On the Importance of Collaboration (and Remuneration!) in Ethnographic Photography

(C) Dick Powis 2017

“Photography was a license to go wherever I wanted and to do what I wanted to do,” [Diane] Arbus wrote. The camera is a kind of passport that annihilates moral boundaries and social inhibitions, freeing the photographer from any responsibility toward the people photographed. The whole point of photographing people is that you are not intervening in their lives, only visiting them. The photographer is supertourist, an extension of the anthropologist, visiting natives and bringing back news of their exotic doings and strange gear. The photographer is always trying to colonize new experiences or find new ways to look at familiar subjects—to fight against boredom” (Sontag 1977, 33).

The very popular photography blog, PetaPixel, posted an article yesterday called “How to Deal with Locals Who Ask You for Money to Take Their Photo.” If you can’t tell from the title, the author – Kelly Johnson – argues that people asking for money must be “dealt with.” Photographers, they argue, should consider ways to take photos of people that don’t involve giving them money, because, as they write, “You may be harming them more than helping.” Paternalism is paired generously in this article with condescension, as they suggest photographers should not always take locals’ requests for money seriously. After a great deal of negative attention, the article was taken down, but luckily, the internet never forgets (a colleague found a cached version), but then it did forget for some reason (and now it’s gone). As it turns out, the article was posted on Johnson’s business blog a few days prior by the company’s founder, Etienne Bossot. (There’s no telling how long it will stay up.) It’s not clear who is the actual author, so I’ll address them both below.

I’m writing about this because, as an ethnographer who uses photography extensively, I find that these ethical issues cut across both fields of expertise, and that ethnographers might learn something from a conversation that is ongoing and concurrent amongst travel photographers. Below what I have to say here, I’ve taken to annotating the article as I might a student’s rough draft, though with much less tact.

I highly disagree with Arbus’ outlook on photography (and Sontag’s celebration of it); Bossot/Johnson reproduce this statement in their blog when they claim that photographers who came before them paid for photographs, and more or less ruined it for the next visitors. Let me make this very clear: We – ethnographers and photographers – are entitled to nothing. If you find yourself in a busy market place with a camera and everyone covers their faces, you do not get to take a photograph of their faces. If they demand money for a photograph and you do not pay, you do not get to take a photograph of them. Or as we say in food service: if you go to a bar and you can’t afford the tip, then you can’t afford the drink.

Just as I was taught to think of research participants as “interlocutors” rather than “informants,” so too (after a series of conversations with an Indigenous colleague) am I able to articulate a preference to work with photographic “collaborators,” rather than “subjects.” Subjects are passive participants; they are powerless. Collaborators, on the other hand, work or labor with each other as much as is possible for a common end. It means not only paying someone for their labor – because that should go without saying – but also recognizing and incorporating their desires as well. Put another way, just because you might pay them does not mean you’re entitled to take a photograph that they do not like or that you’re entitled to share that photograph with others. Photography, for me, is a process that involves as much negotiation as it does technical skill.

To go “there” (wherever “there” may be), to “take” photographs, and to return with them in tow (or disseminate them) is – let’s face it – a form of extraction and it constructs a power imbalance between photographers and photographed. Why?

First, the privileged accumulate knowledge (photography-based and otherwise) about people and places in what Latour (1987) calls “centers of calculation” or métropole in colonial language. These centers maintain power over the outre-mer as they accumulate this knowledge, not least of which is the power of public perception (which in turn influences global health and development aid and other kinds of foreign investment). The flow – from periphery to core – is so naturalized that some feel entitled to it. The accumulation of those photographs constitutes a collection; collections require curation and curation requires criteria. Therefore, when photographers go (wherever we may go), we often go with an idea in mind of what we are seeking to take when we get to wherever “there” is, precisely because we want to include it in a collection of some sort. (Sometimes we don’t even know what those criteria are, but we often know it when we see it; sometimes not until we’re reviewing photos years later; and sometimes the criteria are so lose, we often don’t think they exist and we just put photos in our books because we took them during fieldwork.) Curation, as Haraway tells us (1984), is a kind of copying – a curator captures an idea or theme from or in one place, and seeks to reproduce it in another, but it’s never a perfect copy. Those criteria are heavily influenced by our own practices and expectations. In Haraway’s narrative, museum dioramas – and I would add photographs – are “peep-holes into the jungle” that are meant to present a copy of reality with high fidelity, but they are also “meaning-machines” prone to the production (or reproduction) of a curator’s race, class, and gender ideologies. So, while we accumulate knowledge about other people and return nothing, we may also be reproducing the wrong knowledge about them as well. All of this is a farcical reenactment of colonial-era photography.

