« OT: Video Advice? | Main | Random Excellence: Southworth & Hawes at GEH »

Sunday, 27 July 2008


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Amazing photo even without the story. Thanks, John...

I got a good laugh at that one; great story. Reminds me of my sister visiting Bulgaria once and giving some money to a pitiful looking gypsy boy on the street. She and her guide later went into a McDonald's (very rare at the time) only to see the kid there ordering. The guide laughed even more when she overheard the boy telling the the cashier to keep the change.

I was walking around Philadelphia with my camera. A homeless man was selling some paintings he had done, and I asked him if I could take some photographs of him. He said yes. When I was done, he asked me if I could help him. Normally I don't get involved, but I gave him some money.

I got some good portraits, so I guess I did the right thing. Your thoughts?


This is a terrific story matched by an excellent visual. In spite of what you say i think Avedon would be most approving! And what's almost..almost as special as the photo is the twist you give on the story at the end and the self-deprecating way you phrase it. The curative powers of milk. Well, that had me laughing!

Just one thing however and this is a question, not a criticism. Well maybe it's a criticism but i guess only you will know for sure. You say you almost never give money. Are the conditions there so overwhelmingly poor that giving out little bits of money would be just a drop in a bucket; so many in need, so little cash? Do people demand money for photos in such a way that you're turned off? If people saw you give a bill to one guy would onlookers make a stampede for your wallet?

I'm just curious because i shoot the downtown streets of a Central American capitol city and Lord knows there are a lot of poor people. But conditions are not such that i am not continually swarmed with beggars. Unobtrusively giving out money or food has not been a problem for me and it can mean the difference between eating and not eating that day for a few lucky street people. The streets have been so generous to me that i can't help but give back a little in exchange for what i take home in photographs. But my generally happy experiences here might have more to do with the country i'm in and perhaps i'd feel differently if i was shooting somewhere else. Which is why i'm asking you whether your no cash policy has to do with Cambodian culture/society or with you?

This may be my favorite piece on TOP so far. Got milk?

I really like the fact that you did something about it. I think there is a big catch 22 when ever you're in a place with problems.

I like to illustrate it with this simple example.

How can you watch a starving kid and still go back to your camp and eat a decent meal. Any reasonable person would give up their food and die with the starving kid. The result would be that there would be no one to provide any assistance.

"How can you watch a starving kid and still go back to your camp and eat a decent meal. Any reasonable person would give up their food and die with the starving kid. The result would be that there would be no one to provide any assistance."

I think that's a little too simplistic. Giving some does not mean giving all you have. Giving some food or money to a starving child is hardly going to result in one's own death. In the end we all make our decisions when faced with these situations and we each justify to our own conscience our actions.

What a great post. It really lifted my day. There's nothing wrong here. You got your shot and they got some joy, even for a short time. Seems like a fair exchange. I feel strongly that if we expect that we can get something out of these situations (like photographs) why shouldn't the subject also benefit? Whether it's a meal or a little "baksheesh". Never feel guilty about doing something decent.

@Bob Wong. I understand the sentiment but not the actions. If you too starve that just makes two tragedies not one. Starving yourself is pointless and wasteful. Instead of having your decent meal you could always spend the same amount and buy a meal for yourself and a few of the locals and eat together. YOu'd find that you would receive as much as you gave and you'd get your pictures too. There are almost always alternatives.


What's wrong with poor people pulling at the foreigners' heartstrings and get some money? After all, you are out of just a few dollars and what? You think that will lead them to a life to crime or thuggery? Give willingly, then you will not feel so bad.

Actually, the kids don't look genuinely sad to me; their expressions seem more like severe, determined. But the puppy has a future in the movies. He looks near death. Glad the milk helped.


One of the best posts on TOP

Sir Randy said:
Of all of the people that I used to know
Most never adjusted to the great big world
I see them lurking in book stores
Working for the Public Radio
Carrying their babies around in a sack on their back
Moving careful and slow

It's money that matters
Hear what I say
It's money that matters
In the USA

All of these people are much brighter than I
In any fair system they would flourish and thrive
But they barely survive
They eke out a living and they barely survive

When I was a young boy, maybe thirteen
I took a hard look around me and asked what does it mean?
So I talked to my father, and he didn't know
And I talked to my friend and he didn't know
And I talked to my brother and he didn't know
And I talked to everybody that I knew

It's money that matters
Now you know that it's true
It's money that matters
Whatever you do

Then I talked to a man lived up on the county line
I was washing his car with a friend of mine
He was a little fat guy in a red jumpsuit
I said "You look kind of funny"
He said "I know that I do"

"But I got a great big house on the hill here
And a great big blonde wife inside it
And a great big pool in my backyard and another great big pool
beside it
Sonny it's money that matters, hear what I say
It's money that matters in the USA
It's money that matters
Now you know that it's true
It's money that matters whatever you do"

I deal with situations like this, on a constant basis, when traveling in Brazil. There can be no rule. There can be no singularly appropriate manner of dealing with every such circumstance. It's within each person to decide what he's able to do, what he's willing to do, and to balance that with the consequences of potentially being seen as a 'money source' by others. Take all that, and weigh it against the feeling of being taken advantage of, and there you have it. In each situation, your decision will be made based on the sum of your experiences.

