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This chapter is from the book

Paying for Pictures

Coming from a journalistic and documentary background, I was taught never to pay for the privilege of taking someone's picture. From a journalistic context, it changes the relationship of photographer/subject to photographer/model, and the reality of what you are getting might be challenged since that subject is technically, albeit for a short while, in the employ of the photographer.

That said, I have often bought the wares of vendors I have photographed, or made a contribution to the family that agrees to let me photograph the funeral of a person who died from AIDS for a story on the subject ( 4.17 ). These contributions are often part of the local custom.


4.17 It is customary for those in attendance at funerals in Lusaka, Zambia, to offer a contribution to help the family. Because of the AIDS crisis, there are so many deaths that families line up to wait to prepare and pick up the body.©Steve Simon

I'm always mindful of the fact that some people from poorer countries I visit look at me as a very wealthy man. And in comparison to workers who toil for a few dollars a day, I am. My camera body alone is worth more than many who I have photographed can make in a year of hard work.

The times I've been asked for money have usually been in high-tourist areas, and taking a snap or two of a person in traditional garb is not what I'm usually looking for—but there's nothing wrong with that. Why shouldn't your subject benefit from the transaction, particularly if you have designs on using the images for public display or to profit from the pictures? (There is more on the business side of photography in Step 10.)

On a recent trip to pre-revolution Egypt where tourism is the driving force in their economy, it was rare when I wasn't asked for a contribution from potential subjects, particularly in iconic tourist areas. When you've traveled a long way, why not take those pictures if there's no time to spend more than a frame or two to establish real connections with subjects for stronger, more natural moments?

Just make sure you carry small bills so that you don't have to show off a large bill in a crowded market or someone's home. Again, having a guide is a great investment and can help you cut to the chase of what you're looking for photographically.

Many more times than I've been asked for money, I have been asked if I could take someone's picture, and I almost always oblige. If that person has an email address, I will gladly email a photo to them—though I try hard not to make promises of sending prints (for fear that I'll forget to keep the promise). But Fuji and Polaroid both have instant-picture cameras available as of this writing, and the gift of a photograph can go a long way in establishing a good rapport with your subject and can be a meaningful token of your appreciation for the time they invest with you. In lieu of instant pictures, there are great little battery-powered printers that can print a digital image in seconds.

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