My Photo Bag Contains No Tip Jar

As a working freelance photographer, you never know where your next gig will come from. One day you’re photographing an architecture photograph or a political conference, the next day the president of the U.S.

Yesterday, I was hired to photograph a 50th birthday party with Polynesian fire dancers that will get printed to remember the day. The woman celebrating the birthday made a point of bringing a photographer–me–to create photos for a book so she would not have to worry about taking photos herself, or having friends take them.

Besides the fact of how do you ever get all the photos collated in one place? Face it, you don’t. You end up seeing 3 or 11 and the rest are gone. Years ago, there was a wedding where many of the guests were professional photographers and the wedding couple got significantly fewer photos than they would had they hired a photographer.

Back to the party. The event was marvelously colorful. The guest of honor had asked her friends to dress in their brightest Hawaiian colors. The dancers were fun and dazzling. There was a roasted pig. What’s not to love?

All the time I was there, I worked getting moments of people connecting, elements of the party, the movement of the dancers, all without a tip jar. No place to leave a buck.

Nobody tips me when I go out to make photographs. Which to my mind, is what makes it a viable business. I don’t work for tips. I set a rate to document the event and was paid it. I wasn’t asked to work and “see if you can make a living wage” on the goodness of people dropping a bill. I was paid my rate.

Yet, earlier in the day, I was at Hunter Bay Coffee Roasters in Arvada getting a cup of joe which I had read about that they are a company dedicated to sustainability and make a strong effort to support the planet. Nice, I kinda like earth! So, when the total came to $4 and change, I thought, well, that’s okay, they’re probably paying their staff a living wage. It’s expensive to live in Arvada Colorado. (Zillow lists the average home value as $592,050.) Good for you, Hunter Bay, paying real wages and not asking your servers to rely on tips to make a living.

Kinda like me, as a working photographer.

Then the barista pointed to a sign that said the tip had already been included, which is why the total was over $4. Huh? That was my first thought. 15% is automatically added. Wait, wh-aaaaa–tttt?

I firmly believe that tipping is a blight on the American job scene. To have a tip needed–which to my view every place I go now has a place to leave a tip–is a way of saying, “We don’t have to pay our workers a living wage.” It’s a complicit agreement that our business model has no budget for workers, and you, the customer, will make up the difference.

In affluent areas, sure, it feels good to stuff the change into the tip jar, or hit the $2 tip button. “Wow, look at me, I’m doing okay!”

But tipping is the problem. It was begun as a way of not needing to pay recently freed slaves, to keep wages low, and to make them dependent on the kindness of customers for their wage. It may have at one time been a way to show appreciation for some work done, but now is a business model that allows business owners to skimp on the wages and guilt the customer into making up the difference.

What if there are few customers one day? Bad weather? Low volume sales? Rent is still due. Kids still need to eat those days, too.

Tipping is also costing sales. If I get my partner a gift card to get a massage for $125, it’s not much a gift if she still has to shell out $25 (the suggested 20% tip rate is posted on a sign right there on the counter) before she leaves. That would totally take away the relaxed feeling, if it were me. If the masseuses were paid fairly, a tip wouldn’t be needed, and she could afford to go get a massage more frequently with the money saved tipping on her gift.

If I’m tipping 15% at the coffee shop, perhaps I’m only going in two times a week, but if I saved that tip money, I would be able to go in three times.

It’s not impossible to do. Amethyst Coffee in Denver did just that–eliminated tipping, raised prices, and pays employees $50k a year, a living wage.

From The Denver Channel story: “We cannot keep relying on tips in order to pay people a living wage in cities that only get more and more expensive like Denver.”

I have no tip jar in my camera bag.

I believe permitting tipping as a replacement of living wages is wrong, and detrimental to workers and to the fair growth of their wages. It’s keeping wages low, even encouraging them. We need to take a stand against tipping.

Tipping is making customers complicit to the system. It says, “I’m okay with you not making a real wage, so here’s a buck.”

You don’t tip in London when the bartender serves you a beer. It’s considered an insult to not take your change off the bar. There are many countries where tipping is not customary. Those countries have created economic models that allow for people to work and make fair wages which they can live on. In America, we are still relying on the old slave method to make it so that we don’t have to pay workers a living wage.

So, the next time the cashier turns over the tablet with the suggested tip amount already selected, think about where else can you take your business, who else is offering a fair wage like Amethyst Coffee, and how you can support workers making a living wage.

Because anything else is not fair, and it’s perpetuating a system that allows workers to be poorly paid.

And we wonder why there are so many Help Wanted signs because there’s a “labor shortage”. No, it’s a “wage shortage”, simple as that.

Want to support my shows? You can, just visit this link at Paypal, or go to to add your monthly contribution to keep the lights on!

Check out my YouTube Channel of Photography Talks: my 6×6 Portraits Blog (you’re here) and my Daily Photography Podcast. Thanks!

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