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Should we pay subjects in development communications?

I am currently mentoring a group of Master’s students who are working on a project looking at DFID’s use of photography. Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been reading about the ethical use of imagery in the development sector and have scanned the internet and third sector organisation’s websites for guidelines of photography, branding or visual identities to learn about best practice.

One of the most comprehensive set of guidelines I have uncovered so far is the old ethical-photography-guidelines from AusAID. It is acutely obvious that these guidelines will have been agonised over by several departments over several months before being agreed. There is no doubt in my mind there will have been a great deal of collegiate debate over the tiniest of details. But can we ever get a document like this completely right? Not really, as ethical considerations are so subjective. One particular item in the AusAID guidelines leapt off the page at me

“Absolutely no payment or any other form of compensation are to be provided to subjects in exchange for the photo or consent.”

It doesn’t explain why. This intrigues me. I’ve modeled on a number of occasions (I know it’s hard to believe). Mostly it’s just been because someone I know needs a favour or they want me to be a blur in the background. However, on more than one occasion I have been paid. In fact, I once got paid £50 cash for being a blur in a billboard advert for Audi.  It took one hour. Maybe I should take it up professionally. No seriously, I know that Audi is a large commercial entity and therefore cannot be compared directly to development communications which often adopt a more documentary style of photography which aims to be objective. But, why is that I can be paid for being a blur whereas subjects of AUSaid’s visual imagery can’t? Within the same guidelines every effort is made to ensure human rights and dignity of that subject. Is asking someone to work for nothing dignified?

I have worked with a lot of photographers in my career and I know that capturing the ‘perfect image’ is not a 5 minute job. This is especially the case when trying to ensure that the image is representative and taken in the right context. This might involve asking the subject to be photographed in their place of work which is 20 minutes away. Why should they give up their time? Could this be considered a form of exploitation?

As anyone who has worked in development communication will know, imagery is immensely important. Good imagery can shape perceptions, change behaviours and often are essential to spark interest from the media in a story.

Photographers are usually given a strict criteria when on a photo shoot i.e. no stereotypes, ensure relevance and dignity at all times, don’t oversimplify the message, there must be a gender balance, consider power relations and so on. Maybe we would achieve better visual communication if subjects were paid a reasonable fee? It would make the photographer’s job a lot easier to capture the image in the given brief and surely the subject would feel more appreciated? I suppose one of the counter-arguments is that if the subjects are paid they may be open to staging the true representation of the image and authenticity is lost? Surely this is the responsibility of the photographer or art director? Another good reason for not paying subjects it that it sets a precedent amongst that community and possibly smaller NGOs simply cannot afford to pay fees.

The debate is complex but maybe one solution to ensure authenticity and representation would be for the subject to be shown all images and for them to only give consent to those they select? Let’s call it paid participatory photography. A new era in development communication maybe?

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