I might have lost you, but this second way in which an imbalance is produced should make much more sense: Our photographic subjects are performing unpaid labor. In addition to knowledge, what we extract becomes something of value (to us) in this process. If something is of value, then odds are, someone labored to produce it. Yes, sitting for a photograph can be a form of labor, particularly if it turns out to be a photograph that makes your career, but even if you just keep it for your own personal enjoyment.

I address these issues a little more in the annotations to the article below.

How to Deal with Locals Who Ask You for Money to Take Their Photo (This title really sets the tone for the condescension that you’re about to unleash. At least you’re consistent.)

The Sun sun was on the horizon, a perfect orange ball. It was another beautiful sunset in Hoi An, Vietnam and we were out on a photo tour through a local village, taking advantage of the dreamy light. While the group spread out to take photos of people harvesting rice in the paddies, I noticed one of my students walking back toward me. She appeared hunched over in defeat.

“What’s going on?” I asked.

She replied, “I went to take a picture of a woman and she asked me for money, so I left and didn’t take the photo.” (That’s great! She made the right call. Let pack up and go ho- Oh. There’s more.)

Unfortunately, this is something I’d heard many times before.

While traveling in Asia, it is likely that you will be approached by a local asking for money. (Asia is a pretty big place… Are you sure you want to make this generalization?) As a reader of a travel photo blog, you already know that the more time spent visiting tourist-dense locations, the more often locals will approach you for money. (This is only true insofar as you’re spending more time there. It’s like saying “The more time you spend in Phoenix, the more often you will burn.”) This is because someone, many times before you, has handed out money, thus establishing the common stereotype that all Westerners are rich and will give away their money. (No. This is because you spend time in tourist-dense locations with colonial histories in which Westerners were wealthier than most local people and this colonial history is contiguous with a post-colonial present (of global health and development) in which Western immigrants are wealthier than most locals. Forgetting about history for a second, which shouldn’t be difficult for you: People that ask for money are also [shocker] asking other locals for money too – because those locations are where the people and the job opportunities are. Additionally, believe it or not, poor locals have access to media – television, news, and yes, even the internet, and yes, even friends – which communicate the very true stereotype that Westerners have more money than they do. Further, all it takes is a billboard on the side of a road advertising airfare for someone to realize that you had to spend a lot of money to get to where you are. I want to finish this thought by suggesting that the first thing you can pay your photographic collaborators for their labor is some respect.)

The more tourists continue to give money when asked, the more this stereotype has been reinforced. Unfortunately, it’s now to the point that in order to change this practice, it could take decades. (Decades? Please show your work.)

[photo] (I’m not addressing your photographs individually or reproducing them here, but I will point out that the photographs selected for this article were chosen deliberately to convey are particular message that complements the article. It was, shall we say, curated.)

Money, Money, Money.

