Beyond poverty porn: photography, ethics, and development

Photo by Gemma Bou. Some rights reserved.
Photo by Gemma Bou. Some rights reserved.
Photo by Gemma Bou. Some rights reserved.

Ever have nightmares about a child your organization featured in a charity campaign coming back to sue for royalties?

Probably not.

This points to double standards that exist in the worlds of photography and development. In the West, people tend to be extremely cautious about photographing children who are not their own. Privacy matters. Photographers will take great care to obtain informed consent from their subjects, no matter their age. Yet these concerns do not always translate when the setting moves to the rest of the world. Children, women, and men are often photographed without consideration of their privacy, dignity, or desire to be photographed.

Not that this is always the case. But it does happen enough that it remains a problem. Perhaps it stems from a lack of clarity surrounding ethics in photography outside of the photographer’s/aid worker’s home country. Maybe it has to do with time and budget constraints. Yet we should pay attention to this issue because this double standard may reveal a tendency to still view people in developing nations (especially non-white people) as “others.”

So what are we to do?

Like everything else in development, there is no one-size-fits-all solution.

But if we truly see the people we work with as people, as partners, as equals, then we need to think seriously about ethics. Even if your organization does not have official policies or guidelines, this should still form an ongoing discussion. Policies and guidelines do not have to be constraining if they are updated as technology and situations evolve. Whether your team has an official or unofficial set of principles you stick to, this conversation merits deep reflection. These discussions should also involve staff at all levels and locations. In fact, the staff closest to the actual projects may be able to give the best insight.

Questions to consider

We have already discussed the importance of giving context to photos. We have also talked about how consent is not a one-time event, but an ongoing process. Here are some other questions and issues we should consider when photographing people and projects for development:

  • Local guidelines. Check to see if the country you are working in has any set of standards regarding consent and image production. And always err on the side of caution. In other words, always try to get informed consent if you are able.
  • The “What if?” Question. Ask yourself “What if that were my child/parent/sibling/?” Or, “What if that were me?” Would I want this photograph broadcasted for thousands (or millions) of people around the world to see? Even if just a few strangers will view the photo, this remains a question worth asking.
  • What is my motive? What is the intent behind the photo? What story are you trying to tell? Does the image reflect that accurately? Or does it distort the situation somehow?

Photoshare also offers some good ethical questions to consider:

  • Autonomy – How can we respect a person’s right to consent or decline the photo? What does informed consent look like in each context?
  • Do No Harm – Will these photos do no harm to the person or people appearing in them?
  • Do Good – Beyond doing no harm. What is the purpose of the photo? How can we use the photo or photos to promote a good cause while showing respect for the people in the photos.
  • Fidelity – Check to make sure you use the photos in a context faithful to the real situation, location, and subject identity. Take the proper steps to credit the photographer.

Photovoice also has some great suggestions, particularly if you are pursuing a participatory photo or video project.

It’s about relationships

Many of these questions require that some kind of relationship exist between photographer and subject/protagonist. These relationships not only give context, but also remind us that development is ultimately about people. Not only does this help tell a more powerful story, but this context also helps ensure that the photos do not paint a false picture of reality.

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