Photographing Children in Peru – A Hypocrite’s Tale

Posted on
Nov 14, 2011

Breaking Philip's number one rule.

My friend Philip gave me a great piece of advice many years ago, around the time that he himself became a father.

The rule, simply, was this: do not take photos of children you do not know.

If you think about it, it’s rather genius. No one wants to be the creepy photographer, standing in the corner, snapping photos of children that aren’t theirs. No parent wants to have that awkward exchange with a stranger (and yet, I am told, they will have it. And if they do, you’d better listen).

Over the years, I’ve tried to followed Philip’s advice. Even if I know a child, I try to remove as much identifying information as possible before putting photos of them online.

Because that child is not mine. I have no right to their image, no right to that infinitesimally small portion of their soul that I might have stolen on my camera. Philip’s words follow me when I travel. It’s one of the few rules I heed. (That, and “Don’t eat sushi in a landlocked state.”)

Recently, though, I broke his rule. And I’m not quite sure what to do about it.

We’d spent an afternoon in the Peruvian village of Pisac, shopping in the market. The morning had been sunny, but was slowly turning in to a cold, grey afternoon. The sky threatened to rain, the wind came down off the hills and whipped through the alleys of the ancient town in which we stood. Vendors scrambled to still their wares with every chilly gust, and I understood why, even in South America, everyone wears wool.

I wandered through the village in a state of shopping paralysis. It was too, too much. Too many vendors, too many llama wool hats, too many necklaces. If I had the chance to go back, I’d return with a suitcase full of treasures, but at that moment I could only look – wandering in a daze, occasionally snapping photos.

As I passed yet another display of scarves that could easily be found at Anthropologie for 50 times their current selling rate, I encountered a trio of little girls, elaborately dressed in traditional Peruvian costumes. They looked remarkably similar save for their sizes – little Russian nesting dolls of each other.

“Photo, photo, take photo,” the eldest said to me, in broken English.

Blissfully, I understood the game right away. I’d taken their photos, and pay them for the privilege of doing so. I pulled out my camera and took a few shots, feeling incredibly awkward as I did so. I reached into my pocket and pressed a coin into each of their hands.

Pretty sure I traded my soul for this shot.

And yes, I thought twice before posting these. I thought four times, actually.

“No!” the eldest said. “Un sole.” No. One sol.

I stood, confused. I had given her more than that. 2 soles, in fact. And another sole to her little colleagues.

“Un sole,” she said.

“Son dos soles,” I said, pointing to the coin I gave her.

“Nooooo,” she whined quietly. I wondered if perhaps she didn’t recognize the coin I had given her – it was definitely 2 soles. Mayber her parents had showed her a single sol coin, made her remember it, and that was all she knew. Or maybe she was shrewd as hell.

She pleaded with me, her eyes enormous, her voice high and whiney.

For the record, I do not do well with whining children. I will do anything to make them stop. Buy them presents, feed them candy, dance like a monkey. Whatever. I have no shame. Anything to stop the high pitched moaning and sniffling – to stifle it before the dreaded temper tantrum is unleashed. I would make an awful parent.

I quickly reached into my pocket and dug out some more coins, handing them to all three girls, and left. As I walked away, I saw the smallest one fighting off her older sister, who was trying to take the coin from her. It was one sol – the kind of coin the oldest had been asking for. I sighed heavily.

Later, sitting in our hotel room, I felt awful. Awful for taking the photo, awful for not having more money for those children (in the end, I gave them five times their asking rate, but the oldest kept repeating “No, un sol …”). Awful that, in the end, a child had bickered with me over money.

I sat on my bed and cried.

A day or two later, we found ourselves in the open air market in Cuzco. I saw an American woman stooped down, snapping photos of a child. I figured it was the same situation I had encountered before, until I saw the little girl. She was not dressed up. She was not asking for money. She was simply standing in the market, eating a bun. The woman was ridiculously close to the girl, not looking at her, but at the digital preview screen on her camera.

“Por que?” The little girl asked, again and again. Why? Why are you talking my photo?

“Por que es hermosa.” Because you are beautiful, the woman replied, never taking her eyes off her viewfinder. But the littler girl, wise to the game, was not soothed by this compliment. She was clearly bothered, and confused by what was happening.

My reaction to this was rather reasonable.

“Rand,” I said quietly, “I think I am going to go punch that woman.”

As I began removing my earrings and rings, Rand reminded me that violence is not the answer (“BUT SOMETIMES IT IS!” was my astute reply), and that I might not enjoy getting deported or spending time in a Peruvian prison.

