Should you tip for a portrait while doing street/travel photography?

A "Palenquera" posing for a portrait in the historic center of Cartagena de Indias, Colombia

A "Palenquera" posing for a portrait in the historic center of Cartagena de Indias, Colombia

A question that always arise when discussing about the ethics of street and travel photography is whether we should tip for a posed portrait we make of someone. 

Short answer: why not, if the person asks so?

I remember once having an argument with a fellow photographic over this topic. "I've never given any tip anyone, and I will never do. That is terrible. I do not agree with that", he said. I was shocked, and literally left speechless. 

So is it ok to photograph someone and then post that picture everywhere online, add it to a portfolio whose goal is to attract potential clients, even sell it as a digital file/print for a good amount of dollars; but it is not ok to give a tip to the person photographed, as a sign of courtesy

And I say courtesy because if that person were to ask for a proper compensation for the use the photographer is gonna make of her portrait, the amount would certainly have to be much higher. 

I believe it all comes down to the interaction and relation the photographer managed to build with the person in those few minutes (or sometimes more) they had together. Whenever I want to make a portrait of someone I come across on the streets, I sincerely try to engage and build a connection with the person.

Photography, for me, is not an end on its own. Of course I appreciate the photographic art and want to have beautiful, storytelling pictures, but what really makes me passionate about photography is the push it gives me to get out of my comfort zone, to discover different cultures, to listen, to learn, to interact with strangers. Photography is my passport to stories and encounters that change me for better.

So, most of the times, people do not ask me for a tip after I have made a portrait of them. However, I do remember one or two times when it happened, and it didn't offend me. Far from that, I felt it was the right thing to do, since - due to perhaps a variety of reasons - we were not able to build a deeper connection. It even happened once when we indeed were able to have a stronger interaction - at least from my perspective.

Therefore, I do not think it is intrinsically wrong to tip someone you've just taken a portrait of; and it actually might be the right thing depending on the situation. We, photographers, are always taking something. Sometimes, people want something tangible in return, and that seems rather fair to me.

I think it is important to see photography as an exchange; we cannot have an imperialistic approach, just take and give nothing in return, most especially in developing countries. Most of the times people are happy with a compliment and a honest, sincere conversation; other times they ask us to email them the picture (which is something I always try to do); sometimes they want a little tip to help them get some food, or a bus back home.

I think it all comes down to each situation in particular, and I feel it pretty much depends on the connection we are able to build with the person. That is not to say that when we manage to build a good interaction the person will not ask for a tip; that may happen as well.

However, I do believe that when we indeed create something a little more solid, honest in those minutes, the person does not feel you we are just taking something from them. And that is part of the beauty of photography: the possibility it give us to listen, to learn, to understand, to share, to discover (inspiring) stories that we would probably never come across if we didn't have a camera with us.

Bernardo Salce