The Best Way To Photograph A Beggar
I photographed this man outside the Madras Kali Bari, a Hindu temple complex in Chennai in Southern India. While the result is quite good, the experience associated with making the photo was not particularly pleasant.
You might think that I’ve recorded a candid moment depicting joy, happiness or surprise. In fact the 1/320 second during which time this photo was made creates a truth that sits uneasily with what actually happened. While the reality of the photo is what’s most important, you might find the story behind its creation to be of interest.
Firstly it's important to note that, while the gentleman in the photo at the very top of this post is a professional beggar, all other people appearing in this post are not beggars.
I remember approaching him and asking permission to make a portrait. I did so, not because he's a beggar, but because I liked his face and beard and was interested in the tones and textures within the scene. I think you'll agree that the tonality within this image, together with the textural qualities within the man's face and beard, made it a good candidate for rendering into black and white.
Unfortunately, despite my polite approach, he greeted my request abruptly, thrusting out his hand and demanding money up front.
Should You Pay Beggars To Make Their Photos?
I’m not against paying folks to make their photo, under certain circumstances, though I am concerned about the possibility of creating a beggar culture, which is why I would never offer money up front. That's particularly the case where children are involved.
However, that does not prevent me from donating money to the schools or temples those kids are associated with when I believe it is appropriate to do so. It’s common practice for me to set money aside for such things when traveling in developing countries.
My mum, Mary Guy, had run a charitable business for many, many years and donated the profits from that business to a range of charitable organizations around the world, particularly in India. I believe she operated that retail outlet, on a full time basis, for 18 years and in that time never took a dollar in wages for herself.
The reason for my most recent trip back to India was to visit some of the projects my mum supported and create a photographic record so that her eleven grandchildren would be aware of some of the good work she'd done over the years. In doing so their understanding of the developing world and of their own, fortunate existance might be brought home to them.
When Can You Give With Confidence?
I remember way back in 1999 photographing a young primary teacher in a village school in rural Myanmar. The only teacher in a single classroom school she had not been paid in months and few of the children attending that one room school had paper, pens and pencils. While no one asked for a donation, I was more than happy to make quite a generous one knowing the money would be well spent and that both the teacher and her students would benefit.
I'm sorry I don't have that image to share with you at the moment. So much of my photography was conducted with film-based cameras and very few of those negatives and slides have been scanned.
If you know you're likely to be visiting such a place you might bring along supplies for the teacher and the pupils. In many ways it's a better option than handing over cash. Nonetheless, it's for each of us to decide what we think is right. The important thing is to do something and, where money is involved, to try to give it directly to someone in a position of responsibility who will put it to good use without corrupting any of the individuals involved.
The Law Of Reciprocity And Doing The Right Thing
I think I've only photographed beggars on a handful of occasions. However, as soliciting alms is their profession, I’m okay with the notion of paying for the opportunity to photograph them. But I hate being fleeced and I have an aversion to bullying.
Frankly, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect that a polite, genuine and compassionate approach on my behalf should be reciprocated. At the very least you'd expect to be treated politely.
There was no need for that man in Kolkata to treat me with such aggression. While he may well have been treated poorly by tourists in the past, someone in his profession really should be able to read folks intentions. And mine were pure. He only needed to give me a few short minutes of his time and he may well have acquired a day or more earnings from the interaction. And, of course, he could simply have said no.
Why I Believe This Discussion Is Important
I hope you're not reading this in a way that might suggest any notion of perceived superiority on my behalf. That's not my intention. The whole premise of this website is to share the beauty of our world and its people in a way that brings folks, from diverse cultures, together in a way that promotes understanding, compassion and greater tolerance. I believe in freedom, equality and opportunity for all. But I do have certain expectations about how people should be treated. And such interactions are two way.
In fact the only reason I'm publishing the image at the top of this post is because, as a photography tutor, I'm often asked about my feelings concerning photographing strangers and whether or not to pay folks when making their photos.
