The British Government’s Department for International Development (DFID) are working with The School for International Development at UEA to conduct a survey on the ethics of photographing development issues. I’d been directed to this survey by Duckrabbit who frequently discuss such issues on their blog.
If you are a photographer and/or filmmaker, please consider offering your thoughts too. It should not require too much time to answer the nine questions – though I certainly spent more than the five minutes Duckrabbit suggested it would take!
I’ve listed my lightly-edited response to the main questions in the survey below. My answers are not intended to be all-encompassing but they do summarise my thoughts, particularly on the subject of consent about which I’ve written before.
What are the ways you collect consent for ethical usage of images ? e.g. written, audio, video, other. Explain. If I am photographing a sensitive subject like HIV/AIDS I will get written consent (as with the photograph above). If I am photographing any other situation that involves me going into someone’s private space, I will ask for consent but this is almost always aural and I rarely record this consent. If people decline then of course I do not photograph them.
While it is incredibly important to respect the people you photograph I have worked extensively in India and I sometimes wonder what value a consent form has when presented to an illiterate person who has little understanding of the world beyond their village. In India (and perhaps other countries too), there is a reluctance to sign your name to anything. Many families have lost land or relinquished rights because they have signed their name on a piece of paper. In this context, the logical response to someone holding out a consent form is to ask: what do they want to take from me?
If I am in a public area, I do not seek the consent of everyone who is depicted in the photograph because this is just not practical. Posing for a portrait usually indicates consent to be photographed like the young couple at the top of this post out shopping on a busy weekend in Kolkata. I look at photographs, past and present, that have real historical or cultural value. I think it unlikely that all but a very few (whether in the Developed or Developing world) were taken with explicit consent. Yet these photographs can be incredibly valuable in expressing empathy and contributing to our understanding of each other and of the past. Some of these photographs record significant historical events. Photography that is authentic and true to a subject must be encouraged when so many photographs that do involve consent (advertising, selfies etc) are concocted images of reality.
How do you capture an ethical representation of your subject to avoid issues like cultural or stereotypical misrepresentations? When photographing, I hope to influence my subjects as little as possible. This is of course never completely achievable but by remaining an observer, reducing my input into a scene and revealing as little of my own feelings as possible, I try to capture activity as authentically as possible. For example – without being rude – I do not respond when children play to the camera. Capturing photographs of children doing what children do when there is no camera is the outcome I seek. I also think respecting the dignity of a subject is fundamental. I ask myself: would I be happy to be photographed in this way?
If you are given a brief which is different to your working process or may conflict with your ethical practices; how would you handle this? I would make my feelings known. I like to think people assign me because of my approach and the experience I can bring to a project and will therefor respect my opinion when planning for an assignment. There are times when I have photographed events which I’m not entirely comfortable with. For example a British celebrity in the home of a bewildered rural Indian family. I certainly would not want to photograph these situations every day (and do so rarely) but I do not consider this sufficient a conflict in my mind to warrant me declining the work.
Permission to make this video on post-conflict resolution in Uganda for Christian Aid required the payment of a fee to the head of the village in which I filmed.
Do you think people should be paid for being photographed? (e.g. cash, food, transport, given copies of photos). Consider your answer in relation to context and cultural norms. ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ and please explain why. I would say no but if someone has taken a day off work to be photographed then I would compensate them for their time. I almost never pay people for being photographed or filmed. I worked in Uganda recently and the only way to film people in a particular village (see video above) was to pay the head of the village. But paying almost always influences the relationship between a photographer and a subject. Subjects are more likely to perform for the camera. They might walk to into a public street and be photographed alongside a dozen others who may also want to be paid and resent it when they are not. It is much better to arrange for copies of photos to be given as compensation.
What advice would you give to an inexperienced photographer about collecting consent? Make sure people understand why you are photographing them. If they raise an objection, walk away. It is wrong to photograph in such a situation (unless in the public interest: for example a public official failing to fulfil their duty as in the photograph above) and you rarely end up with decent photographs anyway.
Some very interesting responses, thank you! I was involved in generating this survey and I agree with you regarding the issue of people needing to understand the ‘why’ of consent, though I’m not sure to what extent this is possible. Like all things development related it is context dependent – photo brief, photographers personal ethics, subjects literacy, economic, social and political status etc. We differ on the opinion about payment though. Whilst I am not a photographer and my experience of working in the field is limited in comparison to yours, I am still inclined to think subjects should be paid. I realize opinions are divided on the issue, particularly as you say because it affects subjects behaviour which I can understand is a problem for an artist – however my feeling in relation to the work aspect is that this is a business transaction in which all parties should get their piece of the pie. Although I acknowledge that settling on a how much etc would be a real problem … it also risks further commodifying the ‘developing subject’ for lack of a better expression. Whilst there is no perfect solution to the complex challenges of representations of development, in my opinion the participatory media approach is the most ideal – but of course the debate about what constitutes participation is not straight forward to say the least.
Ironically speaking of photographs and consent, it appears that GOOGLE have decided it is ok to publish my photo on this blog without my permission and I do not seem to have the option to remove it!?