Ethical image use: telling compelling stories while respecting peoples’ rights

Photo: Paul Akiko and his family with a polaroid of themselves in the village of Cuivir Rainha, Niassa, Mozambique. © WaterAid/ Panos/ Adam Patterson 

In the field of communications for social development, images are king. But depending on how they are used, and despite the intention, they can have positive or negative consequences. Video and photographic images can spur emotions, connect people and cultures, raise awareness, enhance evidence-based advocacy and boost knowledge, leading to increased stakeholder support, funding, partnerships and policy change. However, they can also reinforce stereotypes, misconstrue messages, cause bad publicity and negative controversy, and lessen stakeholder support and funding. Key questions in the development sector include:

  • How can organizations sensitively and fairly portray the needs they are trying to address?
  • How can organizations give a fuller, more rounded picture of the places in which they work?
  • How can organizations use emotive images of people and communities without compromising their rights?

As part of an organization’s content strategy, images should tell the full story – the trial and error, the failure and success, and the experiences and perspectives of all beneficiaries and stakeholders. And most importantly, all of these images should respect the rights of all of the people, communities and stakeholders included.

In order to address these aspects, it is important for organizations to develop video and photography guidelines, and more specifically, an ethical image policy. The NGO WaterAid recently released a comprehensive ethical image policy covering:

  • Accuracy – ensuring videos and photos are truthful
  • Consent – ensuring people fully understand why they are being photographed or filmed, and are comfortable with the process and outcomes
  • Longevity – how long the images should be used
  • Integrity – producing respectful images, avoiding stereotyping and ensuring privacy
  • Manipulation – what is and is not allowed in post-production
  • Child protection – ensuring that children featured in images are safe from harm
  • Equality and non-discrimination – ensuring that video and photographic practices include everyone, even the most marginalized

Read WaterAid’s take on ethical image use or download their ethical image policy for inspiration.

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