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? Employees subject to suspension without pay, may have a claim for constructive dismissal and entitlement to severance. Hiring an employment lawyer is also crucial since they know the proper legal actions for questionable job terminations.

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?

12 thoughts to “Should we pay subjects in development communications?”

  1. Great blog, David – I think it certainly merits the question. Personally, I don’t think photographers should be paying subjects in anything except commercial photography in which they are helping to make revenue for a third-party – as this inevitably skews that person’s representation. But then, you could also say that’s what charities and NGOs do with their own photography – which in many cases is carefully utilised to help bring in donations, so very much a grey area.

    But it also made me think of a personal experience: I set about to photograph a small Ghanaian hairdressers in Dalston a while back – it interested me because, taken out of context, it felt like you were actually transported from London to some small shop in Ghana somewhere, with the artistic signage and posters plastering the whole thing. But when I asked the owner, she basically wanted to know: How much will you pay? I said: nothing – it wasn’t a commercial venture, but a documentary project and I wasn’t prepared to pay subjects. She replied: I know how things work in this country – everything has a price. It stuck in my mind, because whether she meant it or not, the implication was you might not pay in Ghana, but you would have to in the UK.

    1. Hi Simon. Thanks for the feedback. I agree that there are greys areas here. Shame you didn’t get the photographs of the barbers in Dalston. I would have liked to have seen them.

  2. Interesting article. I’m not sure to be honest, as I see things there can be only 2 reasons to offer subjects payment for photography. The first is on a contract / professional basis as you would a model. The second would be as part of a wider economic dev strategy. The role of photography in the sector normally sits within the documentary genre and the brief usually stresses the importance to highlight need and or success. Communications isn’t the primary reason for programmes requesting photography services, it’s much more likely these days that we would be hired as part of their VFM reporting, KM or M&E work.

    It’s important therefore that the image shows the situation as it is. In my view we are not creating art, we’re documenting.
    Introducing cash to the interactions between image maker and subject would (I imagine) generate completely different pictures.

    If the desire to spread money is the concern, then there probably would be little need for physical interventions and photographers would be the last people you’d want distributing cash. (Notoriously bad at paper work).

  3. What do we mean by commercial profit and revenue in this sense? NGOs use a lot of these images to raise funds from a range of public, private sources. So, we need to reframe that question. It is an important one. For me, the ethical one is still bigger and unresolved. Consent is a murky area, particularly with children. Knowledge and understanding of how their image/likeness is to be used is a minefield. The same standards we have in Australia around photographing people, including children, are rarely find in a development context. Great article with thought provoking questions. (FYI AusAID doesn’t exist anymore 😉 aid program is under DFAT)

    1. Great response Nick – thank you! It is interesting to hear the perspective of someone who does this on a regular basis. There is no right or wrong answer I suppose – but this is something I wanted to raise for an academic debate.

    2. Good question about commercial profit and NGO advertising revenue! This is one of the reasons I raised the questions. Consent is indeed a murky area. I am working on project next week with Master’s students where we will be critiquing informed consent and how to request it. I did know AusAID had been subsumed, it’s one of the reasons I chose their old guidelines to discuss.

      Thanks for the comments!

  4. My question is what is the line between documentary and promotional materials? Certainly non-governmental organizations are generating revenue using people’s likenesses. The commentor above received payment to be in the Audi advert not just because it’s a corporation, but because his or her image would be used to attract business. Aren’t NGOs doing the same, just attracting donations?

  5. Here what’s organisations should do. Empower photographers to be human in their work not people who follow arbitrary rules that by their nature cannot take note of individual circumstances. If someone gives you their time, if you can see a simple way to thank them, do it. The photogs who never give back are not the ones I would want on my team. They take what they do and themselves far too seriously.

    1. I like this comment “empower photographers to be human in their work”. As you say every circumstance is different and therefore different rules should apply. Ethics is such a complex area so flexibility in consent and payments/incentives is desirable.

  6. A very good blog and gives one food for thought. I’m a journalist/filmmaker and I’m currently producing a feature-length documentary on homeless street children in Malawi, the poorest country in the world. When we’re not shooting, I usually check up on the kids to see if the kids are ok and I give them a little money to get by. Now in the world of journalism ethics, this is a big no-no. And I remember studying journalism and completely agreeing with the “don’t give a source money” rule. But going out into the real world, seeing the way things are, my idealism has subsequently faded. The world’s not so black and white. I’m sorry, but if me giving money to a kid who hasn’t eaten in three days means I’m an awful journalist and documentary filmmaker, then so be it. Life is not so simple.

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