7 Principles for Ethical Photography as a Global Citizen

by Anna Danforth

Photography is a powerful tool to share about life in your host country. Too often, especially in non-profit work, photography has been used in an exploitative and invasive manner. This is usually done to amplify and support the expat’s reason for being overseas. For example, in an effort to establish the need for funding, a non-profit worker may photograph a disadvantaged, dirty child to communicate the level of poverty. Photos elicit an emotional response. They are often used as an emotional appeal to donors.

Sharing photos of your work and life is important. As a world traveler, your responsibility is to share photos ethically by respecting the people and culture of your host country. It can be tempting, especially if your project or salary is underfunded, to share compromising photos of the people in your host country in an effort to validate your need for being there. If you provide education, it may be tempting to share photos of children in extreme poverty. If you provide medical services, you may want to share photos of people in their moment of physical suffering. In your eagerness to share your life, though, don’t forget the people you are there to serve. 

In a Global Health University article entitled “Ethics and Photography in Developing Countries,” Selena Randhawa states:

“Many charities have found that their most effective tactic for eliciting donations has involved the use of dehumanizing images to evoke feelings of pity and charity. These photos are dangerous, however, because they completely fail to capture the intelligence, resilience, and capabilities of the communities that the nonprofit is looking to help.”

Images of Hollywood icons holding starving children flood my mind. But Hollywood actors aren’t the only culprits seeking validation. After a lifetime in developing nations and working with hundreds of expats, I have firsthand experience of friends and colleagues being exploited to gain non-profit donations and personal validation. In several cases, the aftermath has had devastating consequences for the person or family being photographed. 

Before taking a photo of someone other than a good friend, ask yourself, “What emotional response am I hoping to trigger?” Hoping for responses of pity and personal validation probably mean that the photo is exploiting the subject. This has been termed “poverty porn.” Selena Randhawa’s article in The Guardian, “Poverty porn vs empowerment: The best and worst aid videos of 2016” examines the most “compelling and cringeworthy” fundraising aid videos of 2016. 

Poverty porn, also known as development porn, famine porn, or stereotype porn, has been defined as “any type of media, be it written, photographed or filmed, which exploits the poor’s condition in order to generate the necessary sympathy for selling newspapers or increasing charitable donations or support for a given cause.” It also suggests that the viewer of the exploited protagonists is motivated by gratification of base instincts. It is also a term of criticism applied to films which objectify people in poverty for the sake of entertaining a privileged audience.

Conversely, global travelers have the opportunity to affirm the dignity, strength, and potential of the people and culture in their host country. In my research of ethical photography, I praise the work of Esther Havens Mann’s photography in developing countries. One person commented on Mann’s work, “Esther captures photos that transcend a person’s circumstances and reveals their true strength.” Esther provides a model of how to communicate the nature of mission work while revealing the beauty and dignity of her subjects. 

Here are a few questions to consider as you build a healthy and responsible approach to sharing images.

1. Did I ask permission?
2. Does it represent the extreme, or does it represent the norm?
3. Will this bring dignity or shame to the subject? (Does it empower or dehumanize the subject?)
4. If this was the only photo of this person ever on social media, would it make them proud?
5. Would I take this same picture of a stranger in my hometown?
6. Will this photo reinforce a negative stereotype or invite people to consider new beauty?
7. Could I photograph the subjects from behind to focus on the action?

My hope is that this brief overview will empower you to share better images, elicit fair and appropriate responses, and protect your international and family relationships as you share your beautiful life. 

Excerpted from Anna’s new book, Raising a Family Overseas: Building Connection With Your Family and Host Culture.

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Anna Danforth grew up in Cameroon and now serves in South Africa. She is co-founder of Titus Auto Centre, a job skills training facility on the south coast. She drew on her experiences as a TCK, missionary, and teacher at the Africa Orientation Course to write Raising a Family Overseas and to provide training on Ethical Image Sharing as a Global Citizen. Anna lives on a fruit tree and macadamia farm with her husband, two kids, some dogs, cats, a horse, and best friends. You can find her online at Facebook, Instagram, and AnnaDanforth.com.

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A Life Overseas is a collective blog centered around the realities, ethics, spiritual struggles, and strategies of living overseas. Elizabeth Trotter is the editor-in-chief.

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