10 Best Practices for NGOs to Consider When Working with Photographers and Photography

Photography is a powerful tool that can create awareness and effect change. The visual narrative created through photographs can move individuals to a place and understanding of people, geographies, and events that would otherwise be impossible. Used as a tool to document, educate, move, and inform, photographs have the ability to be a powerful resource in the efforts of human rights practitioners when used effectively and ethically.

Drawn from a conversation held by New Tactics in Human Rights titled The Use of Photography in Advancing Human Rights, the following are ten of the best practices NGOs should consider when working with photographers and photography in their advocacy efforts.

Best Practices for Working with Photographers

  1. It is critical to understand the importance of hiring reputable and experienced photographers for your project and to provide them with the space and freedom to operate. In order to obtain the best results, organizations must be flexible enough with their intended outcomes to move away from a pre-determined ‘shot list’ and trust the photographer to explore the narrative of an organization’s work.

In my experience, the best NGO projects are born of some informed freedom on the photographer's behalf …With some room to breathe, I take it upon myself to approach the stated themes but also seek the unexpected. We must forget what we expect to find and embrace and follow what's actually there. In my view, this is how strong narrative work is born. — Pete Muller, Photographer

Asking questions, pursuing curiosity, and responding positively to stories that defy conventional wisdom -- these are definitely things I encourage organizations to give photographers freedom to do in the field. Let them use their own eyes and hearts to find the human stuff that otherwise goes unseen, unheard or unexplored. — Mo Scarpelli, Rake Films

  1. Integrating the photographer into the planning process early on is one way to ensure the photographer understands the mission and goals of the organization and maximize the effectiveness of the images they will produce. With the initial guidance of NGO staff, who are experts in their field, and recognizing the photographer as a storyteller, the images created can become an integral piece of any communications strategy or advocacy effort.

Without everyone, including the photographer, at the table it is difficult to produce a robust strategy that integrates the role of the photos… In my experience the best use of photography in advocacy campaigns comes when a multi-disciplined team is working together - research, campaigns, comms, media and the photographer. — Robert Godden, The Rights Exposure Project

A photographer who understands the issues and the goals of the NGO will do a better job than one brought in at the end of the process to document the NGOs’ plan. — David Stuart, PhotoEvidence

  1. When possible, work with local photographers who understand the political and cultural contexts of the region. Local photographers may provide greater access to building relationships with those an organization wishes to photograph. This may be particularly important when attempting to work in closed societies.

I have a preference for local NGOs and local photographers working together as they generally have a better understanding of the cultural and political terrain. — Robert Godden, The Rights Exposure Project 

  1. Once photographs are taken and submitted to an organization, an integrated relationship between the photographer and organizational staff should continue in order to guarantee proper use of the photos, situating them within the appropriate context of the larger human rights issue and visual narrative.

Placing stories is equally important as developing them for people who are trying to bring important stories to the public in a world filled with endless noise and infinite suffering. — David Stuart, PhotoEvidence

While we rarely discuss editing and framing with our audiences, we could further activate them as viewers by engaging in a conversation about why a photo might be cropped and levels adjusted, or why an image should not be edited at all. This would help all of us think more critically about issues of representation and constructed narratives, and photographers make enormous contributions to this conversation.
Claire Dillon, ART WORKS Projects  

  1. The editing and sequencing of photos is an important element in the way in which a viewer consumes and reacts to the imagery and communications medium. Organizations should take time to assess the way in which a photo is being used within the overall campaign and communication medium. Context, aesthetic, framing, design, text narrative, and sequencing of photos will impact the way in which it is received.

The edit and sequence greatly affect not only the structure of the story but the feeling that it conveys. The inclusion and omission of certain images, and their placement in the sequence, heavily impacts the viewer. — Pete Muller, Photographer

The nature of the subject, the breadth of the information that needs to be conveyed, and the types of images and how they relate to one another all need to be considered before deciding on whether words or images should lead a narrative. —Diana Zeyneb Alhindawi, Photographer

Safety, Security, and Ethical Considerations

  1. Keeping photographers and organization staff safe is critical when photographing in dangerous, hostile, or conflict zones. Security is a difficult and complex topic and therefore in the best interest of both the organization and the photographer to broach the issue of remuneration and insurance in the early stages of working together. Often, the cost of emergency evacuation and repatriation insurance is prohibitive for both parties. While some organizations may be more willing or more able to enter into areas of conflict, many organizations have restrictive guidelines on where staff can operate. However, photographers may feel it necessary to go beyond those security parameters in order to work. For this reason, clearly articulating the risks, risk management policies, and operational guidelines is important.

Important images in human rights narratives are often made in areas and situations that NGOs are simply not permitted to go… From a storytelling standpoint, I always think that stories about human rights abuses resonate more when the abuses are placed into the appropriate context… In order to make many of the contextualizing pictures, I had to venture well beyond the security cordon that most NGOs had set… This meant taking risks that most NGOs were not comfortable with. — Pete Muller, Photographer

  1. Photographers and staff are not the only individuals at potential risk when photographing. Organizations must be aware that photographs have the power to cause harm to a photographic subject and must, therefore, account for the safety, security, and privacy of those individuals, as well as take steps to avoid stigmatization of the subject.
  2. For organizations working with photographic images, it is important to understand fair use, copyright, and the ethical use of photographs in order to avoid legal issues and protect the rights of photographers.

...it is important to recognize the importance of keeping a professional photographer's images secure and preserving the value of their prints. Any sort of usage must be cleared with them (printing for an exhibition, in exhibit materials, on websites, etc.) as they will have strong opinions on resolution and dimensions, any sort of cropping or editing, printing, appropriate credits, and so on. You must be prepared to clear the specific use of every photo and to share any proceeds that may result. — Claire Dillon, ART WORKS Projects  

  1. When using photography as means of documentation and evidence, organizations must consider the protection of the unaltered, original state of RAW files in order to maintain the viability of the images in legal proceedings. This means to avoid making adjustments or “toning” in an effort to beautify or clean up an image. It is also important to maintain a clear chain of custody following the creation of an image. Practices of evidence gathering vary greatly from a narrative-based photographic approach where “toning” may be acceptable.

In my work with the Caesar torture evidence file we have found that the most important element of using photography is the integrity of the images, the metadata, and the hardware used to take the pictures. Any international or domestic investigative body will do extensive checks on these elements. If any semblance of tampering is found, the entire set of photos may be compromised. —Tyler Jess Thompson, United for a Free Syria

…even accepted photographic adjustments may undermine the integrity of the image in the eyes of those who seek to invalidate it. Perhaps, when working with human rights groups, photographers ought to note that any images of torture marks or other purely evidentiary images ought to be presented in their completely RAW, untouched version in addition to the toned version that the photographer might prefer. — Pete Muller, Photographer

  1. When developing a strategy for the use of photography in advocacy efforts, think beyond year-end reports, website headers, and newsletters. Quality photography will stand the test of time and be a valuable resource in telling the story of organizations and those individuals an organization effects for years to come. To read more of best practices, tactics, strategy, resources, and stories of success from our Conversation Leaders, visit New Tactics in Human Rights and the online conversation The Use of Photography in Advancing Human Rights.

Based on New Tactics in Human Rights June Conversation on The Use of Photography in Advancing Human Rights, read 10 Best Practices for NGOs to Consider When Working with Photographers and Photography by Brent Jensen via the Center for Victims of Torture blog.