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Ethics and Photography in Developing Countries

Introduction

Those who take photos while participating abroad have an ethical responsibility to preserve the dignity of their subjects and provide a faithful, comprehensive visual depiction of their surroundings so as to avoid causing public misperceptions. Visual images are a cogent way to convey an experience to an audience and to evoke strong public emotions, as people often formulate their opinions, judgments, and behaviors in response to visual stimuli. In this way, the photographer wields substantial control over public perception. Photographers’ decisions about how to depict their subjects can entirely alter viewers’ perceptions.

Ethical Considerations

“We’ve all seen it: the photo of a teary-eyed African child, dressed in rags, smothered in flies, with a look of desperation that the caption all too readily points out.” (1) Like any other business, the non-profit and development sectors need revenue to survive. Many charities have found that their most effective tactic for eliciting donations has involved the use of dehumanizing images to evoke feelings of pity and charity. These photos are dangerous, however, because they completely fail to capture the intelligence, resilience, and capabilities of the communities that the nonprofit is looking to help. A “Perspectives of Poverty" project was recently implemented by Duncan McNichol of Engineers Without Borders Canada. Duncan photographed Edward Kabzela of Chagunda Village, Malawi. In the photo on the left, Edward was asked to look and act as poor as possible, while in the photo on the right, Edward was asked to dress as rich as possible. 

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The two images convey completely different stories, and elicit entirely different emotions in the viewer. The photo on the left does not reflect Edward’s success, portraying him instead as a hopeless, dirty, hungry and impoverished beggar. However, this is not an accurate portrayal of Edward. In reality, he is very successful as an area mechanic and grower of tobacco, and he also works for a basket weaving business. He is also thinking of investing in a truck to start a transportation business. Edward also explained, “NGOs come to the village here to take pictures of people. At church, at the market, on the road, at meetings. Only people who are dressed poorly.” (2) These images are unfair to the local population and have “become a marketable commodity. They are blown up and displayed at fund-raisers by NGOs, donors and UN agencies; they help organizations to stay in business. The more graphic they are, the more money they help to raise.” (3) Even Time Magazine recently published an issue that included a photo essay of an African mother dying in childbirth in Sierra Leone. This photo essay aroused outcry. Though the intentions of the editors may have been to motivate wealthy donors and nations to take action to improve maternal healthcare in developing countries, dehumanizing photos should not be utilized. “While these images might shock Westerners into digging deeper into their pockets, they have the unintended effect of disgusting the very people they are supposed to help. Moreover, they reflect double standards.”(3)

The Problem

Since donors are often more empathetic to one person facing hardship than to many people, organizations frequently elicit donations by evoking sympathy in the viewer by showing images of hungry and ill children and, less frequently, adults.(4) These images have been termed “poverty porn," which is defined as “words and images that elicit an emotional response by their sheer shock value. Images like starving, skeletal children covered in flies.” (5) Poverty porn is harmful because it “exploits the poor’s condition in order to generate the necessary sympathy for selling newspapers or increasing charitable donations or support for a given cause.” (6) In addition to violating privacy and human rights, poverty porn is damaging to those it is trying to aid because it evokes the idea that the poor 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.(7) In order to demonstrate respect and sensitivity towards the local population and to avoid poverty porn, one should heed the following protocols:

Before Photographing

  • Always get the subject’s consent first, especially if you want to do a close-up.
  • Examine your motives for shooting a particular frame. Do you want to inspire hope and understanding, or maybe even expose wrongdoing and neglect? It is not acceptable to use the photographs simply to harness pity. People who donate out of guilt tend to see subjects as pitiful objects, which is dehumanizing and disrespectful.   
  • You should not bribe subjects to feign despair, anger, or other emotions, or seek to influence the “slant” of your photos in any way.
  • Think about what you want to portray in your photo. While it is fine to portray the fears and poverty of your subjects in some photos, others should also convey the community's strengths and expectations.(8) Never portray your subjects as useless or inadequate.(9)

While Photographing

  • Sometimes, it works well to photograph subjects from behind so that only their activities, and not their faces, can be seen. For example, your photo may show the face of the doctor who is performing an eye exam, but not the patient’s face. This not only prevents the patient from getting distracted, but also protects his or her privacy.
  • Be humble, considerate and respectful, especially during private moments of grief. Try to take the picture from afar without being intrusive.   
  • Try not to be an aloof stranger; build a relationship of mutual understanding with your subject.

After Photographing

  • Don’t stereotype or make false generalizations.(10) A single photograph of a starving African child is not representative of the situation throughout the continent. Use captions to contextualize visual images.
  • Photos should be used to raise public awareness, not to exploit public sympathy.
  • Photos must be carefully and faithfully edited (meaning there should be minimal, but acceptable digital manipulation and no fancy embellishments) to avoid misrepresentation.
  • Ensure that your photos document what you believe is the real situation of your subjects.(11)

Photographers should use their skills to influence public perception responsibly, and it is crucial for organizations to use images that connect people from all walks of life through the language of visual understanding.

Footnotes

(1) “Perspectives of Poverty.” Accessed on 3 September 2010.

(2) Ibid.

(3) Warah, R. “Images of the ‘Dying African’ border on pornography.” Accessed on 13 September 2010.

(4) “Why we care (and why we don’t). A conversation with Dr. Paul Slovic.” Accessed on 13 September 2010.

(5) “From Poverty Porn to Humanitarian Storytelling.” Accessed on 3 September 2010.

(6) “What is ‘poverty porn’ and why does it matter for development?’ ” Accessed on 3 September 2010.

(7) “What is ‘poverty porn’ and why does it matter for development?’ “ Accessed on 3 September 2010.

(8) Gidley. Ruth. "NGOs still fail standards on appeal images," AlertNet 14 Jan 2004. Thomson Reuters Foundation. Web.26 Jun 2009.

(9) "Photo Ethics: Aim High When You Shoot." Medialit. Center for Media Literacy. 26 Jun 2009.

(10) Gidley. Ruth. "NGOs still fail standards on appeal images," AlertNet 14 Jan 2004. Thomson Reuters Foundation. Web.26 Jun 2009.

(11) "Photo Ethics: Aim High When You Shoot." Medialit. Center for Media Literacy. 26 Jun 2009.