The ethics of paying to take someone's picture are questionable, says Alex Robertson.

This photograph cost me $5. Not a lot to pay for such a beautifully composed study in light and contrast, you might say: but I took it.

Briefly, the situation was this. On a recent trip to Sri Lanka, we were passing a beach where pole fishermen still hang out when our guide suggested stopping for a photograph. "They'll want some money," he said, "But don't pay more than 100 [rupees]".

Years of overfishing, warming oceans, economic growth and new technology has made pole fishing unviable, but supplementing incomes with a few rupees keeps the spectacle going for tourists. This raises a whole lot of questions, which I'll get to later.


I mulled over the worth of taking the picture: it was the middle of a bright, sunny day so conditions for making a good picture were challenging, plus we were on a bit of a deadline to get to our destination, so I knew time would be short. Then there's the question of paying to take a picture.

My friend was keen for a photo and, as he was asking for tips on how to use his SLR more creatively — I agreed we should do the snap.

As we pulled over, I noticed a tour bus with a number of wealthy-looking passengers getting back on: they had just taken their pole-fishermen pictures. A young, well-built Sri Lankan man dressed in a loincloth and turban was waiting by the beach under a tree and he greeted us as we got out of our vehicle.

"Five hundred rupees." That was how he greeted us.

My initial reaction was to get back in the van, but the challenge of trying to make a picture in difficult conditions and to try and teach my mate how to achieve a reasonable result won me over.

"One hundred." I countered.

He shook his head and I looked at a bunch of rupee notes in his hand as the tour bus pulled away.

"Okay, 500." I replied. It was, after all, only $5.

"Each," he said, as my mate emerged from the van.

That was it. I told my friend about the exchange and recommended we leave it alone. But Michael is not one to back down from a challenge and he let loose with a well-mannered, but cutting tirade on how rude it was to hold tourists to ransom, how there was no law against taking photographs in a public place and that he should be more accommodating and welcoming to people who were willing to spend money in their country. The young man relented and agreed to 500 rupees for both of us.

Is it right that tourists, photographers or anyone else who might be in the business of taking pictures should pay for a shot?

Most photographers would refuse to pay to take a picture. Apart from commercial situations — advertising, stock photography and the like — a photograph should be seeking truth. Creative use of the tool (camera) is essential, but creating a falsehood whether by digital manipulation or staging a setting is not reality.

There are several examples of bygone practices that are kept alive only for tourist's cameras: the cormorant fisherman on China's River Li are one such case, their kerosene lamps fuelled by sightseers' dollars as the fish disappear. One could argue the same for the pole fishermen of Sri Lanka.

Then there is creating reliance on travellers' money instead of finding other, more reliable forms of income that will encourage economic prosperity. This is especially true for children, who should never be paid in cash for a picture. I once saw a couple of American tourists taking a snap of a young ginger-haired kid at Piccadilly Circus in London: they lined him up for the perfect shot with Eros in the background and a double-decker bus sneaking into the frame, only for him to hold out his hand and ask for a fiver when they were done. Would paying him really send the right message when he should have been at school expanding his mind and learning skills for a brighter future?

Back on the Sri Lankan beach, I paid the 500 rupees and we got five minutes and a few different angles for our money.

The question of whether this exchange was right still troubles me. It's not a lot of money, the picture is not award-winning but not too bad and, hopefully, Michael has learned a little something about taking pictures when the light is particularly challenging.

It reminds me, though, of an old Oxfam saying "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for life."