To take the photo – or not?

When abroad and not on assignment, I find myself walking a fine line whenever I photograph local people. Do I shoot them as I see them, or do I ask for permission first? I especially feel torn when there is great economic disparity between us.

I am well aware of the murky ethical waters that may surround my taking photographs of native people: Am I somehow profiting from their poverty? Glamorizing their condition? Are they aware of the uses the image could have in the future?

When in Ecuador recently, I had no success when asking indigenous people for permission to take their photographs. So I tried something different. As they pushed their merchandise on me, I would agree on a price – a bit over what any self-respecting shopper in South America would pay – but then requested they allow me to take their photo with the item. The images connect the objects I bought to their sellers, like a certificate of origin. But they also make me feel uneasy. I wonder what the people were thinking as I took the photos. I probably wouldn't like the answer.

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