As you may know, developing countries are very money-orientated cultures. (I’m going to parse this very slowly. First, no, I – a PhD candidate in Sociocultural Anthropology – did not know this. Second, countries are not cultures. Third, “developing” is ethnocentric [i.e. developing toward what?]. Fourth, is this to suggest that “developed” countries are not money-oriented? Finally, wtf is “money-oriented?”)  No one to blame here (As a general rule, when in doubt, I always blame capitalism.), but it is an expected thing for people who come from difficult situations to try and make more money today. (Okay, look. Everyone wants to make money… today, yesterday, whatever.) As I live in Vietnam, I will use the Vietnamese example: Vietnam is also a very business-oriented (Please clarify.), and historically a trading, culture. (Countries are not cultures. Also, I wish you were as generous with your money as you are your commas.) As tourism has grown, so have the business opportunities. This is good for the economy, and money has become a larger priority. (What was the priority before money supplanted it?) For example, if you could understand Vietnamese while walking through a market, you would hear that most people are conversing about money, all the time. (I’m sorry, I don’t want to minimize your immersion experience and expertise, but I’m willing to bet people talk about money in a market because…it’s a market. Also, how is this an example of money becoming a larger priority? Did people not talk about money as frequently in markets before the tourism boom?)

Because of this, money inhabits a large portion of people’s minds. (Because of what? Please name the antecedent. Also, please cite cognitive research to support this claim.) So much so, that if you visit the countryside, where most people don’t speak English, they will at least know the word “money.” This is because anyone who has sister, an uncle, or a cousin who’s taught them “if you see a foreigner ask them for money because they are rich”. (This is not a complete sentence. Also, it would not surprise me to learn that the Vietnamese [who, like my generous hosts the Senegalese, were formerly colonized by the French] retain the odd French word here and there – among them, “monnaie.”)


Don’t Always take it Literally! (I can’t help but read the subtext of this section to mean “Don’t always take them seriously.”)

Take a minute to imagine that the only word you know in another, very popular, language was money — of course this is the word that you will say most often. (“Most often” in everyday use amongst each other or “most often” when interacting with speakers of that language? Please clarify.) The problem is that the tourists hearing the ask for money tend to take it very literally, when it should be apparent by the asker’s non-verbal cues that they are joking. (Non-verbal cues differ between populations, so no, I wouldn’t suggest that anything is apparent. Did you know that some people smile when they are ashamed? It doesn’t mean that everything is okay or that they find something funny. Nothing is apparent.)

There is a little rhyme in Vietnam, “Hello, cho em nam do,” which translates to “Hello, give me five dollars”. They are not asking you for five dollars, this is a rhyme, a common joke among people, reinforcing the true stereotype that Westerners in Vietnam are rich by comparison. In fact, Vietnam is all about preserving the face — so to genuinely ask for money would be admitting poverty. Ironically, locals aren’t supposed to ask for money. (Says who and by what means is this enforced? Also, what is ironic about this?) Thus, it’s clear that they are just playing around. (While I would never dissuade a student from using Wikipedia for their research, I will emphasize again and again that you should never cite Wikipedia. There is a bibliography at the end of most Wikis for a reason, please click through those until you find something useful.)

My advice: take a second to look at the local’s face — see their smile — know when they are joking! And if you can joke back, you will quickly understand that all is fine. Do not be defeated, intimidated, or turned off by someone if they ask you for money — the interaction doesn’t have to abruptly end here. (No, it doesn’t, but if you’re hellbent on that interaction involving your camera, then it should.) Smile back, continue to reach out in a light-hearted manner. You will get the synergy, and probably the photo, you are hoping for. (You lost me. At the very least, I need you to cite literature that supports your implicit claim that the smile is a universal non-verbal cue for joking. Further, please anticipate the possible counter-argument that you may receive from a PhD candidate that snarkily suggests that your interpretation of the smile-as-joke seems to be very convenient in a situation from which you are attempting to extract value.)


Sometimes I even say the rhyme when I arrive somewhere and meet a group of people. Some will greet me and I will say “hello cho em nam do!”. This usually makes everyone laugh. There will be no more talking about money after that. (Maybe you stole their power?)

