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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
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.

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