Travel Photography Subjects: Poor

Travel Photography Subjects: Poor

Nepali Porters This post is number nine of twenty one subjects that will help you focus when on your next journey and you wish to bring back a well rounded story of where you were.  If you’re just going on vacation and only want pictures of yourself by the pool sipping boat drinks, then you can probably skip this one.  These posts are not intent on telling you everything you need to do, step by step, to capture perfect, cookie-cutter pictures while traveling.  Instead, they are intent on pointing out some vital elements to capture when on the road and ask thought provoking questions you may want to ask yourself.  My hope is they help guide you to find your own means to better expressing what your travels have meant to you and present that in the best light possible.

On the opposite end of the spectrum from rich would be the poor.  Every country has a population that lives on less.  Sometimes it’s obvious, with large ghettos or shanty towns, but sometimes the poor and more wrapped around  inside a society, speckled here and there.  Unlike photos of the rich, I know people often have moral issues with taking photos of poor people.  Some see it as exploitation while others are just downright uncomfortable being around beggars and the needy.  My advice here would be the same for taking pictures of anyone; try to get to know them, ask permission and, if the situation warrants it and you’re comfortable, offer alms as thanks.

I’d caution against heading into the poorer parts of town just to take photos.  If you’re going to go there, go to learn first and take photos second (see my previous advice on leaving your camera behind, just for an hour or ten).  I know this isn’t often possible, especially if you’re on a tour, but it does result in better photos.  Go with the intent of learning more, making a connection.  The picture with this post can be seen as an example of that.  While these two gentlemen, Kashmiri and Digboda,  in Nepal were hired as our porters, and paid well for their work, I took the time on the trail to make a connection, asking them how they were doing in Nepali (the little that I know) and finding out where they came from, if they have family, the normal ‘get to know me’ questions.  This photo of them shows the intensity with which they carried our packs to basecamp and my request for a photo was happily granted after they had a hearty lunch.

Just as you’d look for many aspects of the rich in a country and how they fit into society, do the same for the poor.  Is the population large or small?  Obvious or integrated? Are they constantly begging tourists (if you’re in a large, obvious tourist bus, you’re going to have a different feel for this than if you’re alone, without a camera and on the ground) or more reserved?  Are they approachable or withdrawn to strangers?  What do they do for entertainment, food and shelter?

Yes, photos of the poor can be done in an exploitive manner.  But with a bit of humility and sensibility, being able to show the real life conditions and personalities of those living them is worth the time to present a fuller picture of life on your travels.

If you have particularly favorite photos of the poor you’d like to share, please do so in the comments section below.


Previous articles in the Travel Photography Subjects series include Water, Old People, Young People, Religion, Sports, Socializing, Icons and Rich.  Be sure to subscribe to this site to receive the other 15 subjects as they are posted!

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Peter West Carey leads photo tours and workshops in Nepal, Bhutan, Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles and beyond. He is also the creator of Photography Basics - A 43 Day Adventure & 40 Photography Experiments, web-based tutorials taking curious photographers on a fun ride through the basics of learning photography.

Some Older Comments

  • ian paul January 18, 2011 11:48 pm

    I went back home to Cebu and it always break my heart to see really destitute people but then again, it is a choice and you can blame it on the very core of human nature.

  • Sohel January 16, 2011 03:35 pm

    This is pretty interesting to me. I always wonder, when it comes to talk of poor, mostly, people talk or shot the poor in Africa and Asia. I am not trying to bring up an issue here, but just trying to understand the mentality. I have been lucky to be in Europe (UK and Germany), America (the USA only), Africa (DR Congo, Uganda, Kenya) and Asia (Pakistan, Bangladesh, China, Qatar). Not a widely travelled person as many of you. During my those travelling days, I found poor are universal; living in an unbelievable condition -- even in the US!! But no poor from the US or Europe appears in the photo posts. Why?

  • Rick Wilhelmsen December 16, 2010 03:11 am

    Joining in late. I'm not sure if this fits - While it certainly seems like poor living conditions to us, the Datoga Tribe in Tanzania don't necessarily consider themselves poor. :
    [eimg link='' title='Datoga Tribe' url='']

  • chris September 24, 2010 07:48 pm

    [eimg link='' title='controversy' url='']

    "She's got the whole world on her back"-a grandmother with seven grandchildren to feed, a son in prison and a daughter-in-law in the hospital. shot taken in the Philippines.

  • George Anderson August 21, 2010 08:08 pm

    This is a photo I took in Paris at the "World's biggest" flea market.
    These people may be poorer still because of the wealth that surrounds them. [eimg url='' title='marketshopper.jpg']

  • Robert Dingwall August 13, 2010 02:46 pm

    This is a small boy who lives in the World Heritage Site of Petra in Jordan.

