Photo opportunity

August 21st, 2014

A development worker called Sam was tasked with writing a report on a project that had recently begun in a country in Sub-Saharan Africa. Photos of the people who would be impacted by the project were needed for the report. Sam reached one of the villages that would be benefitting from the project and while talking to the local people started scanning the faces for potential photo opportunities. Spotting a mother and child in ragged clothing stood in a doorway, Sam went over to ask their names. The mother was called Irene and her daughter was called Patience. Sam asked if it would be ok to name them in the report as examples of people who would be impacted by the project and take their photo so that people who were interested in the project would be able to put faces to names. Sam explained how the photograph would be used in the report, and that it would be seen by many people in the UK and potentially elsewhere as they had supporters all over the world, and would ultimately raise awareness about the project. Immediately Irene said she had to go but would return in an hour for the photo.

After more than one hour she returned with Patience, they were both wearing brand new clothes. She had been to the market to buy the clothes because she and Patience needed to look their best for the photo. She had been saving for a new dress anyway and now was the perfect time to buy one. Her wraparound skirt, plain t-shirt with a hole and flip flops had been replaced with a dress and shoes. Her little girl wore a bow in her hair. This wasn’t the photo Sam wanted…..

Last month the Irish Association of Non-governmental Development Organisations (Dochas) released an Illustrative Guide to its ‘Code of Conduct on Images and Messages.’ The Code is based on 7 guiding principles:


Principle 1: Choose images and related messages based on values of respect, equality, solidarity and justice.

For Irene, the clothes she and her daughter were wearing were important in communicating respect and dignity. Did Sam respect the fact that for Irene, the clothes she wore presented her as either a dignified or undignified person?

Principle 2: Truthfully represent any image or depicted situation both in its immediate and in its wider context, so as to improve public understanding of the realities and complexities of development.

Irene wanted to be photographed in a different state to the one Sam found her and Patience in. Although this wasn’t communicating the ‘truth’ as Sam saw it, Irene had the capacity to buy luxury items at the time, and wanted to communicate another truth. Was it wrong for her to change Sam’s ‘truth?’ Or was it wrong for Sam to assume there was one single truth to be communicated?

Principle 3: Avoid images and messages that potentially stereotype sensationalise, or discriminate against people, situations or places.

Would the photo Sam wanted to take sensationalise Irene and Patience’ situation? Would the photo make them look more vulnerable and suffering from ‘a life of drudgery’ than was true?

Principle 4: Use images, messages, and case studies with the full understanding, participation and permission of the subjects (or the subjects’ parents/guardians)

If Sam explained the reasons behind why the ragged clothes would look best, would Irene still agree to be photographed; knowing that it was Irene and Patience’s ‘indignity’ that Sam wanted to communicate most of all?

Principle 5: Ensure those whose situation is being represented have the opportunity to communicate their stories themselves

Irene had a different story to communicate about her life and the life of her daughter to the one that Sam wanted to communicate. She wanted to take the opportunity to communicate it.

Principle 6: Establish and record whether the subjects wish to be named or identified and always act accordingly

Irene wanted to be identified, but would she feel the same knowing that what she most wanted to change about the photograph was what Sam most wanted to communicate to the world?

Principle 7: Conform to the highest standards in relation to human rights and the protection of vulnerable people

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) states that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. For Irene, the clothes she and her daughter wear communicate dignity and respect. If Irene is ‘born free in dignity’ she should also be free to have control over the things she associates with dignity, like clothing.

……..Does what happens next matter?




Photo credit: Dochas Network

One response to “Photo opportunity”

  1. Andy Heath Says:

    Great piece Ros. You throw up the classic issue that fundraisers have to deal with – that the vast majority of people in the west respond better (financially anyway) to images and video that show ‘need’ and less well to images that show solutions & people who are well dressed & happy.

    This is a problem I have faced. I would be to take the picture of Irene as she wished. But in my opinion, what should be happening is that Sam should be taking photos of people as they go about their ordinary day-to-day business, and therefore capture daily life however that might be. That is more likely to be a true depiction of what life is like in that community and as long as people are aware of what the images are to be used for, why they are being taken and are comfortable with having their photo taken, I see no problem with that.

    In future, I would like to see more charities giving communities they are working with the equipment to capture their own images and stories so that they can tell their stories themselves and in real time. I believe that would make for a much closer and healthier relationship between donors and the people they help, although it might put some of us out of a job!

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