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You Are Here:  Home  >  FAQ  >  Photography Techniques  >  Tourism

Photographing People

Table of Contents

Chapter Word Count: 4642
1 Introduction  (187)
2 Two Steps to Developing Intent  (246)
       2.1 Step 1: Get out of Tourist Mode  (947)
3 Step 2: Developing Techniques  (577)
       3.1 Photographing Children  (223)
       3.2 Silhouettes  (162)
       3.3 Juxtaposition  (55)
       3.4 Color  (40)
       3.5 Black and White  (49)
       3.6 Shooting from Different Angles  (182)
4 Payment for Photography  (399)
       4.1 On the one hand...  (163)
       4.2 Arguments Against Payment for Photos  (337)
       4.3 Working Within Established Social Norms  (202)
       4.4 Alternatives to Payment  (110)
5 Other Issues  (201)
       5.1 Shooting Inside Places of Worship  (461)
6 Summary (101)

This page has 44 images dated from
Feb 12, 2004 to Jun 13, 2006
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1 Introduction

The word "snapshot" was coined in the 1800s by a man who returned from hunting birds. He proclaimed that his poor yield was due to his shots being fired quickly, without deliberation. "They were snap-shots," he declared dryly. The term never stuck in the hunting world, but it was later applied to photography and hasn't changed its meaning since. Like the hunter who coined the phrase due to his lack of good bird yield, photo "snapshots" will not yield many good photographs either.

Perhaps this is most applicable to photographing people, since a "snapshot" implies "without intent," and good pictures of people are those that exhibit something about the person that touches us somehow. This is best done with deliberate intent. Without it, you'll end up with a pretty mediocre series. Whether you're looking to shoot magazine-style pictures of native peoples from foreign countries, decked out in their traditional clothing, or lovers embracing in San Marco Square in Venice, you'll find that the most challenging part of photographing people is less about technique as it is about understanding people. And that's where intent comes into play.

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Waiting for the right moment
(Yosemite, California, USA)
artists, california, clouds, dawn, horizontal, men, nature, people, photographers, sky, sun, sunrise, trees, valley, valley view, west coast, western usa, yosemite, photograph
People often associate photography with the skill of taking a photo just at the right time to capture what appears to be an arbitrary—but meaningful—moment in time. This is often deceptive to the common viewer because they often attribute the photographer as being lucky. "You shoot a zillion shots, and one of them is bound to be good." That's true, but it isn't till you've shot zillions of zillions do you find that your yield of "good" pictures starts to improve. This is because at some point along the way, you realize that it requires getting closer to your subjects, both figuratively and literally. Once you achieve this, you begin to develop the second step of developing intent: refining the kinds of pictures you like, and trying to repeatedly get those kind of shots with each successive trip.

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The right moment
(Yosemite, California, USA)
black and white, bridalveil falls, california, clouds, dawn, fog, horizontal, nature, panoramic, sky, sun, sunrise, trees, valley, valley view, water, waterfalls, west coast, western usa, yosemite, photograph
To some, a candid "grab" shot is the same as a "snapshot", but it is entirely different. Though a "grab-shot" may be taken quickly, it's quality is measured by its emotional impact on the viewer: a facial expression, the subject's juxtaposition with the background, his interaction with the environment or other people. This is the direct result of intent. By comparison, a snapshot usually lacks these features, and instead has lots of wasted space (parts that don't contribute to the image somehow), poor composition, or worst of all, a yawning viewer.

When traveling, you often find yourself in unfamiliar environments, so you may not necessarily understand how you will be perceived by the people you're trying to photograph. Many people handle this very differently. Some either barge forward, taking pictures as if their subjects were animals in a zoo, or they hesitate at the camera's shutter button, concerned that they are invading the subjects' space, or violating their privacy. Will they take offense? Do some really believe that having their photo taken will steal their spirits? Should you ask for permission first? Should you pay them for taking their picture?