    [eimg url='' title='petraboy01.jpg']

  • Roopesh Sheth August 6, 2010 08:43 am

    This man was selling his homemade wares in Mazatlan this past May.

    [eimg link='' title='Mexican Riveria Cruise (38 of 72)' url='']

  • ian paul August 3, 2010 08:26 pm

    I was driving by the market in Bohol, Philippines and saw this man washing carrots to sell in the market. Saving water, yes probably or not having enough water to wash his carrots and anyone who did not see this will never know how clean it is. Life is such in this impoverished but happy people. Always finding ways to smile and laugh which is good.

  • J.D. August 1, 2010 09:13 am

    Back in the 80s, as I was well into my second decade as a newspaper photographer, I met a guy all full of himself who was just out of college and wanted to "get into photojournalism." He had the right equipment for sure. He had money to travel to "third world" (I hate that term) countries. He went to Nicaragua on a free-lance trip to shoot "war images" for his portfolio. Turns out, whenever there was gunfire in the streets, he ran back to the safety of his hotel. But he did return with lots of images. They all pretty much looked the same: People in ragged clothing, gaunt and hungry, staring straight into his camera, almost without expression. He found great significance in this. He thought he had revealed for the world some profound truth. After about the 10th such image, the editor asked him, "is there anything else?" He was dumbfounded. Wasn't that enough?

    No. It's not enough. As far as we were concerned, where he saw profundity in the "human condition" what he actually revealed was his own prejudice and feeling of entitlement to rob these people of what little dignity they had by walking up on them like they were zoo animals, snap their puzzled, weary expressions and move on down the street to the next house and the next house. He had no real feeling for these people. He was just there to exploit them for images he could sell.

    My editor called his work "firing squad pictures." Indeed, looking at them, they all had that feeling of people standing there flat-footed, staring at him as he was staring at them.

    As some other people have said in the comments section here: Get to know the people. Move among them with humility and respect. The images you make will reflect what is in your heart and mind as well as what is in front of your camera.

  • Guy Prives July 31, 2010 08:56 pm

    This was taken in Israel
    i called it "stardust"
    you can see more at my facebook page -

    [eimg url='' title='file_0_big.jpg']

  • Guy Prives July 31, 2010 08:56 pm

    This was taken in Israel
    i called it "stardust"
    you can see more at my facebook page -

    [eimg url='' title='file_0_big.jpg']

  • Sanjaal July 31, 2010 11:46 am

    Thanks Peter Good Tips.

    Here is the American Poor I found near Willis Tower in Chicago last winter.

  • Kunal Bhatia July 31, 2010 04:53 am

    The ethics of something like this usually fall into a gray area. Some find nothing wrong in providing monetary compensation for photographic opportunities, while others would be dead against doing any such thing.

    I would however like to mention that 'poor' is a relative term - not just in terms of economic standards of comparison but also in the way its used. While someone may be financially poor, s/he may be very 'rich' otherwise.

    The kids in this photo are from one of the slums in Mumbai. Their families may be poor, but their enthusiasm is priceless.

    [eimg link='' title='kids and kittens' url='']

  • Aj Lee July 31, 2010 02:05 am

    I think the theme of this article should "Less Fortunate" than Poor. IMO.

  • anil July 31, 2010 01:41 am

    Well thought out article. Congrats. I work in the development finance domain and find it extremely difficult to click photos of my clients, even though they are happily willing.Nonetheless, here's one I shot in my village.


  • Nick Taylor July 31, 2010 01:40 am

    This was taken as a boy was peeking around the corner of a small clothing shop while walking around a Thursday market in Colonet, Mexico
    [eimg link='' title='' url='']

  • Nick Taylor July 31, 2010 01:36 am

    I took this as a little boy was peeking around the corner at me as I was walking around the Thursday market!
    [eimg link='' title='' url='']

  • Phil Marion July 31, 2010 12:26 am

    child poverty in India – too poor to afford schooling

    [eimg link='' title='in need of help - New Delhi's young poor' url='']

  • Phil Marion July 31, 2010 12:25 am

    child poverty in India - too poor to afford schooling

  • Phil Marion July 31, 2010 12:09 am

    improvised toys for a poor child in Yemen

    [eimg link='' title='young boy and his toys - Sayun, Yemen' url='']

  • Laura Bly July 30, 2010 11:34 pm

    Thanks for a thought-provoking post. As a professional travel writer/photographer I've also found that engagement and respect are key - and that a simple smile (and, in this case, a paper crane made from my notebook paper) can work magic on both sides of the camera. This was taken of a baby whose aunt and older sisters were working in a field near our B&B in Udaipur, India.

