Authentic storytelling – a photographer’s perspective

Picture of Jonathan Perugia
Jonathan Perugia Jonathan Perugia is a photographer, visual storyteller, and facilitator. 24th May 2023
A father doing homework with his child in Sri Lanka.

Zaid, a single father bringing up his child Liukman in a largely patriarchal society (Kandy, Sri Lanka). Photo credit: Jonathan Perugia (Gaia Visual).

Charities are thinking more carefully about the images that they use to promote their work. One of the key challenges is building relationships with freelance photographers. Here, Jonathan Perugia reflects on his own experience of working with charities.

The ethical context in which photographers and INGOs work is changing and there are now – rightly – stronger norms and expectations when it comes to safeguarding, informed consent and dignity in storytelling. This new landscape creates challenges, but also opportunities for photographers and charities alike.

Here are some thoughts on how charities can mitigate the challenges and leverage the opportunities when commissioning photographs of their overseas work.

Be clear on goals and messages 

Having clear goals is essential because it’s surprisingly common for busy comms teams to try to do too much with one assignment. If press or media coverage is the main aim, then that needs to be explicit from the start, as it will affect many of the decisions that follow.

For example, if the goal is to garner coverage in the press, then the photograph will need a clear news angle, which will determine how the photographer is briefed. A good recent example is a series of photos to mark the 10th anniversary of the fire in Rana Plaza in Dhaka used by The Guardian Global Development and commissioned by ActionAid Bangladesh. 

Sometimes charities commission a photo story and then think about the media pitch. It can work, but pitching a story before the trip happens allows collaboration with the editor/writer and potentially the picture editor. This means your brief can be more specific and helpful for the photographer.

Choose the right photographer 

A photojournalist or documentary photographer will often be used to working to editorial standards of consent, and you shouldn’t assume that they are fully familiar with the requirements of informed consent. 

I have heard many stories from comms officers frustrated with a photographer not getting or even refusing to get consent, and from photographers bemoaning the lack of freedom and spontaneity that come with getting consent from people in their pictures.

The process of decolonisation has also seen INGOs commission more local photographers, a process that was accelerated by COVID-related travel restrictions, environmental and cost considerations.

But hiring someone local may also mean commissioning a photographer with less experience, which means you should be prepared to build a long-term relationship with them and support them as they grow.

In many regions, there are locals with editorial and INGO experience. They will not only have the photography skills, but may also have a network of picture editors and experience of pitching stories. Finding the right photographer can be a challenge, but the right choice can lead to long-term rewards.

Commissioning a local photographer still comes with potential ethical issues which need to be discussed before the assignment starts. These can include power imbalances related to social status, language barriers, unconscious prejudices and of course, the principles of informed consent. These discussions should also include local staff who will be facilitating the trip.

Get the brief right

Once the goals and angle are clear, a good brief will maximise the chances of getting images that work for the media.

INGOs sometimes compose a list of shots and set ups, which can feel formulaic. For an editorial piece, it’s important to outline the issues, themes, context and potential characters but then to give space for the photographer to address these in their own way.

Photographers can give invaluable insights and ideas when they are involved in the planning process. They will have ideas on how to tell and present the complexities of a story, as well as essential input on the schedule, so that the team doesn’t end up in an orientation meeting during early morning golden hour or being asked to shoot a community at midday when the light is blazing and everyone is inside. Be prepared for early starts though!

Give photographers the time and the support they need

Time constraints and overly-optimistic briefs can lead to compromises on ethical issues and the quality of the images. For example, the process of informed consent needs time for conversation, questioning and building trust.

When I started working as a photojournalist, the norms around ethical consent were different. We worked to principles of editorial consent: if the image was used for editorial (ie non – commercial) use, then consent was not needed. For good reasons, the principles around consent for non-profit organisations have evolved, and most now require informed consent. 

This involves talking with contributors, so that they understand why they are being photographed, what will happen to the images/stories, and assuring them that they will not suffer if they refuse or benefit if they consent. It recognises and seeks to address the inherent power imbalances in many interactions between INGOs and so-called beneficiaries. 

A comms team can’t expect a photographer to shoot a school in the morning and a livelihoods programme in the afternoon, before travelling to a new location to do the same thing the next day, and also have the in-depth conversations needed to get meaningful infomed consent. It is usually preferable to focus on a smaller number of contributors’ stories, and tell them in depth.

Consent forms also need to be simple and in the local language. A wordy consent form in legalese English can give the impression forms are created by lawyers motivated as much by legal back-covering as by a desire to involve and safeguard contributors.

Local programme staff play an essential role in this process. They will often have relationships with contributors, and have language and culture in common, which help to build trust, so it’s important to include them and get their input and ideas during the planning and briefing process, 

Informed consent takes time, but it’s worth it. If somebody doesn’t want their picture taken, that’s okay. Not every picture should be taken. International charities who take the decolonisation agenda seriously should take time to think through their briefs, find the right photographer and ask whether their storytelling is dismantling or perpetuating unequal power dynamics.

Jonathan Perugia is a photographer, visual storyteller, and facilitator dedicated to telling solution-focussed stories for organisations that work for environmental and social change. You can see his work and find out more here:, and connect with him on Linkedin here

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