Rwanda boys holding photos by Laura Elizabeth Pohl

(This post originally appeared on the NGO Storytelling blog.)

It’s one of those things I wasn’t sure about for a long time: should I give gifts when I’m filming or photographing? Many organizations I work with have firm policies about not giving money but no clear policies on gift-giving. And yet, in the work I do, I spend hours and sometimes days filming a person going about their daily life. Even though I try to stay out of the way and I don’t set up shots (though sometimes the client does), my presence obviously changes the rhythm of the person’s day. How can I not thank the person with some small gift?

One of the hardest parts of this situation is that even if the person I’m filming understands he or she won’t be getting money or anything else in exchange for participating, friends and neighbors often believe the person is getting big money or gifts. Because why else would someone consent to such an intrusion? One time neighbors yelled at the family I was filming that they would come rob the family after I left — this according to the translator I was working with. The would-be robbers didn’t follow through, thank goodness. Still, I think a lot about the impact my mere presence can have on a person and a community.

So, I try not to give presents that someone else might want. In the past I’ve given pens and markers and food. But several months ago I hit on a present that perfectly fits with what I do and that no one will want to steal: photographs. I bought a Fuji Instax mini 8 camera, which is like a Polaroid camera, and I immediately give pictures to the people I photograph. I even give pictures to neighbors and kids hanging around. (Often there are lots of curious children eager to look into my camera!) The Fuji Instax film is a bit pricey — about $1 per developed picture — but it’s worth it to me. I like being able to give a unique present to the people who allow me to spend so much time with them.

(Photo © Laura Elizabeth Pohl)