    [eimg link='' title='IMG_0121' url='']

  • Robert Dingwall July 30, 2010 07:18 pm

    I took this picture of a small boy who lived in Petra, the 3000+ year old historic site in Jordan. This amazing place was his playground.[eimg url='www.classic-cameos/images/petraboy01.jpg' title='petraboy01.jpg']

  • Jens Vinsrygg July 30, 2010 07:09 pm

    Roadside corn vendor in Nairobi

    [eimg link='' title='Roadside fastfood' url='']

  • Darren Conole July 30, 2010 04:49 pm

    I live and work in New Delhi. The city is photo target rich for any people shoot or documentary style theme you could imagine.
    I have spent time in some of the housing clusters, meeting people and having them share a little of their lives with me.
    As Peter says in his article, most of the time is spent with the camera down.
    Just because people are poor, doesn't mean that they are not happy or proud.

    Looking understanding documenting.[eimg url='' title='d2bnzbw']

  • Barbara Edwards July 30, 2010 12:50 pm

    [eimg link='' title='Woman Sorter' url='']

    Filipinos always have a smile even when living in the poorest conditions. This women lives on a garbage dump and is sorting through the rubbish.

  • Robin Öberg July 30, 2010 12:24 pm

    Don't take poser photos (profile portraits) if you don't know the person. That would be exoticism, or any other type of ethnocentrism. "Look at this cute little black kid from Africa" is not cool, no matter how good the photolooks :)

  • Richard crowe July 30, 2010 11:13 am

    One caveat... Often taking picture of vendors can cause a mass feeding frenzy among these vendors. A case in point is the multitudes of "Hello Guys" who surround just about every attraction in Beijing, China. if you show even the slightest interest in any one of them, you will trigger a mob of vendors surrounding you trying to hawk their wares...

  • Al Holliday July 30, 2010 07:26 am

    Poor or not, getting people to look into the camera is not a candid
    approach, and I consider it the 'poor: way to photograph
    people..........get them talking with someone or doing something.
    But just a staring photo is not worthy of saving.........whether you pay
    them or not........

  • Sallay July 30, 2010 06:12 am

    I've been living in Sierra Leone for a while now and completely agree with the advice to get to know people, learn about their lives, laugh with them and then ask permission to take their photo - which also makes for a better shot.

    During and after the civil war here there was an influx of photojournalists all looking to photograph amputees and child soldiers. Many Sierra Leoneans remember this and think that if you have a camera you are making money from the photos you take. And if you are, quite rightly why shouldn't they too. So much so that I have been asked for money a few times when caught snapping away taking private shots. Talking to people first negates this. However, if I am commissioned to take a photo outside of an organisations projects I make sure to give my model or the school etc something for their help. After all, they worked for it.

    Suvajra is also right about giving people prints of the photos you take. The poorest people here can't afford to take or print photos so I try to print copies for them whenever I can.

  • Phil Marion July 29, 2010 05:41 am

    Photographing the poor always presents a problem. If you ask for a photo, it is possible you will get a beaming smile from the subject - which would change the 'mood' or 'feel' of the intended photo. However, NOT asking and taking a candid could land you in some trouble - witnesses or the subjects friends may see your behavior as exploitative. Others may pretend to be friends of the subject and extort payment. The subject may notice and be angry, feel exploited and demand an unreasonable stipend.
    When I am confronted by street beggars I usually ask for a photo before I give them money. I try not to get them to smile....if I feel the person MAY not be poor and just a professional beggar I offer to buy something for them. Here's a Before/After shot of a girl begging for money in Amritsar, India. Instead of money I purchased her pakoras to eat. She was happy as could be. She shared her gift with a friend who seemed rather well dressed and kempt in relation to her. Still not sure if she was really in need or just a savvy huckster.
    [eimg link='' title='Before & After- railway station Amritsar, India' url='']

  • Phil Marion July 29, 2010 05:26 am

    have encountered many poor subjects in my travels. I always pay them for their photo (unless they are sleeping at the time).

    homeless in New Delhi
    [eimg link='' title='homeless of New Delhi' url='']

    down and out in Mexico:
    [eimg link='' title='in need of a helping hand - San Miguel de Allende' url='']

    hungry in Havana:
    [eimg link='' title='too tired to care - Old Havana, Cuba' url='']

    seeking alms in Rome:
    [eimg link='' title='praying, parking, begging - Rome' url='']

  • Mikel July 29, 2010 03:56 am

    mmmmm, just a quick remark. You said that "if the situation warrants it and you’re comfortable, offer alms as thanks". I would not suggest that since in the end, it´s not fair to offer a temporary reward. I will explain myself, your "alms" (I've just learnt a new word!) are not going to improve the situation of the people you are going to meet when you travel and they receive something (or even feel rewarded) completely by pure luck. They've been lucky of having met you but... what about others around? Furthermore, sometimes you can get yourself in trouble just for giving something... if you are in a difficult scenario and the rest of the people notice that you can create a really embarrassing situation . Hence, I would be really careful and I would not suggest or encourage that practice. It tends to be more harmful than it seems.

