Clarissa Hughes

Photographing locals

Most conscientious travellers have asked themselves at one time or another what is the etiquette around taking photos of locals in the places they visit. I’ve always gone by the rule of ‘do unto others as you would have done unto you.’

Photographing locals

Photographing locals


So first thing to do is to ask the individual/s if it’s okay for you to take a photo. This is a basic courtesy that’s so obvious it hardly seems worth mentioning.

But what if they ask for payment? This is particularly prevalent in poorer countries where indigenous people know their photographic value.  

Here we get onto stickier ground. I’ve argued this backwards and forwards in my mind, many, many times.

There’s a case to be made that indigenous people are the attractions of the destination and just like any other attraction they can be photographed. Their attraction could be the sole reason you went to the destination in the first place.

On the other hand do the people you wish to photograph make a living out of tourism? Here government policies are important in what people derive from the tourism industry.

As you can imagine it leads you into a quagmire of debate that will either drive a sane tourist dotty or put you off travel for life.

So what do you do? Here I revert back to that rule.  

After I’ve got permission to photograph the person, and assuming that I’ve been asked for money in return, I ask myself if I’m inconveniencing the person in any way. Is she taking time out of her schedule to pose or perform for a photograph? If so then payment is certainly due.

If she’s doing what she would normally do and there’s no inconvenience involved then my general response is to the negative and I walk away. Paying someone because they exist doesn’t seem a very equitable relationship to me. On the contrary, it seems rather patronising. I’d much rather pay someone for an effort they’ve made.

Try and put yourself in the same shoes. You’re sitting at a cafe/reading a book/chatting to your friends/whatever and someone, who’s obviously a tourist, comes up and asks if he can photograph you. There’s no inconvenience. You just happen to be there. Would you ask for payment? I wouldn’t. Especially if I know that the tourist’s images will be used in word-of-mouth advertising for the destination.

And what should you do if you’re unsure whether you’re being taken advantage of? Surely the photographer won’t mind being photographed? I came across this recently on the Wild Coast of South Africa where a young Xhosa woman asked us tourists to pose for her. We all cheerfully obliged despite it creating a minor delay on our hike. Even when one of our party was asked to display her tattoo for the camera there was no hesitation whatsoever. Did anyone ask for payment? Of course not. Did we all enjoy the interaction? Absolutely yes. It was part and parcel of the experience. And experience is what travel is all about.

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