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Getting up close is important, whether you physically move in, or use a zoom lens.
(Ecuador)
ecuador, equator, girls, horizontal, latin america, people, smiles, photograph
When it comes to getting good pictures of people, the primary problem people have is being in a tourist frame of mind. As long as you consider yourself an outsider, you'll be treated as one, and there will be a distance that will be discernible in your photos. To remedy this, you need to establish a rapport with your subjects. Be interested in them. Communicate with them. You want a photo that reflects who they are, how they feel, and what their life is like in their own environment. If you join them in their space, you won't feel like you're invading it (and neither will they). This doesn't have to take any time at all—often it's little more than a physical disposition you exhibit in their presence. Sometimes, it's a word spoken, or small talk. Again, it's a "frame of mind" that's communicated with your behaviors.

blue-bullet.gif A Story

When on a photo workshop in Cuba, I was working with a student who wanted to be a travel photographer. Her portfolio had great scenic pictures, but she had no people pictures. She said she never really got good pictures of people, so she doesn't show them. When we were out shooting, I could see why: she wouldn't approach anyone, or even bother to "grab-shoot" in open squares or forums, a technique that pro travel photographers and photo-journalists employ. When asked why she didn't take pictures of people, she gave the old stock answers: "I don't want to bother them," "They don't want their picture taken," and "They wouldn't let me."

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This is an uninteresting portrait, because it was a snap shot.
(Havana, Cuba)
caribbean, cuba, elian, havana, island nation, islands, latin america, south america, tshirt, vertical, photograph
I wasn't having any of these problems. In fact, Cuba has got to be the easiest place in the world to photograph; the people are friendly, very photogenic, and will sometimes demand that you take their pictures if they see you walking by. As it happened, a girl walked by that caught my photo student's attention. "I'd really wanted to get a picture of her", she said, as we both watched the girl walk by. I said, "Ok, if you're uncomfortable shooting from a distance, just go up to her and ask." The student hemmed and hawed, partially because the language barrier made it intimidating for her to attempt contact. With a little nudging, I got her to approach the girl, but she quickly backed off and said, "See, she doesn't want her picture taken."

It was clear that the student simply didn't understand what it really means to approach someone. In this case, it was rather simple—I just walked up to the girl and said, "Hola!" (a common Spanish greeting). She looked and smiled, and then I made a few gestures about her t-shirt ("Elián Gonzaoles!", I'd say). She'd nod affirmatively. And then I pointed to her shirt and then my camera and I asked, "photo?" She smiled and said "Sí," and I took the picture shown here. Not a good picture by any means, but the point was to demonstrate that people can be comfortable with your taking their picture if you handle it properly.

blue-bullet.gif The Lessons:

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Children love to play, so make taking pictures fun.
(Peru)
amazon, childrens, horizontal, jungle, latin america, people, peru, river people, rivers, photograph
First and foremost, don't be afraid. This often starts with friendly eye contact and a disarming smile. You should downplay your photographic intentions—swing your camera around your back, and approach people as if you don't have any intention on taking their picture. Instead, talk to them. Even if you don't know their language, a few known words or even attempted gestures often gets you 90% of your way there. Once you establish yourself as comfortable in their environment, they will be comfortable with you. If at this point, you want to take some pictures, you'll have a much more receptive audience.

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Befriending Children is Easy
tech, kids, camera, self-portrait, tourism, tech, child, camera, self-portrait, photograph
Children are often the best subjects, since they're fun, cute, lively, and (usually) innocent. While children vary greatly from different areas of the world, one of the most common hurdles you need to clear is their apprehension to you—or, strangers in general. It's not so much that they don't want to be photographed—it's more an generic response. Your camera will only intensify that fear if you barge right up with it in their faces.

For the most apprehensive, I've found the easiest thing to do is let them look through the camera. They'll laugh and scream and compete with each other to get a good look or two. You can even let them take pictures of each other, although this will surely result in a lot of time expensed. (With digital cameras, be prepared to preview a lot of photos!) Suddenly, the game changes from "keep away from the photographer," to "who gets to see through the view-finder." Before you know it, they all want to be in the picture. And, when the "flash" goes off, be ready for screams of excitement and enthusiasm. They may never let you go home.