    Ok then. But can someone do in order to be grateful for these people´s openness?? I will follow the path that suvajra has pointed. Even it appears in one book written by the photographer David DuChemin (called "Within the frame" if I'm not mistaken). Talk to them, spend your time with them, try to know something more about them, give them a good piece of your time and if you have the chance (or you have one of those portable printers that seem to be not-very-expensive) give them a hard copy (even small) of the picture. Once you have contacted them to ask for permission... is not such a deal...

  • Suvajra July 29, 2010 03:02 am

    Sorry - last link didn't work!

    I said I would post something from my child labour photos – the one I have in my album were all happy kids in Nepal, fruit-sellers and metal smiths… but usually no schooling, or schooling only from five or seven years age up to ten or eleven. After that work to support the family.

    [eimg link='' title='Child Labour, Nepal' url='']

  • Suvajra July 29, 2010 02:57 am

    I said I would post something from my child labour photos - the one I have in my album were all happy kids in Nepal, fruit-sellers and metal smiths... but usually no schooling, or schooling only from five or seven years age up to ten or eleven. After that work to support the family.

  • Shree July 28, 2010 07:10 pm

    Few pictures shot in Ooty, India.

  • Fazal July 28, 2010 02:49 pm

    I took these about a year ago with this exact same subject in mind!
    poor in pakistan...

    [eimg link='' title='IMG_0028' url=''][eimg link='' title='IMG_9947' url=''][eimg link='' title='IMG_9945' url=''][eimg link='' title='IMG_7972' url=''][eimg link='' title='Kids posing for the camera' url=''][eimg link='' title='Street Urchin' url='']

  • Marc Janks July 28, 2010 02:22 pm

    [eimg link='' title='CIMG0215' url='']
    Took this pick in Loas

  • Nick July 28, 2010 05:29 am

    This little boy was peeking around the corner looking at me while roaming the Thursday market

  • Nick July 28, 2010 05:26 am

    I took this photo while on a Missions trip in Colonet, Mexico which is about 3 hours south of the border in Baja California. This Little boy is the son of a man named Alex who is the Medic for Punta Colonet, Mexico; Even though he is a medic, his family takes care of his child and their house was just destroyed by a flash flood

  • Nick July 28, 2010 05:22 am

    [eimg link='' title='' url='']

  • Mario Cuellar July 28, 2010 03:30 am

    I recently took this photo and had a funny feeling. I wasn´t trying to capture misery altough is very obvious the first feeling it comes when you see it. More than that was the fact that in hard times, sometimes there is someone that will always be your partner. I dont know if my point was made..

  • Aaron July 27, 2010 04:09 pm

    I took this shot in a small village near Ausangate mountain in Peru:
    [eimg link='' title='Little Peruvian Girl' url='']

  • Suvajra July 27, 2010 12:05 pm

    Thanks for you article on this really important and interesting topic. You made many very good points.
    I'm from Scotland. I've been living in India for 16 years and been working here for just over 25. I work amongst the Indian Buddhist community here (Indian, not refugee Tibetans or Nepalis in India) who converted out of Hinduism, where they were regarded as 'unthouchable', to Buddhism. This community still has many of the very poorest and underprivileged in India. May I add a point?

    At first when I came back in '85 everyone wanted their photo taken - no problem. People loved having their photo taken. Even now, when a mobile camera and digital camera is not at all uncommon, I still find everyone ready to have their photos taken. BUT.... yes, there's a but..... but, they want a print. If your out travelling taking photos of poor - spare a thought for their feeling in this area. I know it can't always be done 'cause your travelling. But, if you can, go and get the photos printed off at the nearest photo shop, go back, give them their photo - what will it cost you? . I do this as basic practice here and travelling in Nepal. After two weeks in Nepal I spent an hour and 5 UK Pounds and gave back what I had taken. They never forget you! Basic politeness, sense and generosity.

    I may add some of those photos later, especially my 'Child Labour' ones.