I have given a lot to children and needy people in Brazil. But, that has the effect of encouraging 'begging.' It also has the effect of keeping children begging in the streets instead of attending school. It has the effect of having children growing up with the mindset that the privileged are 'marks' for the underprivileged, and the objective in life is to extract as much as possible.

After a period, i decided to limit my 'contributions' to a select group of people for whom i had come to develop affection. And, one can truly feel good for having helped those people, and one can see the results. But, with time, you realize the 'affection' may be more one-sided that you may have hoped. That the money is more important than the relationship, from their perspective. And, you begin to feel 'used.' Still, some can ask, what of it? It's still a small amount of money. But, there is no sum large enough to compensate for feeling deceived and manipulated. It's a perspective-changing experience. If it happens once, per the story/illustration above, you can laugh it off. Clever kids. When it becomes systematic, it's disappointing and offensive.

I really like that first image. There is some real gravity in the two faces at center and right. The boy reminds me of a kid i used to like in Brazil. Who i thought was sweet and innocent. When he asked me for money to buy medicine for his sick mother, and i found out he was lying, i'm afraid a lot of other genuinely needy children were cheated.

To illustrate moral dilemma in this story. While working in Jakarta 2001 I walked through a market taking photos. One of the beggars in the market was a little boy, maybe 9 or 10 years old. My thoughts at the time were that I could not help every poor person in Indonesia and thus did not give any money.

A little later while eating at a food stall in the same market, the boy came to buy a small bowl of steamed rice, with a few sprinkles of fried onion and paid for with 500 Rupiah (around 5 cents at that time) out of his begging tin.

Seeing this I asked the stall owner to give a few sticks of sate chicken to him, same I was eating at the time. My earlier concerns with either being considered a mark or somebody else profiting from from his misery was no longer relevant.

I will need to go through the T400 negatives from that day to see if there is anything worthwhile, but I remember not taking any photos of the boy.

Great story, John!

I'm assuming you used Tri-X with a TLR? Just curious...

Derek, et al

Sorry to add a second comment to this thread. But i think this subject is important because many photographers travel outside of their own countries for shooting expeditions and are not sure what to do when confronted by normal run-of-the-mill beggars and other harmless con-artists (note i am not talking about thieves, pick-pockets or truly dangerous criminals).

Life in these countries is hand-to-mouth for the majority of the population. Most of us are so accustomed to our social exchanges being free of charge that it's offensive to find we've been manipulated/used/lied to in a foreign country. But i can tell you with a sense of humor that comes from 20 years observing these things, that there's very few relationships in a third world/emerging country that are not at least partly based on an exchange of money or some other commodity. Husbands and wives, mothers and sons, brothers and sisters, lovers, well, really, everyone needs a bit of help any way they can get it and they trade what they can for it. Yes, even within families, or shall i say especially within families. It's survival of the fittest and it's nothing personal. Really! Money and affection mix handily and readily in a poor country.

I enjoy my interactions with people here regardless of how superficial and opportunistic they may be. And the real irony has been this: as i learned to accept people as they are, i began to experience more moments of genuine affection from them because i was more relaxed and tolerant. As you say, Derek, you decide for yourself how and who you can help. You just have to stay street-wise and keep your wits about you. Otherwise you wouldn't have a dime left in your pocket to buy milk ;)

“Which is why i'm asking you whether your no cash policy has to do with Cambodian culture/society or with you?”

Dyathink, I really don’t have a policy on this. Most of my photography these days is in poor places – though not desperately poor – and I’ve just found that once you begin handouts, there’s no end to it. I have given a number of small contributions to schools and other institutions I’ve worked with. The most recent was for a mosque a village was building near where I live, after talking to the imam and being impressed with the work he was doing. To me that feels like a better and longer-term approach to helping people.

Thanks for clarifying, John..and once again, really enjoyable story and photograph!

What's interesting to me is how quickly and utterly your story changes the content of the photograph. At first glance it's a document of impoverished suffering; the second, more informed look renders it an account of theatricality and resourcefulness. It's not a picture you could publish, in a western or more privileged context, without a very long caption, and even then a lot of people probably wouldn't get it. It reminds us (as if we needed to be reminded, again) of how much more there is to what you see than what you see, how dependent the image is on the story that supports it, and how complicated photography can be, in part because it appears to be so simple.

Man, that dog is some actor, though.


For John Kennerdell--I'm interested in your Avedon story. Is this true? Or an urban legend?

Evidently true. See for example www.digitaljournalist.org/issue0410/howe_avedon.html. If anything the Karsh story is more doubtful.

The Avedon story was told by Avedon, himself, in the documentary about his career, "Richard Avedon: Darkness and Light." Buy/rent the dvd if you have any interest in his work. It's a fantastic retrospective, with great interviews and images.

The comments to this entry are closed.



Blog powered by Typepad
Member since 06/2007