Photographing Children While Traveling: Shoot With Caution!

She was a cute little thing, this tiny Mexican miss, but something felt amiss.  After taking pictures of many charming waifs while traveling, this one just felt wrong.  She seemed willing to have her picture taken, but she also seemed uncomfortable. I didn’t snap the shot and instead asked the preschooler where her parents were.  Who was taking care of her?

She understood my question and told me she was with her cousin.  She indicated a ditch to her left.  At first I saw no one, but then the head of a young teen popped up.  The teen shot me a guilty smile and I realized then, with disappointment, that it was a routine.  The little girl was being exploited for photographs by her older cousin, who skulked in the ditch awaiting the exchange of her compliant pose for a dollar.  The joy of capturing a native child in her natural environment fled and I was left with a hollow ache of pity.

The poor in parts of the world like Roatan, Jamaica, and Mexico have figured out there are many tourists with expensive cameras and pockets full of money who will happily fork over a buck or two for a shot of a little native cutie.  I am content with that arrangement when the unspoken agreement is in your face like the beggar woman with her baby outside the Vatican, or the street smart boys in Roatan, Honduras, but not when it is done furtively, like the teen in the ditch.  That is too much like prostitution.  Or worse.  Child abuse.

The famous National Geographic Afghan Girl shot happened a long time ago.  Things have changed dramatically since then, with capitalism replacing innocence.  And with the high incidence of child abuse around the world, innocent photographers must be careful not to be part of the problem.  So, I usually don’t take a picture of a child unless I have some form of permission, or I am in a very public setting and the child is part of that setting.  Like on a pier or at a parade.

My concerns would end at the crafty teen making a few bucks off his little cousin were it not for his more questionable fellow natives.  While in Acapulco, my husband and I were approached a couple of times by both men and women shoving photo albums in our face filled with pictures of children.  We couldn’t quite understand everything they were saying but we were definitely not being sold a picture; we were being offered children.  We were stunned.  And I vowed that as a photographer I would not encourage the exploitation of these children.

Teaching digital cameras and photography allows me to share my views with students.  I encourage those in my class to resist the urge to snap and run.  I suggest chatting with children first, getting down on one, knee eye-to-eye with them.  I also suggest talking with their parents, if they are around.

In many cases, children will be alone, especially in the port towns.  The children who hang out at the pier are unafraid of strangers and expect to be photographed.  Many parade about like miniature street vendors with packs of gum or small toys for sale.  But they know the tourist with the camera is really after a photo.  And they will oblige.

I always travel with American dollar bills or Euros depending upon which continent I am on.  I think it’s fair to give a child, especially the poor ones, a reward for posing.  But I conduct this transaction in public places only.  And I usually do this in the presence of a parent; usually an adult woman whom I guess is the mother.  No grey area that way; your actions will be viewed as completely above board.

Sometimes, I take family pictures as you will get a better photo of a child after developing a rapport with the child, parent or both.  Avoid dealing with a child off the beaten track; stay to the more public places.  Understand that children in the heavily touristed areas are both poor and jaded; they expect to be paid, so pay them.  

And ask yourself a few questions when you meet up with those very willing children.  Are they there of their own volition?  Do they see any part of the dollars they are given for posing?  Do they stand for hours and hours waiting for the kindly ignorant tourists to arrive?  Have they been set up by a family member to obediently wait like seaside doxies the arrival of photographers?  Are they being exploited?

Now do you still want the shot?

Sheree Zielke

2 Responses to “Photographing Children While Traveling: Shoot With Caution!”

  1. Max says:

    Photographing Children While Traveling: Shoot With Caution! thanks for this post!

  2. Traveler says:

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