Once you've gotten comfortable with the process of getting to know your subjects, the next step is to develop an eye for what kind of pictures you like. This step is often thought of as two parts as well: the artistic side, and the technical side. Developing taste is a matter beyond the scope of this book, since that's something that is more about the heart than the mind. People have been known to pay large sums of money for what most of us (OK, "I") would consider "bad art," so I don't want to get too close to that subject. But, what I can do is help you with some basic checklist items for improving your technique:

checkbox.gif Proper use of a flash

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Evening Photography: No flash allows the background to show
(Slovenia)
dans, dusk, europe, groups, people, piran, self-portrait, slovenia, slow exposure, vertical, photograph
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No flash yields a more naturally balanced photo, but you need to turn up your ISO setting
(Logarska Dolina, Slovenia)
dinner, europe, groups, happy, humor, people, slovenia, vertical, photograph
A flash can work for you or against you! It's important to understand these basic facts:
red-bullet.gif  A Flash is largely ineffective beyond 10 feet.
red-bullet.gif  Avoid use a flash as your main light source, like in a dark room. People will be overexposed, and you'll rarely see the background.
red-bullet.gif  Use flash in midday light to brighten dark shadows
red-bullet.gif  For night photography, turn off your flash and increase your ISO setting.
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Czech Dancers 1
Czech Republic
(USA)
travel book, vertical, dancers, motion, photographing people, travel book, dancers, motion, photographing people, photograph
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Czech Dancers 2
Czech Republic
(USA)
slow exposure, travel book, dancers, motion, horizontal, photographing people, travel book, dancers, motion, photographing people, photograph

red-bullet.gif  If you have to use a flash, reduce its power by up to "1 stop" to avoid the "bursty" look.
red-bullet.gif  Use the flash to "freeze the frame" in action/motion. Using a flash along with a slower shutter speed (1/8 to 1/10 second) during fast-motion activities is a good way to freeze the action to capture the faces, while also allowing the motion blur from the longer exposure to emphasize the movement.
red-bullet.gif  See Photography equipment for travel, including cameras, film, lenses, etc. for detailed information on using a flash.

checkbox.gif Experiment with different lenses

Zooming up close is great, but other kinds of lenses can yield great effects you wouldn't expect.

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Wide-angle Lens shooting upward
djenne, mali, men, mosques, towers, vertical, west africa, photograph
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Eager to be photographed
(Peru)
ancient ruins, andes, architectural ruins, horizontal, inca trail, incan tribes, latin america, mountains, peru, quechua, stone ruins, photograph

checkbox.gif Preview your pictures with your subject so they feel part of the process

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Take the Picture
(Buenos Aires, Argentina)
argentina, buenos aires, childrens, horizontal, la boca, latin america, people, vic, photograph
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Share the Picture
(Buenos Aires, Argentina)
argentina, buenos aires, childrens, horizontal, la boca, latin america, people, vic, photograph
Nothing embraces people more than their seeing themselves on your camera's preview screen. Almost instantly, people's objections to having their pictures taken are replaced by enthusiasm and eagerness. Take pictures of others (even your own travel companions) and show your intended subject the preview screen, and you'll have a new friend for life.

checkbox.gif Choose your background

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No sense of place
The Dolomites, Italy
(Alto Adige, Italy)
alto adige, annie, cortina group, dolomites, europe, hawkins, italy, vertical, photograph
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Five feet away: a BIG sense of place
The Dolomites, Italy
(Alto Adige, Italy)
alto adige, annie, cortina group, dolomites, europe, hawkins, italy, vertical, photograph
An "inventory picture" is one you take to prove you were there. A "good picture" is one that gives your subject a more accurate sense of place. Pay attention to what's around you to give information about where you are.

