To Tip or Not to Tip, That is the Question

Every travel photographer has confronted a situation where they had to decide whether to tip a subject or not. During a recent workshop in Peru, our group experienced that situation on a daily basis. Quechua women wearing traditional garb and carrying cute babies patrol the area near the Cathedral in Cusco (and every other major attraction); others attract photographers’ attention with llamas and baby lambs; there’s even a man who dresses as Pachacutec (a famous Inca king) and stands next to a donation box. All these potential subjects have two things in common: they are almost impossible to resist photographing, and they expect to get paid for the privilege.

So do you tip them after they pose for you or try to grab a photo on the sly?

Many travel photographers prefer not to tip because they fear it will create a begging culture. I find this philosophy offensive because it is patronizing and it implies the photographer knows better on how a particular culture should develop. And practically speaking, that ship has sailed anyway: long gone are the days when a photographer discovered a new civilization that had not been touched by the “civilized” world. The fact is, no matter how much we’d like to think otherwise, not tipping a subject has zero effect on a culture becoming a “begging” one or not. Having said that, there are situations where I do not tip a person I have just photographed.

Here are my self-imposed guidelines on photographing locals and tipping:

  1. If possible I try to establish some rapport with the person I would like to photograph. I ask for their name (and write it down for captioning my image later) and give them mine (note that “stationary” mimes do not move or talk for the most part, so in such cases I just thank them after I photograph them and put a tip in their cup). I think this makes each of us more comfortable, which yields a better picture and experience.
  2. If a person expects to be tipped, and I take their picture, I tip them. Like the Quechua women in front of the Cusco Cathedral, posing for tips is their job. It is no different than a mime in Milan or the person who dresses as the Statue of Liberty in New York City’s Times Square.
  3. If a person does not expect to be tipped, I do not tip them. This category includes folks going about their business in Pisac’s Sunday Market, or a couple walking holding hands on the plaza.
  4. Under no circumstances do I photograph someone who expects to be tipped and then stiff them. If you do not wish to tip a potential subject that’s fine, but don’t take their picture either.

The picture here depicts Viviana, a Quechua woman, and her llama. They were working near one of Cusco’s Inca walls when our group spotted her. We worked on capturing her and her friend in a variety of compositions, and she was very patient. After the shoot we thanked her and tipped her.

 Quechua woman (Viviana), llama and Inca walls, Cusco, Peru

Now get out and shoot something.