How to handle locals who ask you for money when you are doing travel photography

Jun 21, 2017

Etienne Bossot

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How to handle locals who ask you for money when you are doing travel photography

Jun 21, 2017

Etienne Bossot

We love it when our readers get in touch with us to share their stories. This article was contributed to DIYP by a member of our community. If you would like to contribute an article, please contact us here.

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The 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.” 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. 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 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. 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.

Money, Money, Money.

As you may know, developing countries are very money orientated cultures. No one to blame here, but it is an expected thing for people who come from difficult situations to try and make more money today. As I live in Vietnam I will use the Vietnamese example: Vietnam is also a very business-oriented, and historically a trading culture. As tourism has grown, so have the business opportunities. This is good for the economy, and money has become a larger priority. 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.

Because of this, money inhabits a large portion of people’s minds. 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 a sister, an uncle, or a cousin who’s taught them “if you see a foreigner ask them for money because they are rich”.

Don’t Always take it Literally!

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. 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. 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 stereotype that Westerners are rich. 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. Thus, it’s clear that they are just playing around.  

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. Smile back, continue to reach out in a light-hearted manner – you will get the synergy, and probably the photo, you are hoping for.

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.

Give the people something back

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. 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 can now bring groups of photographers to these locations and people are very happy to have us going around and taking photos of their activities (working in the fields or at home). But as I often say, we are Taking photos of them. We have to Give them something back. And by giving them something I do not mean something physical. Most of the time we will give them a fun time: interacting with them, letting them learn more about these “crazy” foreigners who put their feet in the mud to take their pictures. Spend time showing them their picture on the back of your camera, they love it! Once you have taken your photo (or before), spend a little time having a real open exchange with them. You can do that using your hands and smile, but try as much as you can to show interest in them and what they are doing. The locals love it!

We are taking their photos, we need to give them something back!

Enabling vs. Empowering

As the perceived-to-be rich Westerner, it is our duty to bring a halt to such stereotypes. If someone asks you for money and you give it to them, you may be harming them more than helping. This is known as enabling vs. empowering. 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. Another example of enabling is giving money to children. You are not helping them at all and may create a dependence on begging. Their parents may send them to beg in the streets instead of school.

Make sense? What will help people the most, not just the locals you visit, 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. 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. They are in crisis – relief and handouts are necessary. Outside of a crisis, long-term development and empowering individuals and communities is the only solution. But you are not going to visit these places and hand over money to everyone, are you? 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?

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. Or even better, I would sit with them and buy the food. 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.

I may also offer money to locals if it’s in exchange their services. 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 tourist’s photos. In a sense, 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. But be aware of how much you give! 

If you are looking for alternative ways to assist individuals and communities, consider partnering with a local NGO. Or, if you have the time to get to know the real needs of people, you could do as I do and fundraise money. 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.

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 handouts. 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.

Get creative! If you are taking someone’s photo, bring an Instax along and leave them with a copy of their picture. Take pens and notebooks with you when you go out. But not money. And if you’re left feeling too overwhelmed by people asking for your money, try exploring places less touristed – you will find the people to be more genuine. Remember, when traveling in developing countries and asked for money, truly consider the situation. It shouldn’t deter you from taking a photo or getting to know someone. 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. You are supposed to do like all the other photographers who came here: pay for photos. 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.

About the Author

Etienne Bossot is a travel photographer based in Asia. If you would like to see more of his work, you can visit his website, follow him on Twitter and Flickr, and like his Facebook page. This article was also published here and shared with permission.

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12 responses to “How to handle locals who ask you for money when you are doing travel photography”

  1. Eva Duve Creel Avatar
    Eva Duve Creel

    Do not give pens and notebooks. They will sell them. I brought bubbles to blow for the child baggers. When I visited Cambodia. You can have three ribbons on you bag and teach them how to braid. Playing and joking is great. But as heart breaking as it might seem do not give anything. They should be at school but a parent who might make a dollar a day will be very tempted to have their child bag for money instead. It’s very profitable…

  2. TheInconvenientRuth Avatar

    My solution if they insist on getting paid and start to get roublesome:
    I take out my iPad, pull up a “Model release form” PDF in the appropriate language (photoshelter has nice free pre-made ones althought their translations can be a bit hit and miss..).
    Ask them to get their ID/Passport as I need proof of age or get a parent/guradian with ID. Explain they’ll have to fill out the form and for the fee requested I’ll be free to shoot them for the next half day.
    That usually works like a charm.
    (*Note: when working as a photjournalist, I never pay anyone, I only do this when traveling and shooting privately to get rid of scammers)

    1. shahnyboy Avatar

      Ruth, you sound like an asshole.
      If u don’t see anything wrong in going to *someone else’s space and demand they play by *your rules, you suck at decency.