checkbox.gif Capture People Engaged in Activity

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Japanese Calligrapher
(Kyoto, Japan)
asia, calligraphers, japan, paintings, people, vertical, photograph
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Crowd Looking up (2)
(Prague, Czech Republic)
crowds, czech republic, europe, horizontal, looking, people, prague, photograph
It's nice when your friends look at the camera and pose, but when people are engaged in an activity, photos become more interesting. A photo of someone you don't know doesn't mean much unless there's something about them that explains who they are, or what they do.

red-bullet.gif  Make the activity a prominent part of the picture, or the meaning gets lost.
red-bullet.gif  When shooting portraits of artists, workers, gardeners, etc., incorporate their craft into the picture.

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NOTE: LOW-RES IMAGE ONLY
kids, camera, self-portrait, travel book, horizontal, photographing people, travel book, child, camera, self-portrait, photographing people, photograph
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NOTE: LOW-RES IMAGE ONLY
kids, camera, self-portrait, travel book, horizontal, photographing people, travel book, child, camera, self-portrait, photographing people, photograph
Photographing Children is the easiest and best way to get a ton of good, fun, people pictures. However, the challenge can be similar to herding cats, especially if you don't speak the language. Children in heavily populated tourist spots in foreign countries often become jaded to the rudeness of tourists who lunge at them with their cameras. When faced with this situation, the easiest way to introduce the idea of taking pictures, is to let them look through the camera first. In fact, I let them take pictures of me before I photograph them.

Most people shoot while standing in an upright position. Normally, this gives your perspective on the world. When photographing children, this always makes them look small, they're always looking up (or you can't see their faces), and you usually only see the ground behind them. The first rule of thumb is to be at eye level with children. So, stoop!

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Dan and Camera (2)
(Havana, Cuba)
cameras, caribbean, cuba, dan jill, dans, havana, horizontal, island nation, islands, latin america, people, south america, photograph
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Just Kids (2)
(Havana, Cuba)
caribbean, childrens, cuba, havana, horizontal, island nation, islands, just, latin america, people, south america, photograph

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Dan and Camera (4)
(Havana, Cuba)
cameras, caribbean, cuba, dan jill, dans, havana, island nation, islands, latin america, people, south america, vertical, photograph
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Hand in Hand
(Havana, Cuba)
caribbean, childrens, cuba, hands, havana, horizontal, island nation, islands, latin america, people, south america, photograph

In these two sets of pictures, the first of each pair shows how I'm photographing the kids. Note how close I get. I am using a 135mm zoom lens to get even closer. The result is shown in the second picture.

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Hiking in the Clouds
(Peru)
ancient ruins, andes, architectural ruins, clouds, hiking, horizontal, inca trail, incan tribes, latin america, mountains, peru, scenics, stone ruins, photograph
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Hiker Silhouette
(Alto Adige, Italy)
alto adige, dolomites, europe, hikers, horizontal, italy, silhouettes, photograph

One way to make a person really stand out, even when they take up a very small part of the scene, is to cut them out into a silhouette. When a dark human shape punctuates through a bright scene, it not only draws attention to the vastness of the landscape, but underscores one's personal relationship to it. Meter on the bright areas of the scene, not the person himself.
A couple silhouetted makes for intimacy or romance, even if none is actually going on.
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Golden Gate Bridge Silhouette (10)
(San Francisco, California, USA)
bridge, california, golden gate, golden gate bridge, national landmarks, san francisco, silhouettes, vertical, west coast, western usa, photograph
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Ferris Wheel Couple
(London, England)
cities, couples, england, english, europe, ferris, ferris wheel, horizontal, london, united kingdom, wheels, photograph

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Mountain Cloud Hiker (8)
(Alto Adige, Italy)
alto adige, clouds, dolomites, europe, hikers, italy, mountains, silhouettes, vertical, photograph
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Mountain Cloud Hiker (11)
(Alto Adige, Italy)
alto adige, clouds, dolomites, europe, hikers, italy, mountains, silhouettes, vertical, photograph
Another aspect to consider is the "power of one." A single individual tends to have a more dramatic effect than a group. Although both are good—I never shy away from any silhouette—the visual impact of a solitary figure is worth spending extra effort to get.

