How to Photograph a Beggar

A cheeky, impish expression on the face of a professional beggar in Chennai in Tamil Nadu, India.

A cheeky, impish expression on the face of a professional beggar in Chennai in Tamil Nadu, India.

Photographs have their own truth, outside of what we might call reality.

I photographed this elderly man outside a Hindu temple complex in Chennai in Southern India. 

Just the Facts Ma’am

You might think that I’ve recorded a candid moment depicting joy, happiness or surprise. In fact the 1/320 second during which time this photo was made creates a truth that sits uneasily with what actually happened. While the reality of the photo is what’s most important, you might find the story behind its creation to be of interest.

This gentleman is a professional beggar whom I approached and asked permission to photograph. He was extreme abrupt, thrusting out his hand and demanding money up front.

Paying for Photos

I’m not against paying folks to make their photo, under certain circumstances, and I’m always concerned about the possibility of creating a beggar culture, particularly where children are concerned.

However, that does not prevent me from donating money to the schools or temples those kids are associated with when I believe it is appropriate to do so. It’s common practice for me to set money aside for such things when traveling in developing countries.

The Law of Reciprocity

Though I rarely photograph beggars, as soliciting alms is their profession, I’m okay with the notion of paying them. But I hate being fleeced and I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect that a polite, genuine and compassionate approach should not be reciprocated.  

Their was no need to treat me with such aggression. While he may well have been treated poorly by tourists in the past, someone in his profession really should be able to read folks intentions. And mine were pure. He only needed to give me a few short minutes of his time and he may well have acquired a day or more earnings from the interaction.

The game, for which I had no stomach, was to demand money and, almost certainly, sneer at me with contempt at the amount I would have handed over. Through embarrassment I might well cough up more. These folks see a lot of tourists, most often only once, so they probably think they might as well push that little bit harder. Perhaps you’ve had similar experiences.

What Actually Happened

As it was I was just about to withdraw, without making a photo, when a policewoman appeared and began to reprimand the man. He went all childlike and presented the face of innocence to our officer of the law. I quickly raised the camera and make a photo.

Not wanting him to get into trouble I explained to the officer that the whole incident was a misunderstanding, for which I took full responsibility. I apologized to both her and the subject of this photo for any inconvenience I may have caused.

Once she left I knelt down in front of him, took a decent amount of money from my pocket and gave it to him. He nodded, with a degree of humility, and I moved on in search of more positive outcomes, some of which come our way and some we create for ourselves.

I think you’ll agree that the tonality within this image, together with the textural qualities within our friends face and beard make this a good candidate for rendering into black and white.

Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru