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For Community-Driven Global Development

Ethical Photography Guide

ethical photography

Photography and implications

Photography during programs abroad is almost inextricably linked to the program itself. Photographs will help you situate memories, people, projects—they can be a tool by which you can deliver a message, an aesthetic snapshot, and much more. Ensure that you are making the most of your photos by photographing experiences and subjects that are personal to you. Your walk to your host organization, your host dad peeling potatoes, your community team with the project you’re all working on—these will be valuable memories to carry with you. Ensure that you choose your subject to reflect your experience and remember that you are not photographing in order to capture the context as a whole; your pictures are more telling of you than what’s on the other side of the lens.

The Context in Photography

How you take your photograph is just as important as the subject of your photo. When framing a subject, consider the context that will be set up through the photograph. A picture is an incomplete representation of a moment, and it is important to recognize the way in which your framing decisions (e.g. who you include in the shot, the amount of “empty space” in your frame, the expressions you capture) create the viewer’s idea of the setting in which the photo was taken.

Part of framing a photo is your own understanding of the subject. In a project conducted by Canon Australia, 6 photographers were asked to shoot portraits of one man—each was told a different backstory. “When we take images, as a person we are never neutral towards the object we photograph, but rather a sum of all our thoughts, experiences and prejudices” (Canon New Zealand). This came to fruition when the same man, framed as “a self-made millionaire, someone who has saved a life, an ex-inmate, a commercial fisherman, a self-proclaimed psychic, and a recovering alcoholic” (Petapixel) was photographed resulting in six portraits with vastly different lighting, posing, and background. Your perceptions of your surroundings greatly influence the way you will portray them; be cognizant of this when photographing busy streets, people, or animals.

Social media ethics and travel photography

The photos you take abroad can be visually, historically, and personally interesting. You will share them with friends and family, using them as a jumping off point to share stories and memories. Be cognizant of the photos you post on social media—as previously emphasized, even with no intentions of acting as a representative for the context you visited, the photo will construct ideas in minds of viewers. Challenge yourself and your peers to be mindful of the ways in which you use the photographs you take. Mark Weber, one of the co-producers of Poverty Inc., discussed this in an interview.

“When we were shooting in Haiti, we were in a tent city and people don’t like seeing white people with cameras in tent cities, because they feel objectified. I had a woman throw a rock in my direction. I had another woman get in my face and yell at me. When this would happen, we would take time and explain what we were doing, explaining, 'No, we want to flip the narrative, we want to tell a different story of Haiti.' People would appreciate that.

And yet, in this tent city, my co-producer Anielka took this picture of me with this adorable little kid in tattered clothing. Super cute picture. So what do I do when I get home? Facebook. Posted it, then hit the refresh button a shameful number of times watching 'likes' skyrocket. At the time I was reading The Spiritual Danger of Doing Good by Peter Greer. The next day I looked at it and felt uncomfortable. I don’t even know that kid’s name. I am just cashing in on the social capital I get from being an independent filmmaker in Haiti. So I took it down. That is what we have to do. We have to grind. We have to challenge each other. We have to be uncomfortable. It’s not about pointing fingers, because we’ve all been on the wrong side of that fence. It’s about a commitment to growth.”

Guidelines for culturally sensitive photography

With a thorough knowledge of the place you’re visiting, a genuine interest in sharing and not just taking, an alert intuition, an open mind, enough time, and a little luck, photography abroad—just like travel itself—can be a vehicle to build bridges. By following these guidelines while abroad your photographic efforts will become more rewarding for photographer and subject alike:

  1. Tell the real story of the community. FSD programs focus on asset-based community development, and through photography, you can share the stories the community wishes to share. To do this, familiarize yourself with your community, ask people what they love and enjoy about their community, and share these feelings through your photographs. One photograph of a sick child in Kenya can paint a narrative of a country full of sick children since people who have never visited Kenya may not understand the context of the photo. Use your photography to share the positive and unique aspects of the individuals you meet during your time abroad.
  2. Respect the culture. While taking pictures abroad, respect the local culture and customs. Oftentimes you will see a religious ceremony, funeral procession, or other cultural events that you will wish to document. Make sure that you ask yourself whether or not it is culturally appropriate to take photographs in that context. Avoid stereotypes and exoticism in the pictures you take.
  3. Treat subjects with respect and dignity. You may find yourself taking photographs in areas that you would never be allowed in your home country. Avoid taking pictures of people in the hospital or in vulnerable situations. In an article published in Transitions Abroad Magazine, Jim Kane suggests using the at home test to determine whether or not you should take a picture. Would you take the same picture of people if you were in your home country? While living in Santiago Atitlan, Guatemala, FSD International Program Officer, Devin Graves, noticed that tourists would take pictures of women who were selling food in the market. Many of the women would cover their faces as tourists passed through since they knew that tourists branded cameras ready to snap their photos. As a visitor to your local grocery store, would you feel comfortable taking photos of the cashier? Ask yourself similar questions while abroad to determine if you should take a picture in any given situation.
  4. Get the consent of people you photograph. Remember that even if you do not speak the language of the people that does not mean that you have consent to take their photo. If you are unable to verbally ask for consent, use body language, sign language, or facial expressions to demonstrate your intent. You will get a feeling as to whether or not you have received consent.
  5. Share photos responsibly. As mentioned previously, social media is the most common way of sharing your photos but it is important that you contextualize photos and share the full story. Don't stereotype of share false generalizations, and by all means, avoid becoming a Barbie Savior.
This article was written with contributions from Jahnavi Jagannath and Devin Graves