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Two Photographers
(Kyoto, Japan)
asia, horizontal, japan, men, people, photographers, two, photograph
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Geisha and Old Woman
(Kyoto, Japan)
asia, geisha, horizontal, japan, old, people, womens, photograph
The juxtaposition of the subject to the environment can be funny, scary, profound, or disturbing. When my funny bone itches, I try to place people next to things that are either completely opposite, or at least, unexpected.
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Man and Model
(Prague, Czech Republic)
czech republic, europe, men, models, people, prague, vertical, photograph
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Eurotel Women
(Prague, Czech Republic)
czech republic, europe, eurotel, horizontal, people, prague, womens, photograph

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Josh Shafran Glasses (4)
(Alto Adige, Italy)
alto adige, cortina group, dolomites, europe, glasses, horizontal, italy, josh, shafran, photograph
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Redhead Woman Hiker (2)
(Alto Adige, Italy)
alto adige, dolomites, europe, hikers, horizontal, italy, people, redhead, womens, photograph
Creative use of color can range from scenes with lots of it, to very little. When a single, bright color punctuates through muted tones, it draws attention.

Don't forget the age-old beauty of black and white. With digital cameras, any photo can be quickly converted to B&W with a simple click of the mouse using any image editing software, or photo-printing site. Many cameras today also offer various B&W options as shooting modes.

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Gazeebo Group (17)
(Nassau, Bahamas)
bahamas, capital, capital city, caribbean, cities, fisheye lens, gazeebo, groups, horizontal, island-nation, islands, jim lisa, nassau, nation, resort, royal bahamian, sandals, tropics, vacation, wedding, photograph
Tired of the same old portraits? The quickest way to get out of a photo rut is by changing your camera angle. Here are some suggestions for spicing up your photos if you've lost your motivation:
red-bullet.gif  Get down on the ground and shoot at the lowest point you can. Horizontally, or straight up—you'd be surprised how the world opens up.
red-bullet.gif  Reach high, or better yet, climb stairs. Get to a high vantage point, and shoot down on streets or crowds of people.
red-bullet.gif  Use unconventional lenses. Using a telephoto in a crowd gets to to think close-up portraits. Super-wide angles get you to think in terms of new compositions. A fish-eye lens allows you to see the humor in things.
red-bullet.gif  Find objects that can be used to "frame" subjects.

For each of these new angles, you might be thinking: how do you look through the viewfinder when you're holding the camera high up, or when your down on the ground? The answer: I don't. Just start shooting and review photos later for the best ones.

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Paying for the group to photograph
(San Francisco, California, USA)
california, carnival, dancers, horizontal, people, photographers, private industry counsel, san francisco, west coast, western usa, youth opportunity, photograph
Anyone that travels frequently will invariably run into basic textbook social issues with photography. Most common is the confrontation you may have with people who demand that you pay them to take their pictures. This usually happens in poorer third-world countries or pockets of poverty in developed countries. When money is scarce, any means of income is sought, and tourism is often the best and easiest source for money for the least amount of effort. Although there are the clear economic benefits tourism brings to developing countries, there are also disadvantages that can get out of control, which often go hand in hand with an increase in crime, the erosion of the work ethic, or the reduced perception of the need for education. (The latter two are the basic economic foundations for real productivity growth.) When people ask for payment to get their photos taken, the controversy begins.

When tourists find themselves in such situations, they often feel compelled to "help", and the most immediate reaction is to give money directly to people. Others claim that by paying for such things, you are perpetuating a problem making it harder to solve. I cannot help you with what you may perceive to be an ethical or moral dilemma, but suffice to say that, by the time such a problem exists, it's often a sign that weaker economic conditions and social deterioration has already set in, and opportunity for reversal is nearly moot.

