WaterAid’s approach to ethical image use

6 min read

At WaterAid, we take seriously our responsibility to uphold the dignity of the people we work with through respectful use of their imagery. We understand that there are negative implications of unfair representation, and so we endeavour to take a rights-based and progressive approach. Laura Summerton, WaterAid UK’s Senior Photography Officer, looks at the challenges involved, and introduces our updated Ethical Image Policy.

There is a constant debate in and around the charity sector about the appropriate use of imagery in communications. Recently, pupils at a Croydon primary school questioned why charities, including WaterAid, use emotive images of children, and whether this compromises those children’s rights.

How to sensitively and fairly portray the need that we seek to address is one of the key issues facing our Communications team today. Although we know that showing emotive imagery from pre-intervention communities helps to raise funds, the question is whether such portrayals develop understanding of the full context in the long term. Increasingly we are doing much to give a balanced perspective, in the aim that our imagery connects communities from different parts of the world rather than contributing to stereotypes of entire communities, nations or even continents.

Moving past heartstrings?

WaterAid is part of a growing movement among NGOs, media, photographers and filmmakers to move away from using just ‘needs-based’ imagery in communications around development and aid.

We look for ways to, ideally, give a fuller, more rounded picture of the places in which we work. Yes, communities face problems and we need to highlight this, but we also need to show people as individuals, with all of the nuances we each come with.

We aim to tell stories that include trial and error, failure as well as success, and, most importantly, stories of different kinds of stakeholders working to improve access to WASH in homes, communities and countries. We have explored, and continue to explore, a wide range of ways to tell a more complex and compelling story.

Does this mean that we and other NGOs should just stop using imagery that shows the needs of the people we are trying to help? Of course, it isn’t that simple. Honest, appropriate needs-based images continue to have a role to play – without showing what the problem is, it can be difficult to describe what we want to see change.

At WaterAid, we want to show the problems people face in gaining access to adequate WASH, so we can show what needs to change, while also respecting their rights – this can be a balancing act. To help ensure we fulfil the latter, we apply an Ethical Image Policy to our work.

Our Ethical Image Policy is a code of practice for anyone at WaterAid who is engaged in photo gathering or reproduction. Developed through consultations within the organisation and an understanding of NGO best practice, the policy covers issues such as:

  • Accuracy – how to ensure our film and photos are truthful
  • Longevity – how long we should keep and use images for
  • Integrity – how to produce respectful photographs, avoid stereotyping and ensure privacy
  • Manipulation – what is and is not allowed in post-production
  • Child protection – how to ensure that children featured in our photographs are safe from harm
  • Equality and non-discrimination – ensuring that our photographic practice includes everyone, even the most marginalised.

Ensuring consent is understood

At the heart of the policy is informed consent. When taking pictures in the field we spend a lot of time explaining to people why we want to take their photograph, how our communications are used, and what this means for them. We make it clear that a photograph may be used globally both in print and online, and that we might share these photographs with our partners.

But, and it is a big but, we also stress that nobody is obligated to give their permission for their photograph to be taken. We want the individual concerned to know that there are no repercussions to saying ‘no’, and if someone doesn’t want their photograph to be taken, then we don’t take it, it’s that simple.

There are a few ways we can make the process of explaining our intentions and gaining informed consent a bit smoother. First, we take copies of WaterAid publications, such as Oasis, into the field with us for people to look through.

Second, we share the photo-taking process with the subject, showing them photos on the camera’s LCD screen and explaining that we will only use the best photographs. Third, once we believe someone has a full understanding of what they are agreeing with, we ask them to sign a consent form, or give verbal consent if on film.

Last, and one of my favourite things to do, is to take a photograph for the person to keep. We take an instant camera with us and ask the subject how they would like to be photographed – sometimes with surprising results! Leaving an individual with a photo of themselves or their family is a nice way to end a shoot.

Another aspect of WaterAid’s approach to ethical photography is that whenever possible we use local photographers or photographers who have spent a considerable amount of time in a particular country. The local knowledge we gain from this can be invaluable, whether advice on the protocol of meeting a local chief or simply someone who can say ‘smile’ in five local languages.

Second, in 2012 we launched Voices from the Field – a programme designed to hire and train local people to work for WaterAid as on-the-ground photo, film and story gatherers. This programme has gone from strength to strength and is now implemented in nine of our country programmes. The greatest benefit of Voices from the Field is that it provides us with a local voice. One of our Voices from the Field Officers, Ernest Randriarimalala, from Madagascar, grew up without access to clean water. He says it was this experience and seeing how bad the situation is in other areas of Madagascar that has given him ”a good understanding of the issue and the motivation to help”.

James gives copies of his photos to Lillian and Helen in Uganda.
Voices from the Field Officer James Kiyimba sharing photographs in Namalu, Uganda.
Image: WaterAid

Continuous learning

Looking ahead, we are exploring new ways to continually ground our photography in a code of practice that ensures respect, accountability and integrity. This includes a number of participatory photography projects with children and young adults in Pakistan and Nepal, in which we teach participants how to use a camera in order to express an issue they are affected by, and a training programme across the organisation to ensure every employee feels armed with both the technical and the ethical know-how to take good photographs.

Prizma left, demonstrating the camera handling tips to workshop participants. Sirthauli, Sindhuli, Nepal, April 2016
Pupils in Sindhuli Nepal learning how to tell stories using photography, and then practising their new skills.
Image: WaterAid/Mani Karmacharya

With more than 700 employees across the world, viewpoints within our organisation on ethical approaches to imagery might vary, and we may not always get it right. But as an organisation we must continue to reflect on new trends in ethical photographic practice, challenge traditional ways of doing things, and explore innovative approaches to storytelling and representation.