The power of photography in a changing world

Henry Roberts Comms and Membership Officer with International Broadcasting Trust 14th December 2023

Star shine, moon glow from Water Life collection by Aida Muluneh commissioned by WaterAid and Foundation Image: WaterAid/ Aida Muluneh

Our recent masterclass on NGO photography was led by photographer and facilitator Jonathan Perugia. Henry Roberts, our comms and membership officer, highlights some key themes. 

Photography teaches us about the world. Even with rolling news coverage and instantaneous video streaming on social media, a single image can still be the most effective way to highlight an issue. A moment is frozen in time and a single expression can speak to millions of people across the world. 

Yet, the context in which photographs are perceived is forever changing. The power imbalance between the photographer and photographed is now more widely understood, particularly in the international aid sector. Expectations around consent, dignity and protection have increased in recent years, in line with a broader cultural shift towards greater decolonised practices and localisation with the INGO sector. 

There’s still a double standard in photography

The ethical standards of taking and publishing photographs has come a long way in recent years. Yet it’s clear that individuals and communities from ‘developing’ states are often seen through a different lens than individuals from the UK. They are more likely to be photographed without dignity and through a colonial lens.

Lynsey Addario / Getty Images
Daniel Berehulak / New York Times

A clear illustration of this can be seen when comparing images from the 2013 Ebola outbreak to coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic in the UK. Whilst British citizens are photographed respectfully, the same dignity is not afforded to those from African countries. A photographer from Europe photographing overseas will inevitably bring their own biases and internalised perception of people. Charities should be mindful of these internalised biases and try to not to reinforce unequal power relations when commissioning and publishing photographs.

Norms around consent have changed

The biggest ethical issue in photography concerns consent. There’s a difference between editorial and informed consent. The former, favoured by newspapers, means that photographers don’t need to get informed consent from those they photograph. In the past, many charities worked along the lines of editorial consent, but in recent years, NGOs have largely adopted the standards of informed consent, whether when working via the media or their own staff.

Informed consent means that both photographer and subject know who they’re talking to, where and how the images will be used and that the subject can say no or withdraw consent at any time without fear of consequences. (For a more detailed description of informed consent, see BOND’s guide.)

The challenges of informed consent

We were joined for part of this session by Tammam Aloudat, President of MSF Netherlands. His organisation has been grappling with these issues. These increased standards do not automatically equal ethical photography. Rather, they represent, to use Tammam’s words, “a very problematic consent.” 

Even with the best intentions, there is still an unavoidable power asymmetry between photographer and those being photographed that complicates the rigour of informed consent. For instance, individuals may not fully understand what they are supposedly consenting to or may feel reluctant to refuse a charity worker’s request. Informed consent therefore needs to be in the local language and clearly laid out in layman’s terms. People need to fully understand what they are consenting to, where their image will be used and, crucially, the fact that once their image has been published, it is no longer in the charity’s control. 

An important point to keep in mind is that not all photographers will be fluent in informed consent, and many will be used to working under editorial consent conditions. When hiring a photographer, NGOs need to explain their expectations around informed consent, with direct instructions as to what agreements need to be put in place before an image is taken. 

There’s room for creativity 

A lot of images that come from charities look the same. They show distress, hunger, and pain. In some ways, the logic for these photographs is obvious. They show the situation ‘as it really is’ and help connect UK audiences to the harsh realities of war, famine and drought. 

Yet these kinds of images are not without criticism. Though many charities have progressed from using the dehumanising ‘fly in the eye’ shot of people, images of suffering can still reflect and perpetuate colonial notions, particularly of dehumanised Africans who are without agency and who need to be saved by white charity workers. Moreover, images of suffering where the subject is easily identifiable are unlikely to have gone through the process of informed consent.

Using photography to reach new audiences

However, in light of this, some charities have adopted a more creative approach by commissioning photographers to create more artistic images that tell a story in an expressive way without resorting to traditional images of suffering. WaterAid, for instance, did just this when they commissioned Ethiopian photographer Aida Muluneh to create a series of images exploring water scarcity. 

These sorts of images may not be as useful for fundraising purposes than more traditional images that show need and urgency for donations. Yet charities may wish to invest in such creative images as they may offer longer-term benefits for the charity’s brand. These images from Save the Children, for instance, by Maheder Haileselassie Tadese, won the 2023 Contemporary African Photography prize and the above image from WaterAid is currently on display in the Tate Modern. Such images can be exhibited in places other than the usual fundraising materials, thereby offering charities the chance to reach new audiences. 

Local photographers come with their own challenges 

The complex problems of power and the colonial gaze can be solved by hiring a local photographer, rather than flying a foreign photographer into the region. This approach has many advantages: the photographer is more likely to have a better understanding of the local language and culture, and there will be a reduced carbon footprint (and travel costs) for the commissioning charity.

However, hiring local photographers is not without its own challenges. There can still be local language/cultural differences between a local photographer and the communities being photographed. Plus, on a practical note, local photographers may have difficulties sending and receiving large file sizes, particularly on a tight deadline. 

A key point raised in the discussion was around payment. Charities should not be tempted to offer local photographers a reduced fee to what they would offer a foreign photographer. The ethics of photography should be extended to the photographer: NGOs need to be honest about their budget and always credit the photographer’s name. 

Most photographers will want to retain copyright of their work, but agreements can be made between both parties to ensure that the photographer and the charity can continue to use the images in ways that mutually suit them. By respecting the work of local photographers, charities are more likely to forge a long-lasting working relationship with a valuable contact.

There’s work to be done after the shoot has finished 

Ethical photography doesn’t stop once the shutter has been clicked. There are still considerations NGOs need to take into account about the processing, transferring and sharing of the final images. Again, clear communication about expectations and capabilities with the photographer in advance is needed to avoid any disappointment or misunderstanding.

Once the images are ready, it’s important that they are not used out of context. A photograph of a man in Tanzania cannot accompany a webpage for a project in Ethiopia, for example. The easiest way to do this is for NGOs to keep consistent and comprehensive Digital Asset Management systems.

Categorising images with accompanying metadata (included names/ages of subjects, locations, contextual information, etc) is the easiest way to avoid accidentally misattributing images or inappropriately publishing them out of context. 

Charities should also ensure that communities are followed up with and receive copies of their images. This will help build a relationship between the NGO and the community and will help them feel included in the photographic process. 

Discover more about Jonathan’s work with Gaia Visual and be sure to follow him on LinkedIn. You can read an earlier blog written by Jonathan here.

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