I wondered if I could at least get in the woman’s face, and snap a few dozen photos of her. When she asked me why I was taking her picture I’d scream, “BECAUSE YOU ARE NOT HERMOSA!” and then I’d run off.

But I chickened out.

I chickened out, because deep down, I knew I wasn’t any better than her. Hadn’t I snapped photos of a little girl I didn’t know? Did an exchange of a few coins really make it all okay? On some level, didn’t I want to punch that woman because I was, in fact, angry at myself for having done the same thing? (Yes, No, YES.) I was a rotten hypocrite. And, as a colleague of my husband’s had so harshly and perceptively put it the other day, I’m a coward to boot.

I thought again of Philip’s rule – the one that sits at the top of my mental list of travel guidelines: Don’t take photos of children you don’t know. I’m considering adding another rule to that list. Something like: During your travels, don’t punch the annoying people you encounter.

But I’m not sure how effective that would be. After all, I’ve already broken one of those rules, and I really wanted to break the other. The good news? I’m pretty sure Philip would have forgiven me for popping that woman in the mouth. But for taking photos of those little girls? That might be a bit harder to forgive.

Leave a Comment

  • Geraldine, I don’t think you should feel bad at all since they approached you, begging you to take their pictures. You knew they would ask for payment, so nothing lost. That woman was definitely being rude. That would be rude in any county. For what it’s worth, you shouldn’t feel bad about what happened. I feel bad that the oldest girl couldn’t recognize that you gave her more money than she was asking for.

    • Ruth

      I agree with AJ – there’s a big difference between the consensual “here we are in native garb for you to take our picture, and then pay us for” (which you might feel a little queasy about because they are children with jobs, but otherwise everyone behaved in an entirely acceptable manner and hey at least they got a 500% markup) and that woman taking a kid’s pic without her permission.

      Also…what is the deal with the lamb head? Did they have a lamb with them? Is there a lamb in her bag? Are they carrying around a dead lamb’s head? WHERE IS THE REST OF THE LAMB I MUST KNOW.

      • Everywhereist

        The lamb was in there, Ruth. It was alive. It was just all folded up.

        • That’s funny . . . that’s exactly what I was wondering. I misread your second caption–thought you said you thought four times before posting *this*–and thought you had to think so hard on that particular one because of the kinda creepy picture of the severed lamb’s head. I feel *ever* so much better now that I understand that this is just a simple ethical discussion about human beings, not involving any poor, dead, decapitated lambs.

  • The second scenario…ick. Ick ick ick. Pushing your agenda on a child who is obviously uncomfortable and unwilling? So, so not okay. I can definitely understand the conflict in the first, though; on one hand, they’re dressed for it and willing to negotiate a price. But they’re also selling a piece of themselves. But they also need money, which you were willing to give! And…around we go. There’s no easy answer there.

    • Everywhereist

      Nope. I kind of want to punch myself. That’s the only solution here.

  • All things considered, I think it’s the second woman who’ll be going to hell over this, not you. Phillip’s rule is good, but clearly those girls were dressed up in the market to make money. Your offense is falling for a tourist trap, not the child-photography itself. Don’t be too hard on yourself (but next time, chastise the bad tourist!)

    • Everywhereist

      You are so right. What would Rose do? She would punch a bitch. I’ll remember that.

      • Actually, you did exactly what I would do, which is overpay the kid, fell wracked with guilt, want (but fail) to say something to the jerk woman, and then cry. And wish I had punched a bitch.

      • I suggest that if you do ever start a fight in a foreign country that you do a lot of yelling in German.

        • Everywhereist

          Wow. I love you.

  • The student is now the master… or something.

    I don’t know whether or not I should be flattered or embarrassed that I am in your head when you travel. But that has to be one of the very few times that you typed my name and did not follow it with “assface”, so thank you for that.

    And finally, I’d have held your bag while you punched that lady out.

    • Everywhereist

      I know you would have. And you’d have likely rifled through it looking for gum, and that would have been okay.

    • Everywhereist

      P.S. – Assface.

      • Thank you. Now I can go to bed.

  • I struggled with a lot of these same feelings when I was in Peru. Because of my appearance it’s really tough for me to disguise the fact that I’m a tourist, and I was constantly approached and put in similar situations. To be honest, before I traveled there I had no idea these photos were staged. It’s a shame and I certainly don’t have the answer, but I don’t think you should beat yourself up over it. It’s obvious that you care and that you tried your hardest to do the right thing in a difficult situation.

  • Hossein

    I would take pictures of kids, if (and only if) they ask me to do so, but wouldn’t publish them online.

    • Everywhereist

      Yeah, well, we’ve established I’m an asshole.