  • noakz July 27, 2010 07:02 am

    1st Day at school in Cambodia…

  • laura July 27, 2010 05:53 am

    i was teaching last year in el porvenir, a rural town on the north coast of honduras. the kids there were great and heartwarming. can't wait to go back.

  • IAN MEDALLE July 27, 2010 02:35 am

    [eimg url='' title='IMG-0981.JPG?et=r%2BpVfnkS%2C1NFcE3H6uky9g&nmid=298884405']

  • IAN MEDALLE July 27, 2010 02:33 am

    A boy in an outrigger waiting for handouts. Bohol, Philippines.[eimg url='' title='IMG-0981.JPG?et=r%2BpVfnkS%2C1NFcE3H6uky9g&nmid=298884405']

  • IAN MEDALLE July 27, 2010 02:31 am

    [eimg url='' title='IMG-0981.JPG?et=r%2BpVfnkS%2C1NFcE3H6uky9g&nmid=298884405']

    Photo of a boy in an outrigger, Bohol, Philippines.

  • IAN MEDALLE July 27, 2010 02:30 am

    This was taken during my vacation last year at the port of Bohol in the Philippines. It was a whole family on this outrigger waiting for handouts from people getting off a fast craft.

  • Stefanie Giglio July 27, 2010 12:55 am

    I spend a lot of time photographing the "poor" around the world. I think the most interesting view is to show not how they are different from other economic classes, but how they are similar: loving, working, playing, laughing, and getting by.

  • Stefanie Giglio July 27, 2010 12:29 am

    I spend a lot of time photographing the poor, but I try not to focus on that fact. I photograph them going about their daily lives, acting like people in every other class of society, working, loving, playing, laughing, and getting by. I think that some of the most interesting angles of the poor is how they aren't that different from everyone else in many ways. Sometimes, focusing on how people are the same is more interesting than showing how we are different.

  • AK July 26, 2010 11:14 pm

    [eimg link='' title='IMG_0153ee' url='']

  • Claire July 26, 2010 11:04 pm

    This is a photo of a little boy in a Lisu tribe villiage in Chiang Rai, Thailand.

  • fortunato_uno July 26, 2010 10:57 pm

    I am what we in The United States conceider poor. All the photos' of children I have are from parents we concider poor. all of them have a.c., color tv., parents with two cars, full belly, and toys galore. I'm not making a political statment but, we are truly blessed to have such luxuries.
    This post says so much more to me then just good subjects for photography.,

  • Leonidas Bratini July 26, 2010 09:37 pm

  • Karen Stuebing July 26, 2010 09:36 pm

    West Virginia is the second poorest state in the country. In fact, someone (forget who) called it Mississippi without a river. Mississippi is the poorest state. And we do have rivers. Just not big ones.

    So photo ops for photographing poverty are pretty abundant here.

    I agree with Mr. Carey, that it needs to be done with sensitivity. And you can't just barge in and start snapping away.

    Here is photo I took whose incongruity struck me immediately. I asked the lady if she minded first. We had a long conversation.

    Mixed Messages

    I also have a Pbase gallery called The Invisible Appalachia. . It gets a lot of hits because of Google indexing. The comments are very interesting. Some people got it. Some didn't.

    It was done years ago and I've always wanted to do another with people in it. In that one, the woman refused to be photographed.

  • Brett July 26, 2010 08:47 pm

    The first trip I took with a dSLR was to Fiji back in January of 2007. I did some backpacking up in the highlands and met these little guys at a school there. It is one of the poorest regions in Fiji and we stopped in to spend some time with the kids and donate some supplies like books, pencils and rulers. It was Australia Day and as to only Aussie, the kids sang Walzing Matilda to me. It was incredible!

    These kids have next to nothing yet were as happy as can be. They were literally fighting over who would be at the front of the picture and couldn't believe that within moments, the image would pop up on the LCD.

    [eimg link='' title='The grins of happiness - Fiji 2007' url='']

  • Jason Collin Photography July 26, 2010 02:36 pm

    I like to photograph alleyways. They could be considered the "poor" part of a neighborhood.

  • Scott July 26, 2010 01:17 pm

    It can be hard to distinguish in Africa, where ownership of a Camel can be the difference between rich and poor.

  • Outdoorgrrl July 26, 2010 07:40 am

    I was traveling from my home in Kirkland on the bus to Seattle one day when I ran across this woman. I quickly snapped the picture to remind myself how important it is to look out for marginalized populations everywhere and of every age.

    [eimg url='' title='P1000434-Edit.jpg']

  • Gama July 26, 2010 06:55 am

    [eimg url='' title='36419_1520240089942_1352752508_31432900_2744946_n.jpg']