Nonprofit Photography: Ethics and Approaches

Best practices and tips on ethics and approaches in humanitarian photography for social impact.

The first moon landing. The Vietnamese ‘napalm girl’, running naked and in agony. The World Trade Centers falling.

As we know, photography carries the power to inspire, educate, horrify and compel its viewers to take action. Images evoke strong and often public emotions, as people frequently formulate their opinions, judgements and behaviors in response to visual stimuli. Because of this, photography can wield substantial control over public perception and discourse.

Moreover, photography in our digital age permits us to deliver complex information about remote conditions which can be rapidly distributed and effortlessly processed by the viewer. Recently, we’ve witnessed the profound impact of photography coupled with social media: together, they have fueled political movements and brought down a corrupt government.

Photography can - and has - changed the course of history.

Ethical Considerations

Those who commission and create photography of marginalized populations to further an organizations’ mission possess a tremendous responsibility. Careful ethical consideration should be given to all aspects of the photography supply chain: its planning, creation, and distribution.

When planning a photography campaign, it is important to examine the motives for creating particular images and their potential impact. Not only must a faithful, comprehensive visual depiction of the subjects be created to avoid causing misconception, but more importantly, the subjects’ dignity must be preserved. Words and images that elicit an emotional response by their sheer shock value (e.g. starving, skeletal children covered in flies) are harmful because they exploit the subjects’ condition in order to generate sympathy for increasing charitable donations or support for a given cause. In addition to violating privacy and human rights, this so-called 'poverty porn’ is harmful to those it is trying to aid because it evokes the idea that the marginalized are helpless and incapable of helping themselves, thereby cultivating a culture of paternalism. Poverty porn is also detrimental because it is degrading, dishonoring and robs people of their dignity. While it is important to illustrate the challenges of a population, one must always strive to tell stories in a way that honors the subjects’ circumstances, and (ideally) illustrates hope for their plight.

Legal issues

Legal issues are more clear cut when images are created or used in stable countries where legal precedent for photography use has been established. Image use and creation becomes far more murky and problematic in countries in which law and order is vague or even nonexistent.

Even though images created for nonprofit campaigns aren’t being created or published for typically commercial applications, it’s strongly recommended that precautions are taken around permissions. If creating images, one should obtain model releases whenever possible, especially if there is a chance that the person pictured may experience negative consequences as a result of having their photo used. If the subject isn’t able to read the release or sign his/her name, an interpreter should be made available to explain the intended use of the photography. If stock photos are being used, one should confirm that the proper releases are in place: make no assumptions.

Approaches to Successful Photography Creation

First, it is recommended that those who commission or use imagery should create a policy to guide their organizations. You may wish to refer to the International Guild of Visual Peacemakers’ Visual Code for inspiration.

Ethical Code for Visual Communications 

  • We research and respect the culture we are documenting.
  • We value our subjects by taking measures to interact with or involve them, and by treating storytelling and image-making as a collaboration.
  • We use discernment in candid photography and videography, and all published material, because another’s dignity and honor matters to us.
  • We inquire about how others are impacted by our images, examining the the actual results of our best intentions.
  • We are intentional about highlighting common humanity through images and storytelling.
  • We explore both macro and micro factors that affect a place or people in an effort for multidimensional coverage.
  • We refrain from making an image if asked not to.
  • We foster the courage to delete some images that may reinforce destructive stereotypes, or publish them only along with other images that tell a more complete story.
  • We refine and upgrade our own vision, because well-crafted images have greater potential for effective visual peacemaking.
  • We live generously by helping others around us, wherever we are, and by volunteering to support the visual peacemaking movement with our talents and resources.

Also, adequate planning and an intimate understanding of the conditions on the ground are essential. Following are some considerations and suggestions:

1) Will sending a photographer to document potentially delicate situations negatively impact the reputation of your organization?

2) What if your subjects aren’t willing to have their photographs taken?

3) What is the most compelling way to tell your story? Should you create a series of hard-hitting, beautiful portraits, day-in-the-life moments, a combination, or another approach altogether? Engage the photographer in your planning; their input could be invaluable.

4) It may be vital to have a 'fixer’ who can overcome language barriers, make introductions, explain the intention of the photography to the subjects, facilitate the signing or releases, and ultimately, help your team establish trust. Trust in a critical element in making great photography happen.

5) Is the environment safe for a photographer? What would they need to be protected and secure?

6) For many marginalized people, having their photo taken professionally may only happen once in their lifetime. It is a big event to them! If you’re able to print images on the spot for them, this will go a long way in gaining their trust and inspiring their cooperation.

7) The way that the photo sessions are conducted should also be carefully considered. One should never bribe subjects to feign despair, anger, or other emotions, or seek to influence the “slant” of the photography in any way. Also, sometimes it works well to photograph subjects from behind so that only their activities, and not their faces, can be seen. For example, the face of the doctor who is performing an eye exam may be shown, but not the patient’s face. This not only prevents the patient from getting distracted, but also protects their privacy. It is important to be humble, considerate, and respectful, especially during private moments of grief. In this case, one should try to capture images from afar without being intrusive. One should not be an aloof stranger, but rather than attempt to foster a relationship of mutual understanding with the subject.

8) It is important to ensure that the captured images document what you believe is the real situation of your subjects. Photos must be carefully and faithfully edited (there should be minimal digital manipulation and no fancy embellishments) to avoid misinterpretation. Also, the photography should not stereotype or make false generalizations. For example, a single photograph of a starving African child is not representative of the situation throughout the continent. Use captions to properly contextualize visual images. Careful consideration of the media used to deliver the imagery is also recommended, as this can affect its intended message dramatically.

Photography gives us the power to connect people from all walks of life through the language of visual understanding. We must never forget that it is an honor and privilege to be in the position where we can represent the underrepresented, and give voice to the marginalized.

First published in NTEN: Change, September 2014, CC BY-SA 3.0]