  • TheOtherLisa

    You are so not an asshole. The fact that you struggled with this completely negates any assholishness. Sadly, that family probably relies on the income generated from having the girls pose for tourist photos and maybe they ate better because of you.

    I don’t know how I would have handled the woman but I’ll help bail you out if it ever comes up again.

    • Colleen

      I agree. Instead of feeling sad at the misfortune of overpaying those little girls, think that you might have given them a lovely meal that night, and that they didn’t have to sacrifice the pet lamb. Jeez, I am morbid.

  • I’ll admit I really struggle with taking pictures of people in general, not just children. I look back and we have so many amazing photos of landscape but hardly any of people – I was just too chicken to ask. The photographs we have of people are of shop keepers, children or others that we somehow befriended in one way or another. My advice- don’t avoid taking pictures of people and don’t feel bad about paying for a photo. Ask before you shoot and if someone says no, respect it and move on.

  • I’m having a hard time understanding what’s wrong with what you did. The children wanted their picture taken and you took it and gave them something of value. It’s not like you did anything evil to them.

    And what’s the harm in publishing it? I mean, really, is the fear that someone is going to see the picture and go, “AHA! There are beautiful children in Peru! I will now go and kidnap them!”

    Am I missing something?

  • Carine

    I really liked this post and like your blog in general. I still don’t know what to think about taking pictures of kids when I travel, but I know you did nothing wrong!

  • Umut

    A lot of pple think they do help underprovileged kids when they pay for taking photos or buy candy from them. In fact this is a serious issue in poor countries, and this habit in children is same as begging…they are getting used getting money from strangers and in fcat this doesnt help the society at all! They are not models? and they are totally not aware of why they are getting the money for!

    Sorry for digging a bit deeper, but living in Turkey we see many kids who live this way and getting used to earning money like this cause they dont know any better, which afterwards leads to begging.

    • Everywhereist

      I think you make a lot of valid points, Umut – that this is definitely self-perpetuating. However, I do think that these children – dressed as they were and yelling “photo, photo” – knew that they were being paid in exchange for their picture.

      • Xenia

        I come from a country where lots of Gipsy kids beg in the streets. If you give them money, you know that the money will go to the parents. On the other side, you know that if they don’t bring the money home, they’re likely to get their asses kicked.

        I, as a passer-by, know that I am powerless to change their whole way of life. All I can do is participate or refuse to participate. In my case, I refuse to give them money, but I do offer to buy them sandwiches. Or, if I have an errand (when I moved, for instance, and had tons of empty boxes to carry to the garbage bins), I’d ask them if they’d do it for a tip. They always accepted happily! So what does that make me? Someone who encourages child labor?! I don’t think so!

        Taking their picture was FINE. It was literally a service they offered for money. You didn’ fotograph them naked, didn’t do anything innapropriate, didn’t hurt their dignity. You simply put food on their table. No reason to feel guilty.

  • catcat

    You never know: if you tried to just give them money without taking a picture, it may have made it more like begging for them (or they may have been fine with it).

  • janine

    Let me tell you what an asshole is… We had this 71 year old guy on our trip to Peru last week. He brought candy for the kids. He took pictures with them and then gave them candy and refused to give them money. One older girl said, ‘sir I can’t live off the candy, I must have money for the picture.’ He coldly still refused. I am kicking myself I didn’t punch him. My only consolation to myself is that I was pretty far away over hearing this. The guy later bragged that he was a multi-millionaire and refused to even tip the tour guide and bus driver who spent 5 days with us. That’s an asshole!

    The first few days in Peru, I refused to take pictures with the kids. I didn’t want to endorse it. I later thought, they are out here dressed up for money, they could be trying to sell me hats instead. It’s their way of making money. I gave in. For the record, their were adults are dressed up asking for money, it wasn’t just the kids, there were several men dressed as an Inca Kings.

    I understand the internal conflict, I went through it myself. I still do.

  • Annie

    Rand may be correct in saying violence isn’t the answer…but in this instance i think it would have been a great segue into the answer:

    Geraldine: “Hey, woman. you suck.” FACESMASH
    Woman: “Why’d you do that?”
    Geraldine: “Because you needed to be knocked back into reality- that child did not want her picture taken. Asshole.”

  • Moe

    Ah well if I was there I would have taken their pictures than made sure I gave them enough money to eat for a month instead of a few coins that would only take them through supper. The other woman was an asshole for sure x 10. Seriously? What about the old man that really isn’t rich at all but just thinks he is and then he has to go somewhere else to tell the world how rich he is? Pathetic x 10. What an evil old soul.

    Okay so both of them are bologna holes but you still shine. Its my verdict for the week.

  • Frank

    Your words paint the picture perfectly. The photos are superfluous.

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