Photo ethics

26 03 2009

Recently a friend, who is a teacher in the UK, challenged me about the photos I have of Ghanaian children on Flickr. He correctly pointed out that the parents of the children weren’t even aware of that the pictures were online, much less had given permission and that I was behaving naively in displaying them.

He was right, but I’m not sure about taking them down. I’ve come up with the following reasons/excuses:

  • The children here are such a big part of the experience, and indeed part of the reason to be here, that to remove all images of them would be to obliterate an important aspect of my time here.
  • I often have no idea of who or where the children’s parents are and am confident that they have little or no English so asking for permission would be extremely difficult. I also suspect that they have little idea of what the internet is.
  • I try to be culturally sensitive and to show the children in a positive, happy light and tend to show the children the photos I’ve taken (usually to howls of excited laughter).
  • It is extremely unlikely the child, their parents or anyone they know will ever see the photographs
  • I don’t put any form of identification of the children
  • I’m not benefiting materially in anyway from the pictures
  • If someone is moved by my pictures to be a little more involved with the issues then that is positive

I’m not totally convinced by my arguments, but I don’t feel I’m exploiting the children (or anyone else I photograph). I fear that I’m leaving them up because I like the pictures and want to share them, but wonder how I would feel if I found a photo of me or one of my nephews or nieces on a stranger’s website. I do think we need to find a middle way between the paranoia in the UK and the apparent lack of concern here.

Would removing the pictures be an over reaction? am I being niave? or am I unintentionally exploiting these children? Any thoughts?




5 responses

27 03 2009

hmm…. I think as long as one isn’t using them to make money… Most people pose for this stuff in the first place and I’m sure it would give the kids a kick to see themselves online. :)

27 03 2009
Damien Moran

Have you read the NGO code on images and messages initiated some years ago by Irish development NGOs and adapted by many of the mainstream NGOs (in theory at least)?

As regards the images, I haven’t actually looked at them yet but I think the main thing we need to ask ourselves are whether we sought permission from elders in the vicinity of the children to take the pictures in the first place. Secondly, whether you asked whether you could publish them for non-profit purposes? The adults you asked would probably have been aware of the internet, or at least you could have explained it easily enough that you wanted the photos to be available to see on your own news page.

Did you ask for their names? Did you make a note of what they were doing and where they were at the time the photo was taken? Certainly showing miserable looking kids without context is something we all should get angry about as it is just not educational and is exploitative in my opinion. The dignity of the photographed should be, especially amongst certain tribes and religious groups, paramount at all times.

Loosely saying to oneself: ‘Ah sure, it can’t do no harm but may do some good’ can be a dangerous line of thinking. For too long the poor, emaciated have been boxed off as if this is the only reason why the world shoud tak notice. Do we not become somewhat sanitised by such images? Broadcasters like Amy Goodman, in the US believe that if the public in the US got true images from the war in Iraq for just one hour it would radically change public opinion. I respectfully disagree. We are so used to dehumanised, helpless peoples sprayed across the print and digital media it just doesn’t stick with us.

Construcive images of kids being kids, i.e. happy for the most part, are at least reflective of the vast majority of poor children I have encountered here in Ghana and elsewhere. They can play with a tyre all day and use unbelievable creativity to have fun. People in Ghana using mobile phone in Ghana may be an amazing image for many to see. From my experience as a teacher many teens in Europe believe that Africans ain’t got any technology, and mos certainly don’t realise the significance African resources play in their everyday lives, e.g. coltan from East Congo in mobile phones.

I recall working in Haiti in 2001 and picking up a lift from some US evangelical missionaries. At onestage they halted the bus dramatically and bailed outside rapidly. I thought it was a sudden piss stop. In fact, it was to pose for a photo with a half naked boy, just covered by a filthy torn t-shirt. No name, no context, no permission. Just a photo-op of another soul saved.

Ok, I’m wandering off. I should check out your photos and then my response would be better informed.

Check out the code of conduct, it’s well worth reflecting over. In addition to that check out what Kenyan academic Binyavanga Wainaina has to say about how to write about Africa:

18 04 2009

Wow, I am stunned by the reactions to your photos, to me they were so typical of what I experienced in Ghana and to not include them would be to deny an important part of your experience.

30 04 2009
Ray S.

I’m a friend of Will Lanier, VSO volunteer in Tamale, and he gave me the link to your blog, which I’m really enjoying.

I look at the photo question from what I imagine to be a photojournalist’s perspective. You are documenting life in Ghana, just as someone working for National Geographic would. While the industry does use release forms in some circumstances, I doubt that many photographers would get releases from every child in this sort of shoot (where the focus is many, not one) – in Ghana, the U.S., or anywhere. The focus is on documentation, and getting releases would interfere with that, I think. It would change the relationship between photographer and subject, and the results would no longer be as genuine.

2 05 2009
Tim Little

Thanks for the comments everyone. Overall I think I’ll leave the photos there, as has been said it is clearly an attempt to document my experience and not intended to exploit. Hiding them would be an over reaction.

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