish factory in the U.S. “Please, don’t feed the Amish.” It was a joke, but a telling one.

    To pay for a photograph means that you are saying, “I value what you have given me in this photograph. Thank you.” Does it make it harder for the next foreigner coming through? Yes, maybe. But it makes life easier for the person you just gave money to.

    I especially feel this sense of injustice, knowing that some people will then copyright their photos and only let others use their photos if they pay. The object of the photo – the person who made this great photo possible – goes entirely uncompensated.

  5. If you want to make little impact, don’t take a camera. Or if you take a camera, only shoot photos of people that you know for at least a half a day. By then you have enough relationship that the person will feel that you want to remember them, not just gather cool photos.

  6. Jonah, I appreciate all the quality and professionalism that you are striving to achieve here in this country. Yes, I live in china as well, in Xi’an. I am westerner here with 3 beautiful small children of my own. People are sneaking photos of them all the time. I agree they are cute–of course they are my kids! But I think you will find yourself facing a dilemma if you were to find yourself on the OTHER side of the lens. Have you ever been on the other side of the lens? I mean, in the sense that you were the “rare” exotic specimen? our children feel like animals in a zoo sometimes. It is tough, it feels like our privacy is being violated when everyone is taking photos of our children. I think money should be removed from the equation. simply ask permission. But I would also do what you can to get to know your subject. there is a story there–not just a photo. Empower them don’t exploit them.

  7. Hey – reading your blog – it;s a great overall product :)

    One thing I couldn’t help noticing – you say it;s unethical to pay people for being the subject of your photos. Yet you yourself make money by selling the travel pictures you take, or even by using them on your website to promote your overall brand. Further, you say it’s also unethical for publications to use people’s photos for free.

    You say: if a photo is worth publishing, it;s worth paying for. Surely then, if a person or a piece of property is worth photographing, that too is worth paying for.

    A lot of talking is done about the ethics of tourism, sustainable impact etc etc. It’s important. But the very act of showing up in a place introduces that place to the tourist economy. In an ideal world, some of that money filters down to people through good social organisation. But if people are very poor, then clearly that’s not happening, or not enough. If you were very poor, would you ask tourists who wanted to take your photo for money? I certainly would and I actually think it;s entrepreneurial and smart. It may not be pretty, but a lot of modern commercial life simply isn’t. Many westerners go on holiday to escape the dull commercialism of their daily lives so what they want to find is a faux-nostalgic vision of a fictional happy-go-lucky pre-modern existence. Clearly it;s disappointing to find that poor nomads want money too – it pierces the illusion of a walk on the pure side. It’s unfortunate that people taking the understandable step of attempting to realise a fraction of the value that they clearly have in the eyes of those tourists who spend thousands of dollars just to get to where they are thereby destroy some of that value – but that’s reality.

    So I think we should be prepared to pay for photos because overall it;s more respectful of people and their needs.

    Right – rant over!

    Enjoy your Monday, T

  8. Totally agree with those sensitive enough to pay for photos. Never understood the self-serving rationalizations for being cheap. Oh, you want the natives to suffer more authentically for your photojournalism? Don’t want them putting on a poverty song-and-dance act for the next fool tourist with a camera??

    Glad at least you recognize that it’s a pittance whatever you so reluctantly pay, but you don’t have to be an economist to recognize this routine for what it is, a con-job. Photographers stand to gain fame if not fortune for their work, why shouldn’t your destitute subjects??

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