Never Let An Unpleasant Experience Get You Down
The game, for which I had no stomach, was to demand money and, almost certainly, sneer at me with contempt at the amount I would have handed over. Through embarrassment I might well have coughed up more. These folks see a lot of tourists, most often only once, and I suspect some of them probably think they might as well push that little bit harder.
Perhaps you’ve had similar experiences. It happened to me, several times, on my very first trip to India and I learned and adapted. It's just a game and, at the end of the day, it takes two people to make the photograph: the subject and the photographer. Both have a right to determine whether or not to proceed and I have walked away, without making their photo, when I felt I was being manipulated or bullied. You can as well.
But I don't let a negative experience bring me down. I photograph people for a purpose and I ensure that the photos I make, on good and bad days alike, stay faithful to that purpose.
What Really Happened During The Making Of This Photo
In this particular circumstance I was just about to withdraw, without making a photo, when a policewoman appeared and began to reprimand the man. He went all childlike and presented the face of innocence to our officer of the law. I thought his expression was somewhat ironic so I quickly raised the camera and made a photo.
Not wanting him to get into trouble, in a place where he creates income, I explained to the officer that the whole incident was a misunderstanding, for which I took full responsibility. I apologized to both her and the subject of this photo for any inconvenience I may have caused.
Once she left I knelt down in front of him, took a decent amount of money from my pocket and gave it to him. After all I'd made a reasonable photo. He nodded, with a degree of humility, and I moved on in search of more positive interactions and outcomes, some of which come our way and some we create for ourselves.
There Are Two Partners In A Great Portrait
At the end of the day only you have to decide for yourself whether it's appropriate or not to photograph beggars. My approach is to ask permission first and to make a series of images, within a minute or two, prior to thanking the individual and rewarding them relatively generously.
However, I'd much rather prefer to photograph normal, everyday local folk as both the interaction and the resulting photograph seems to be more honest, more authentic. I wish that wasn't the case, and I'm sure that if I photographed more beggars I'd be able to break through and make more meaningful images that explore the Human Condition. After photographing for so many years that's the real reason I continue to make portraits.
My own view is that, while every opinion is valid, you can't really know anything without personal experience. It's not until you travel to a country like India and are confronted, in equal measure, with joy and despair; kindness and indifference; serenity and chaos that you'll be in a position to speak about such things with any sense of authority.
You might well be totally opposed to giving money to a village child, until you're drawn in by the beauty in their eyes and their lack of material wealth. My own experiences have lead me to be careful about giving money to children who are obviously not full time beggars. However, if the situation seems right, I might give them a pencil (though I avoid giving sweets or candy) or, as I mentioned previously, donate some money to the local school or temple.
Often such interactions are just a bit of fun for local village kids. They can also provide great joy for us tourists passing through. However, we have to be so careful about creating a beggar mentality. Imagine a child coming home with a fist full of dollars in their hands. It's not unreasonable for their parents to see the short term benefit of sending the child out there, day after day, asking every trekking party that enters the village for money. Before you know it the child is no longer going to school, some of their friends get in on the act and a beggar community has been established.
And don't think that doesn't impact on the experience of the average tourist. I've been followed around town by young lads offering to clean my shoes for literally hours. No manner of polite "no thank you" would appease the kids and by the time you're free of them your day's been ruined by the endless "clean shoe sir" and other such comments.
When it comes to photographing children I'm particularly careful. It's not me I'm worried about, but the next guy who comes along. That's why my preference is to ask permission from an adult prior to photographing kids. That's exactly how I made the photo of the child above leaning against a wall in a suburban railway station in Kolkata, India. The child's mother was standing off to one side while I made this image.
If there are no adults around I ensure that I involve more than one child in the event and, when searching for great light or a good background, I'm careful not to move the kids more than a very short distance from where I first met them.
It's sad that the world is the way it is. But that shouldn't stop decent, well meaning people from interacting with strangers and, when it's appropriate to do so, creating beautiful life-affirming photographs that, in their own way, help heal the world. You just have to be very careful how you go about making those photos.