In Ethics on February 5, 2011 at 2:25 PM

Below is a response to a question I field often from student photographers and emerging photographers. My answer is personal and everyone has a different interpretation of the question. I hope it is useful on some level.

THE QUESTION: Should I pay for taking photographs?

MY ANSWER: To pay or not pay for a photograph is a big philosophical can of worms. Many of the answers to the question posed here also depend on the context in which the image is being made. Note, I say, ‘made’ I think a photographer ‘makes’ an image she or he does not ‘take’ a picture. As a professional photojournalist and documentary photographer, I personally do not pay a subject for a photograph. It is unethical for me to do so. It reduces the act of photographing to a mere commercial transaction, the bold exchange of commodities. I somehow feel photojournalism and documentary photography should transcend that. It has the potential and at times has indeed been a powerful medium in creating awareness and effecting change in an advantageous way for people in challenging circumstances. Paying, also creates a culture of when an important social issue needs to be documented by a photographer that it turns into a ‘pay as you go’ dynamic that not only stunts any creative process but also beckons the question, well if these images were paid for what is their integrity in terms of their content being truthful? Yet another big philosophical can of worms.

My personal approach in photographing in socially sensitive situations is to shoot candid moments first (because I am well practiced people often don’t know I have photographed them but it is more then that – it is also that this is where the most uncorrupted and beautiful moments can be documented) and this is where some of the most poetic images are to be found. I don’t feel like it is stealing something or deceiving anybody, I simply feel I am making a photograph and documenting social history, something we are all part of and something I have not objected to when I have had the camera turned in my direction. I will shoot first, then I will join people, strike a rapport with them and wait until they are comfortable with me being there and continue to make images in a fluid way. Sometimes this can happen vice versa as well. One has to remember there are many situations where people really want you there to document their lives which sounds great but often this has its own layers of disadvantages as well.

In short, a photojournalist or documentary photographer can find themselves in morally complicated situations and there is not always a definitively right or wrong answer. What I do is always have the ‘intent’ to leave my subject absolutely intact with their dignity. This way I keep my integrity. It works most of the time but sometimes, in complicated situations it backfires.

Are there crooked lawyers who will do anything to take you to the cleaners? Sure. Are their human rights lawyers working for little money with the utmost of integrity trying to improve the lot of challenged and compromised people in the world? Sure. It is the same with photographers; it is the same in all professions – it is the big bad world we all live in.

Postscript. I can count the number of times on one had in a twenty year career that I have paid for photographs. I know how hard it is not to pay, if you are a caring human being it is natural to want to help. Recently, when I was photographing a young Burmese sex worker I went out afterwards and bought her food, cloths and toys for her little boy. I am human.


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