Should you pay to take a picture? Under what conditions? It's not always easy (or possible) to discern when it's appropriate, or if you're contributing to a society's own problems, albeit with the best of intentions. The water gets muddier still when you consider the differences in Western perceptions of payment for services, or our attitudes about helping the needy.

Some argue that we pay models to take their pictures all the time. Whether it's a celebrity supermodel making millions of dollars per year or a part-time college student that makes a few dollars posing for art classes or the local ski shop's brochure, it is part of Western culture to pay people to take their photos that are used for commercial purposes. So, we're used to it. Hence, when considering the poor, we feel that payment for photos not only alleviates some of their financial burden, but it reduces the degree of financial exploitation: compensation is fair, although the degree to which one is compensated is a horse of another color.

Similarly, you can also get much more cooperation from people when you pay them. What's more, you can arrange a lot more situations, such as organized group shots, ritual dances, and other sorts of things. So, payment has its rewards at times. I'll address this more later.

Regarding the question of "fairness", and that Western "models" are paid (sometimes quite a bit) for their photos to be taken, it's not exactly a comparable context: models have their pictures taken specifically for commercial reasons, and they know it ahead of time. It's a well-established business transaction. Models are also paid different amounts for different uses, and even in some cases (such as charitable organizations), some allow their photos used for free. Far down the ladder from the commercial side of photography, people often travel for documentary purposes, in which case, it is not only discouraged to pay for photos, but your photos won't be "accepted" (or considered to have journalistic integrity) if it were known that people were paid.

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Shoe Shiners
La Paz, Bolivia
(La Paz, Bolivia)
bolivia, horizontal, la paz, latin america, people, shiners, shoes, photograph
The increase in tourism to Cuba is a good example of how complex the problem is. Because of the duel-economy system Cuba has adopted, the government pays people in pesos, but most everyday items are purchased with US Dollars. Furthermore, the exchange rate between the two is disproportionate. This has the effect of people favoring activities that earn dollars over pesos. Accordingly, people go where the money goes, and the trail starts at tourism. Whether that's selling artifacts, driving taxis, or (you guessed it) asking for money for photos, there will be a request for dollars. Asking for a dollar for a photo is easy compared to working in a factory for $0.20 a day (in peso-denominated currency). What happens to local work ethic in a society when people are less willing to have a job than to sit on a street corner and ask for a dollar for a photo?

Stuck in the middle of this confusion? What does this person do when approached to pay for photos? Which side of the argument is right? The truth is, both sides have legitimate and persuasive arguments. Therefore, it all comes down to where on the spectrum you are when you are faced with the issue.

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Plaza Child 2 (b&w)
(Cuzco, Peru)
black and white, capital of peru, childrens, cities, cityscapes, cuzco, latin america, peru, peruvian capital, plaza, towns, vertical, photograph
In most cases, the established social norm will already have been set by the time you arrive, and you may not even be given a choice in your decision. In heavily touristy regions in poor countries that have been exposed to Western tourism, most people will demand money for photos, and whatever you choose to do (cooperate or not) will not have any effect on that society. Most tourists go to Rome and do as the Romans, and there's no way to reach enough people to affect change. So, paying for photos in this social climate is not objectionable, per se, although it is quite sad. Hence, I don't have a problem with this, but I must say, from a purely photographic standpoint, such situations rarely yield good photos anyway. Sure, upon first seeing people in a striking environment, you are tempted to snap away, but after you see beneath the surface and get to know people, you may find these initial "paid-for" photos to be inferior to those where you've engaged and become familiar with a chosen few. (And if you do that, chances are, they won't ask for money anyway.)

