Five reasons why paying subjects in street photography is never a great idea.
I cringe when my clients or people I'm shooting with ask me how much they should pay someone that they want to photograph or just finished photographing. I often want to ask them, where did you get this idea from anyway? You don't owe anyone anything for taking pictures!
The following are five principles I live by based on my experience shooting street photography in India and around the globe. Let's get to it.
Principle Number 1 in street photography (or any genre): Safety first. This means keeping your goddamned money where it belongs - concealed away on your person.
Let me ask you this: Do you know how stupid a foreigner looks on a crowded Indian street, large DSLR dangling from neck, fumbling around in wallet or purse to snatch up some paper bills they barely understand or know the value of? It looks really stupid, in case you've never witnessed it. Don't do it. You won't see any Indians doing this. This is your first clue, if safety isn't a concern.
But safety should be your concern. Maybe you're not concerned about your own safety because you reason that no one could possibly be watching, that no one would ever be working as a team to get mug you later down the street. You should not only be concerned with your own safety, but others' safety too. You have the potential to put other people at risk in your group when you start flaunting money in front of complete strangers.
Now, beggars and others may approach you and ask for money straight away while you're shooting. This brings up my second principle.
Principle Number 2: Refer to Principle Number 1 - AND: Never give money to people who ask for it. Not when you're not a local. Not when you don't know the status of those you're giving to.
The sad fact is, particularly in Mumbai, that many of the beggar communities are collecting for the mafia. When you give money to them, you're contributing to child abuse, sexual abuse, torture (through forced disfigurement to invoke sympathy), and human trafficking, not to mention any number of lesser criminal activities.
If you want to help people on the streets, give to an appropriate organization or volunteer with an NGO. But never give money.
Principle Number 3: I'm a professional photographer. Before that, I was a very passionate amateur. Since when is it my duty as part of my job or hobby to give other people money as a quid-pro-quo for taking their pictures? What knuckle-head made up that rule?
I think people who look at professional photographers and think they should be dipping into their pockets whenever they're out on the streets have the very wrong idea about professional photographers - we're supposed to make money, not lose it. Secondly, I would never endorse the idea that someone who's out taking pictures for their own enjoyment should be made to feel guilty because they're not "compensating" someone for their time. This is a very Western idea, pathetically capitalistic, and demented.
What photographers should be doing when they're engaging with their subjects is to have a nice conversation and show some mutual respect. Maybe even make a connection with your fellow man (or woman). Maybe show the picture you just took of them. That's it. Be human. Don't be the Monopoly Banker. Don't be an asshole.
Principle Number 4: Don't create a virtual toll booth by contributing to the problem. When you go into your pockets to pay your subjects (or beggars), you set the precedence for the cycle to continue. You're legitimizing a problem and making it tough on the next tourist or photographer, many of whom probably don't have a clue. Think of it this way: your actions could inadvertently be placing someone in harm's way or fleecing them of money at the very least. Don't do it.
Principle Number 5: Taking pictures in public isn't a crime in many cities and countries. In India, you may take pictures of people in public for the most part, as long as your photography isn't mistaken for exploiting women and children. Exceptions apply for government sites and military bases, etc. As a rule of thumb, like in the United States and most of Europe, it's okay to take pictures of people, even without their permission.
There are no laws stating that photographers should hand over cash to their subjects. Keep that in mind. You are under no legal or moral obligation to compensate your subjects when practicing street photography.
Please note that I base these principles on photographing people in public spaces only.
Other kinds of photography may well involve payment to models or subjects under professional conditions or by mutual collaboration.