      It must be that white imperialist gene of having that god given right.

      1. TheInconvenientRuth Avatar

        Shahniboiiiii, you sound like you need a hug and a cookie.

        I really hope you didn’t hurt yourself too much jumping to conclusions and making false assumptions.
        I’m ethnically asian, was born and raised in China, Vietnam and Nepal. I don’t just visit these places, i have studied, worked and live there most of my life.

        I am in MY place. I know how to deal with locals and 95% of the time there’s no problem. Perhaps you also missed that I wrote “start to get troublesome”.

        Perhaps you failed to condsider making them sign a model release is beneficial for both. If they refuse, they usually stop pestering me. if they agree, they get paid more than a day’s wages for half an hour of their time and I can legally sell it to a stock agency.

        Now please go read your comment again and tell me what YOU sound like?

        1. shahnyboy Avatar

          Ruthie baby, it still sounds like you will take their photo one way or another.
          If a subject is captivating enough but doesn’t want their photo taken — money or no money — it seems like u would. Am i wrong?

          Sure you’re one of them* but it’s not a foreign concept for people to take advantage of their own people.

          *Are u kidding yourself that u, with a dslr & fancy hat (I bet u have a closet full of them!) are the same as poor?

          And that you’re someone helping them by showing their face to the world i.e the 8 ppl who will like that closeup of an old man’s wrinkly face?

  3. Taufik Kadouri Avatar
    Taufik Kadouri

    Ask people before taking any photo maybe ? Because you now, they are humans with a right on their own image and not a comedian in fantasy postcard

    1. Craig Johnson Avatar
      Craig Johnson

      It’s common courtesy to ask first anywhere in the world to be honest…

    2. Taufik Kadouri Avatar
      Taufik Kadouri

      Unfortunately not in reality. A lot of photographe doesn’t bother to ask the “indigenes” permission. Because you know this is an art and they should be proud to be in photo…blabla bla…
      When you make a photo of someone and publish it in internet even for free you use it for your own promotion. So this is why I understand some people asking for money. They are not stupid. They fully understand most of the photographe use them in a mercantile way

  4. Craig Johnson Avatar
    Craig Johnson

    That’s partly the beauty of places like London now. With everything practically smart cards, contactless, chip n pin you don’t find yourself asked for cash or donations very often as everyone gives the ‘I don’t carry change no more’ mantra.

  5. Brian McNamara Avatar
    Brian McNamara

    As long as photographers insist on treating these countries like human zoos then this will never change, and I say fair play. Why shouldn’t locals make a few bucks?

    Most photographers want these photos so that they can profit in some way, be it a better portfolio or Instagram likes. It doesn’t matter if you’re a pro or not, if you are taking these photos it’s because you see them as some form of benefit to your career/ego. So, its okay for the photographer to reap the rewards but not the subject? Sounds fair!

    As long as photographers seek out these photos, locals will ask for money. 1, 10, 100 or even 1000 people saying no won’t change anything.

  6. Joseph Her Avatar
    Joseph Her

    It’s not just in other countries, they ask for $5 in NYC Time Square all the time, they must be joking too that’s why I don’t give them any ?

  7. chrisfmdotcom Avatar

    There are some interesting things to consider in this article. Aside: I live in a psuedo-Danish town in California and everyday dozens of bus loads of tourist from Asia are dropped off for a few hours to roam the quaint streets. I laugh to think how many tourists photos my red-haired son and I have been in, red hair is novel for these visitors so the want to take picture. Why not I say they just traveled all the way from friggen’ Asia to eat pastries and look at fake Danish architecture, so sure we can stop for a picture – free of charge.