Ethical Responsibility in Development Photography

international development, NGOs, online technology, social media
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Ethical Responsibility in Development Photography

Ethical Responsibility in Development Photography

Some people may argue long-gone are the days of ‘poverty porn’ running rampant throughout the development sector, but it’s now 2018 and apparently old habits die hard. The term ‘poverty porn’ is used to describe the practices of development NGOs, charities, and foundations that inappropriately portray benefactors as desperate individuals in need of philanthropic donations. Their images are used to create emotions of guilt and subsequently solicit donations. Such practices have heavy colonial undertones and unfortunately can still be found within aid efforts today.

Robin Wyatt, international development photographer, CSR photographer, humanitarian photographer, Communication for Development, CBM, Mobility India, disability, home-based educator
Appropriate development photography strikes the perfect balance between the truth, respect for the subject’s dignity, and creative inspirations.

Radi Aid is a Scandinavian student run watchdog for international development projects. Every year they call-out various stereotype-riddled aid campaigns for inappropriate communication methods. In an effort to make sure organisations remain accountable for their actions, a ‘most offensive’ campaign award is given out annually. Radi-Aid continues to critique the use of ‘poverty tourism’ and the portrayal of a ‘savior complex’ in development communication materials. In parallel to these criticisms, the organisation also annually applauds campaigns that work to break down prejudices and stereotypes within the development sector.

The strong movement towards ethical practices in development communication has been picked up by NGOs, governments, and individuals around the world. In 2007 Ireland drafted the Dóchas Code of Conduct in order to help guide organisations select images and messages that maintain and respect the dignity of individuals they are portraying. The document builds off three core values including: respect for the dignity of all people concerned, belief in the equality of all people, and acceptance of the need to promote fairness, solidarity, and justice. These core values require organisations to critically reflect on the messages they are sharing and keep in mind the consequences of practicing different values. Despite the existence of guidelines such as the Dóchas Code of Conduct, there is still much room for improvement in the development communications sector.

Here are eight different tips to remember when creating and curating development photography:

1. De-emphasise the donor organization’s role

International organisations cannot conduct their work without the help of local partnerships. Focus on photographs that display the hard work of local workers and avoid selecting images of foreign workers, making sure to emphasise the critical partnerships invoked in development activities. Our creative associates at Communication for Development strive to highlight the true workers behind the scenes.

Project Manager Daisy Nyambi welcomes Social Welfare Officer Hellen Simwaka to Concern Worldwide’s offices in Nsanje to discuss their progress in Malawi.

2. Aim for complete transparency

Don’t be afraid to display some of your organisation’s failures and lessons learned. Not all projects go perfectly as planned; telling the full story is important when communicating the need for solidarity. Photograph forgotten infrastructure programmes, unnecessarily overlapping projects, and other missteps in your organisation’s efforts to sustainable development.

3. Highlight the ‘true heroes’

Aspire to create images that are nuanced, inspiring, and solution-oriented. Portray the true humanity of individuals involved in development programmes and the ways they are the ‘true heroes’ of the organisations work by seeking to create a positive theme and focusing on solution-oriented actions.

4. Provide context

Never provide a photograph without context, no matter the image. Such images may appear to be ‘just another person in need from just another foreign country’. Meaningful, contextualising captions can also help avoid such dilemmas.

Concern Worldwide takes a holistic approach to improving education, broadening out to entire communities and their traditional authority structures of village chiefs and group village heads. Nyarayi Gauzeni, Mgona’s Group Village Head, enjoys some quality time with her daughter before school.

5. Show the other side

Don’t just document the problems your work is attempting to address, also include images of the true driving factors of such issues. Is corruption a problem or poor infrastructure or environmental pollution? Get clever in weaving those aspects into your visual storytelling methods.

6. Avoid negative emotions

Guilt and pity are two easy emotions to take advantage of but they only reinforce the idea of an unequal power dynamic between the global north and the global south. Strive to capture images that evoke positive emotions, such as solidarity, and provide positive captions as well.

Improving maternal health in Malawi is definitely something worth celebrating!

7. Give benefactors their autonomy back

For so many years individuals in development photography were merely unknowing models for ‘poverty porn’. Provide photograph subjects the opportunity to visually tell the story they want to tell. Photography can provide a platform for self-representation, where subjects can become agents of change instead.

Stanislas beams with pride as he holds his daughter’s self portrait, painted using her passport photo for reference.

8. Always remain critical

Sure, it may be 2018 and your organisation may be a ‘modern catalyst for change’, but there will always be room for growth and lessons to be learned. Educate yourself further on the various codes of conduct used today in the sector of development communications, learn from others’ mistakes, and don’t be afraid to admit your own mistakes when necessary.

At the end of the day we are all on the same team, working to reduce inequality throughout the globe and develop a world where everyone has the opportunity to reach their full potential. The best way for photographers to contribute to these efforts is to ensure their work can be used to promote long-term public engagement with a diversity of actors and avoid the promotion of short-term, unsustainable  responses from donors.