I also realize that the more I go to a certain location, and I get to know the people living there, the less they ask me for money. (They know you’re stingy.) Because I didn’t start giving them money in the first place and tried to build a long-term relationship with them, we are now friends. (I’ll bet năm đô that your definition of “friend” is a lot more forgiving than theirs.)


Enabling vs. Empowering (OMFG, here we go.)

As the perceived-to-be rich Westerner, it is our duty to bring a halt to such stereotypes. (Duty? Vested in us by the power of…whom, exactly? Having such a “duty” to proselytize a counter-narrative in order to change your subjects’ behavior feels awfully like a colonial mission civilisatrice.) If someone asks you for money and you give it to them, you may be harming them more than helping. (Okay, Malthus.) This is known as enabling versus empowering. (And it is this most condescending trope that I hear anthropologists trot out every Spring before we head off for Summer fieldwork.) To enable a fisherman is to overpay him for a fish. To empower him is to teach him proper fishing techniques, so that he can catch more of the bigger fish. (I have this awful feeling that we’re two seconds away from talking about Vietnamese welfare queens. Look. The very idea that anyone wants to catch more of the bigger fish [or the inability to imagine the very real people who don’t] is fundamentally tied to deeply entrenched Western notion of extraction and endlessly accumulating capital – the very notions that enable you to believe that you are entitled to take photographs of people without paying them for their labor and slut-shame them for asking [as we will see below].)

Another example of enabling is giving money to children. You are not helping them at all (Really?) and may create a dependence on begging (Citation needed.). Their parents may send them to beg in the streets instead of school. (As someone who works in Senegal, I am sensitive to this. Senegalese kids who go to Koranic schools are often sent out during the day to collect alms, which [are supposed to] pay for the school. This is not always true – there are shady schools and there are better schools – it’s a whole thing and there’s a lot of great research on it. Anyway, one must also recognize that alms-giving is one of the pillars of Islam and that it can be argued that these students serve a role in society. Finally, I just want to point out that “school” as a concept is also a notion deeply entrenched in Western psyches. Not all kids go to school, and that’s okay. [And not all kids have parents.])

Make sense? (Nope.) What will help people the most, not just the locals you visit (Whom else?), has to be long-term — the solution must put the power, the education, the skills and the resources back in their capable hands.


Of course, there are situations where giving someone food, water, and clothes is appropriate. (Probably always?) Currently there are massive famines in Somalia, Yemen, and a few other countries. These people need to be given food and water before they can be taught proper farming techniques. (I’m not going to argue with this, but you have gone a bit off-track in this paragraph.) They are in crisis — relief and handouts are necessary. Outside of crisis, long-term development and empowering individuals and communities is the only solution. (Solution to what? You haven’t set up a problem.) But you are not going to visit these places and hand over money to everyone, are you? (If it makes your job more difficult, I might, yeah.) If you want to help, there are alternative ways.


What Can You Do?

So, where does this leave you… when a person asks you for money and your heart tells you to give? (Give.)

Firstly, smile. Then consider the circumstance. I may give money to a very elderly or disabled person because I know that they are unable to keep a job. (I’m more likely to give money to those Koranic students after 6PM, because it means they haven’t hit their quotas yet and they need to go home. I don’t, under any circumstances, take photos of them though.) Or even better, I would sit with them and buy the food. (You are not entitled to monitor how they spend their money. This is paternalistic and disgusting.) Not only you know that you are really helping them but by spending more time with them you may have an opportunity to take some quality photos. (You’re so gross.)

I may also offer money to locals if it’s in exchange their services. (You may?!) For example, asking a local person to take you on their boat for some photos on the lake deserves financial compensation. Another example, in Hoi An there are women who carry around baskets of fruit with the purpose of posing for tourists photos. (I’ll buy that. I’ve seen this in Senegal at Lac Rose.) In a sense, they They are full-time professional models. In this case, it is okay to pay them to take their photos as you are supporting their job. (Okay, work with me here. These women are doing a job, right? It’s labor. So, the other people you feel entitled to write off as joking, it’s not their job to model for you, and yet you enlist them, you make it their job/labor – and then feel like you can give them nothing? Why?)

