Bali: To Photograph or Not to Photograph, That Is the Question


The ethics of photo taking: When an ambulant fan seller comes into view with a basketful of fans balanced on top of her head, is it okay to take her picture or is this an invasion of her privacy. To photograph or not to photography, that is the question.

The alleys adjoining the Pop Hotel Kuta Beach is full cafes, bars, tattoo parlours, surfer supply shops – and lots of photo opps. But what about the ethics of taking photos of strangers?

The same restaurant that served me one of the biggest surprises on my stay in Bali, served me yet another big surprise on a subsequent visit. Except the first surprise was a pleasant one and second surprise was a disappointment.

As I sat there contemplating how the same restaurant could get one dish so totally right and another dish so totally wrong, a woman came into view.

Dressed in traditional Balinese garb, she was ambling slowly down the alley balancing a large basket full of fans, combs, brushes, and similar objects on her head with hands akimbo.

“What a great photo opp!” I thought.

I waited until she was parallel with me before reaching slowly for my camera, planning to take her picture as soon as she passed.

The woman seemed to know instinctively what I was up. No sooner had I touched my camera than she stopped, turned in my direction, unfolded a fan in front of her face, and flashed a winning smile.

As the Balinese woman stood there waiting for me to shoot, I thought, “Now I’m going to have to buy one of her fans.”

The woman waited expectantly, and I – in one my typical moments of embarrassment – shook my head.

No sooner had she continued on her way than I was kicking myself.

“Why the hell didn’t you just take the photo and buy something from her? It would have been a great picture for you and she might have had enough money to fix dinner for the family tonight.”

A presenter at ‪‎TBEX‬ Asia in Bangkok the month before said that 1.) photographers shouldn’t be shy about taking pictures of strangers and 2.) we shouldn’t have to pay them for taking their picture. ‬

And this woman was obviously posing for me! So I would certainly not have been invading her privacy.

I can’t say that I totally agree with the presenter at TBEX. We all have to make a living, and this woman has to earn a living like everyone else. And walking around balancing a heavy basket on your head is not exactly a piece of cake.

Surely the photo that I didn’t take of her would have been worth far more money to me (and to her) than the price of the fan that I didn’t buy.

Live and learn … It happened so quickly … If I get another chance, I will handle things better … I hope … but each situation like this presents itself in a new and different way that you weren’t expecting …

Second Chance

That other chance came more quickly than I had expected. The following day I was headed down another alley with my camera at the ready.

Suddenly another woman balancing a basket full of fans and similar objects on her head came into view. I waited as she approached a couple having lunch in a cafe.

When she turned around, I made eye contact and asked how much the fan she was holding cost. She said, “Two dollars,” which in Bali usually means 2 Australian dollars, which is equivalent to 20,000 rupiah, or about US$1.75.

I thought that was a fair price, so I said I’d buy it without bothering to bargain. Then I asked if I could take her picture, and she seemed delighted.

Photo Ham

I continued on my way, taking more pictures as I went. After photographing a shop near my destination, the owner rushed outside and asked me to take a picture of him, as well.

He laughed hysterically when I showed it to him, and thanked me enthusiastically. There was no attempt to sell me anything.

As I continued on my way, I thought back to the woman who paused the day before so I could take her picture. Maybe she wasn’t expecting me to buy one of her fans after all.

Maybe she just wanted to have her picture taken.

2 Replies to “Bali: To Photograph or Not to Photograph, That Is the Question”

  1. Great post! I find myself in your initial situation quite often; I don’t think I’ve ever gotten comfortable with taking pictures of other people. Part of it stems from my dislike of having my own picture taken.
    I’m glad you got a second chance at getting that shot!

  2. This is one of my challenges when I do my assignments at foreign land. But I seldom have any trouble in Bali (been there few times), I guess the people are used to this scenario and don’t mind their photograph being taken by strangers as we are the agents who promote their tourism.

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