Street Ethics :: Costs :: Exploitation

Per capita GDP in the United States is roughly $59,500. The per capita GDP in Uganda is about $600 — less than one-fifth the cost of a professional camera body. Did I exploit this young woman?

In a previous post we thought about the interaction between photographer and subject from the perspective of a social exchange. Let’s take a moment and also consider such photographer-subject interactions as an economic transaction. In some cases the economic aspect of this transaction is obvious. Clients go to a portrait studio to have family photos taken. The photographer makes the portrait; the client compensates them for their time, knowledge, and expenses. On other occasions a photographer might hire a model to add to the photographer’s portfolio or to round out a destination shoot for a client. The model provides their time and experience and is compensated for it by the photographer. The photographer might pay in cash or might agree to supply a portrait or two that the model can add to their own portfolio. Regardless, in each of these transactions it can be assumed that the parties consciously trade something that each regards as being of comparable value since each party freely and knowingly enters into the exchange.

So what if we think about street and travel photography from this same perspective, as being an economic transaction between the photographer and the “talent”. Has the transaction been agreed to by both parties? Is the value exchanged by the parties equal? If not, we may have cause to worry that our subjects are being exploited.

In most cases, though, the benefit to the photographer is relatively small (an image or two to show their friends or add to their portfolio); and the time, energy, and financial burden placed on the subject typically minimal or non-existent. One might also make the case that while there is a small cost, broader benefits, perhaps to society, justify this burden. We’ll explore some of these potential benefits in later posts. All such questions disappear, however, if one simply asks if its okay to use the image and/or offers to pay a small fee for the shot.

Brent DanielComment