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Organized Tribal Dance
(Togo)
africa, blur, horizontal, togo, tribes, tumble, west africa, photograph
An alternative to payment for photography is to pay them for something else. You can buy products, artwork, or even "chores", for example. On one occasion, I paid a group of kids to clean up the garbage from a street corner so I could take a picture of the scene. They were so happy to be in the shot because they were proud of their work and the fact that they earned some money. Here, everyone is happy, and the idea of photography is the last thing on their minds. Reinforcing productive behaviors and boosting self-esteem has much more positive and a longer-lasting impact.

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Subtly Approach Your Subject
(Kilimanjaro, Tanzania)
africa, kilimanjaro, maa, people, roses, tanzania, vertical, photograph
Many people have heard that some indigenous people believe that having their pictures taken will steal their spirit. This is one of many excuses people give for not having their picture taken, especially in areas with high tourism where xenophobic native peoples live. (Tour guides often tell this to the tourists on behalf of the people, so as to help them remain free of intrusive behaviors.) This is probably the most populist myth that Western tourists seem to believe. Of course, the myth was concocted for a very good reason: most tourists are horrendous to the native population, especially when it comes to taking pictures. The easiest way to disprove the myth of their soul being captured is to simply offer money for pictures. You'll see how quickly your offer is accepted, spiritual objections not withstanding. But, I'm not suggesting you do this; it's just a quick exercise one can do to illustrate the point. As before, instead of offering money, try to be human and establish a rapport with people. You may or may not get a picture, but it's the best path to that end if you're going to ever get there.

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St. Peters Cathedral Sunbeams (3)
(Rome, Veneto, Italy)
churches, europe, italy, nature, rome, sky, st peters, sun, sunbeams, vatican, vertical, photograph
On a related note, some people believe that you shouldn't take pictures inside of churches, cathedrals or other religious buildings. This is most commonly seen in European countries, although it does come up in third-world countries' bigger cities as well. What you'll find is that the more tourists there are, the more restrictive it is to shoot inside. Why? The most common reasons are that it's disrespectful, and the flash can damage the paintings. As for respect, churches (especially larger cathedrals) have no such edict in scripture or tradition that says that artistic reproduction (photographs) of the House of God is disrespectful. In fact, the Catholic Church has always advocated the practice of imagery—especially of its architecture and icons—as this serves to "spread the word." As for flashes hurting artwork, that's simple: a flash usually bursts for 1/250th of a second, so it would require 250 people to take pictures continually for hundreds of years in order to get the same amount of light that a normal overcast day would put in a church. So, it's not about damaging art work.

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St. Patricks (d)
(New York City, New York, USA)
america, horizontal, new york, new york city, north america, patricks, st patricks, united states, photograph
However, there are very good reasons for not photographing inside of a church or other such buildings. First, churches with many tourists have a lot of people that are not there to worship, interfering with the local few who are. It's not too hard to keep most people quiet, but having a lot of bursts of light can be really distracting to someone trying to communicate with the almighty of their choosing. Secondly, and try to take this for the economic reality that it is (and not the cynical voice of a photographer), churches make a lot of money selling postcards to tourists who can't take pictures for themselves. I've spoken to many clergymen at such churches about this edict, and they freely admit—even brag—about how much money is made on postcard sales when photography is restricted. If you still think I'm just being cynical, let me also point out that this is a good thing: churches often need more money than they can raise on their own, and if they can do it by selling postcards, then more the power to them. It's just sardonic to see a church telling a white lie just to make ends meet.

Back to the point though: most churches have no problem with your taking pictures. In fact, this is more the rule than the exception. In any event, you should always respect the rule of the land, as it were, and don't try to skirt around them. You'll find your photos to be far less interesting if you have to "sneak them."

In conclusion, remember that the ultimate responsibility of the photographer is to extend respect, whether it's a photo of a person, place or thing. If someone doesn't want his picture taken, don't do it. Recognize that photography is a cultural phenomenon, and is viewed differently by different people. Don't assume Western attitudes of privacy; it's not necessarily like that everywhere else. Give them their due respect and get to know them, and you'll know where your boundaries lie. Expect people to be apprehensive, but don't let that discourage you from developing the rapport so you can take that winning picture.

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