If you are looking for alternative ways to assist individuals and communities, consider partnering with a local NGO. (This might be the smartest thing you’ve said so far.) Or, if you have the time to get to know the real needs of people, you could do as I do and fundraise money. (“Fundraise money” is redundant.) Once a year I select a family in need who lives in one of the fishing villages that we frequent on the photo tour. Last year we were able to support a family to repair their very leaky roof. (This is commendable but we can fine-tune it. I would suggest that you either work with the elders in the village to select the family or that you clearly state that you do so already. Additionally, I would make a point to determine that the leaky roof was something that family specifically asked for or clearly state that you did so.)


As an outsider, a tourist, it is your responsibility to learn how to be a smart traveler. Do your research, and stop enabling people and communities with quick hand outs. For instance, be aware that many middle-aged men who ask for money are planning to buy alcohol — learn how to read people before you give. (First, how did you learn that middle-aged men are looking to buy alcohol? Second, why do you care? Thirdly, you have no room to impose morals on other people when you, as a matter of fact, steal their labor.) 

Get creative! If you are taking someone’s photo, bring an Instax along and leave them with a copy of their picture. (This is a good idea. Hell, leave them with the Instax and some film. Share the love of photography!) Take pens and notebooks with you when you go out. (Why? Also, be keenly aware that not everyone can read or write.) But not money. (Not that oh-so-sacred paper.) And if you’re left feeling too overwhelmed by people asking for your money, try exploring less touristy places — you will find the people to be more genuine. (Please elaborate on what you mean by “genuine.” Also, if you’re too overwhelmed by people asking for money, don’t leave your house, and make sure to keep it all under the mattress.)

Remember, when traveling in developing countries (ding-ding-ding!) and asked for money, truly consider the situation. (Yes, do.) It shouldn’t deter you from taking a photo or getting to know someone. (Assuming the antecedent refers to being asked to pay for labor and refusing: Yes, it should deter you from taking a photo.) And if someone insists that you have to give them money and becomes upset if you don’t, you are presumably in the wrong place – perceived to be a giant wallet. How sad. (Oh my God, the burden of Whiteness is just so heavy!) You are supposed to do like all the other photographers who came here: pay for photos. (Yep.) So you can expect to take the same photo as all the other photographers? There are no good photos to be taken here. Move along. (And now we encounter our final topic in the theme of White colonial extraction – that which is linked to frontiers, expansion, and virginity – originality. The idea that the photographers who have come before you and paid have somehow “spoiled” it for you is, if nothing else, patriarchal in that it furthers a desire to be the first somewhere or for someone. It is fantastically amazing that you somehow just slut-shamed poor Vietnamese because they realized that their labor has value. Points for intersectionality, I guess?)

Haraway, Donna. 1984. “Teddy Bear Patriarchy: Taxidermy in the Garden of Eden, New York City, 1908-1936”. Social Text. (11): 20-64. (Link)

Latour, Bruno. 1987. Science in action: how to follow scientists and engineers through society. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Sontag, Susan. 1977. On photography. London: Penguin. (Link)

Dick Powis

Dick Powis is a PhD Candidate in Anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis, and is also pursuing a Graduate Certificate in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. His research interests include men and childbirth, prenatal screening technologies, and reproductive health in urban settings in Senegal. Read more at dickpowis.com.

One thought on “On the Importance of Collaboration (and Remuneration!) in Ethnographic Photography

  1. hey Dick, I am trying to work on a response to your article as there are some very valid points, but the more I read your answers the more I feel I am facing a wall and you just don’t understand how people are in general. Yes I do not have the scientific tools you do as a PhD but I do spend most of time with the people.
    I will keep working on my answers when I have time, but I’d like to ask you something now: you added a photo at the beginning of your article. After you took that photo, did you chase these 2 men in the streets to give them money? does that even make any sense?

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