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Photography, representation and informed consent in the aid sector

30 August 2021 at 5:29 pm
Hannah McNicol
It is crucial to consider the messages you intend to portray when using photos in the development sector, writes Hannah McNicol, who shares some basic principles on the ethics of using and capturing images.

Hannah McNicol | 30 August 2021 at 5:29 pm


Photography, representation and informed consent in the aid sector
30 August 2021 at 5:29 pm

It is crucial to consider the messages you intend to portray when using photos in the development sector, writes Hannah McNicol, who shares some basic principles on the ethics of using and capturing images.

When you think about international development, charities working abroad, or “aid”, what images come to mind? Is it the images of children suffering from malnutrition, stomachs swollen, that were widely disseminated in the ‘80s by charities seeking donations? Is it women from low-income countries holding their children and smiling? Perhaps it is a white “voluntourist” with several giggly children on their back? 

These sorts of images have been effectively and repeatedly used in the development / charity sector to tell the stories of partners and participants and have helped to raise awareness of the issues facing individuals in low-income countries. They have also been used to elicit emotion from donors and increase much-needed donations. Indeed, charities around the world have and continue to provide essential services to vulnerable members of society everyday and their work should not be undermined. Similarly, individuals’ inherent desire to help others or engage with issues of inequality should not be squandered.

However, some of the images that have historically represented “aid” or international development are underpinned by significant issues. How images are captured and how images are used becomes particularly important when external parties are operating overseas and potential power imbalances between said parties are at play. 

Unfortunately, many of the images employed by international charities echo global histories of colonialism. These images often operate along racial lines: when white people are shown they are usually the person helping or “saving”. When Black, Indigenous or People of Colour (BIPOC) people are shown they are often the party receiving assistance. Sometimes referred to as “poverty porn”, the images risk propagating stereotypes that the participant of the charity / development program is without agency, relies on help from charities and has strong ties to white saviourism (when white people provide help to BIPOC people in a self-serving manner). The images used can further propagate a one-dimensional version of the community or person shown and risk not showing the complexity and diversity of local contexts.

Read more: Can messages of hope deliver the bottom line?

The way gender is presented can also be problematic. Kalpana Wilson notes that by charities over-focusing on photos of women this can inadvertently suggest it is only women who are living in poverty or women who re-invest back in their communities, known as the “feminisation of the poor”. Similarly, whilst reviewing 1990s Indonesian marketing campaigns Krishna Sen explained how images of middle-class professional women disrupted the saturated global images of Indonesian women working in fields or living in slums. Sen called for an important comparison between how women in low-income countries are represented intra-country in comparison to inter-nationally. 

There also exists the concern of whether the subject of the image knows how and where the image is going to be used. Does the individual in the photo know their image is on a bus stop in Melbourne, Australia for example? In some particularly worrying cases tourists or volunteers may not even ask local people before taking their photos, even though in their own home country they would never photograph a stranger or child without permission. This raises the important issue of informed consent. 

Informed consent is: permission that a person grants to be photographed, with knowledge of where, how, and for what purpose the photographs/information will be used. Informed consent can be hard to navigate in a development context because there is a power dynamic between the participants and development staff. The participant may worry that by saying “no” to being photographed it will jeopardise their participation in the program. 

Regulatory requirements and ethical image policies

These issues are not new and sit within a complex debate around the use of “ethical images” in the development or charity sector. Organisations globally are working to ensure they are using images of their partners and participants of their programs ethically by representing them with respect and showing diverse cultures accurately. Most organisations have an ethical image/photography policy that requires regular updating (examples include Medecins Sans Frontieres’ Guidelines for MSF staff, WaterAid’s Ethical image policy, and the Australian government’s AusAid ethical photography guidelines).

Australian NGOs working abroad are also beholden to vital regulatory and compliance requirements from ACFID and DFAT that ensure “material respects the dignity, values, history, religion and culture of the people with whom it works”. 

To retain their DFAT accreditation, organisations must:

  • ensure they promote partners and participants as active agents, not as passive recipients of aid; 
  • avoid sensationalising the challenges in developing countries; and
  • gain permission in a way that is culturally appropriate and contextually sensitive. 

The issue, then, is what images can be used – especially when the reality is that charities do important work with communities living in poverty? Like with all work in the development sector, there is a need for consistent reflection on the work you do and the potential impacts (both positive and negative) on the communities you work with, the need for localisation processes, consideration of power imbalances and critical engagement with intention. What messages are you trying to portray through the images you use?


Basic principles for ethical imagery in the development sector

  • Include basic information to ensure that images accurately reflect the extent of an organisation’s work and their participants’ stories.
  • Avoid stereotypes. Avoid images that suggest that a participant is without agency and relies on the assistance of development organisations or charities. 
  • Show balance. A survey conducted by Save the Children asked participants what they thought about the use of their images and stories. Participants expressed their preferences for “balance in portrayal” – for images and stories that show resilience and solutions alongside those that show needs and problems. 
  • Research the cultural position on photography. Always learn about a culture’s views towards photography before taking any content. 
  • Accurately represent gender and diversity. To accurately represent women’s agency, development organisations should consider how the women from the communities in which they work are represented in their own countries and learn from these representations. Always strive to include a diverse range of genders, as well as representing partners and participants who are living with disabilities in an accurate and dignified way.

Basic principles for capturing images ethically in the development sector

  • Always ensure that written or verbal informed consent is taken.
  • Ensure that written consent is provided in the language of the participant or verbal consent is gained by someone speaking the participants’ native language.
  • It should be made clear there is no requirement to be photographed or any risk that saying “no” will jeopardise participation in a development program.
  • Consent forms should include an anonymity clause so that participants can agree to the use of their image but do not have to consent to the dissemination of any personal information. 
  • Consent forms should include a “removal of consent” clause for anyone wishing to remove their consent in the future. Participants may no longer feel an image taken in the past is an accurate representation of them in the future.

Hannah McNicol  |  @ProBonoNews

Hannah McNicol works as a communications field support officer at Good Return.

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