The ethics of gathering good visual stories

August 31, 2016

Those of us who work in communications know that stories—especially stories about individuals—can be extremely effective tools to build support for social impact. And photos and video help audiences connect emotionally with individuals featured in good stories.

There are plenty of online guides for effective storytelling and using strong visuals. But there aren’t as many discussions about the ethics of story-gathering and photography – especially when vulnerable populations are involved.

All you need to do is have people sign a consent form (also known as a photo or video release), right?shot

Well, it may not be so simple. Securing consent is important. But sometimes we may be coercing consent from vulnerable populations without realizing it.  It’s important to understand the power dynamics at play.

For example, imagine a line of women and children waiting in line at a government-run free clinic in Kenya. You have talked with the clinic providers about interviewing the women to feature first-hand stories about a health issue like immunization. However, if you ask them to sign a consent form, they may infer that unless they say yes, they won’t get health care services. In the rush to get stories, we may not think about the inherent power dynamics at play in any given situation and the implied messages we might be sending. In a case like this, a photographer can wait until after care is provided to ask for consent, and make sure that subjects understand that they can say “no” and still receive services.

While the example above takes place in a developing country, there are many types of power dynamics at play here in the US when we work with marginalized communities who may think that unless they give consent, they may not get access to certain services or programs. Working with groups like undocumented immigrants or sex workers is even more sensitive, and requires us to fully explain how images or stories might lead to increased scrutiny or stigma.

In a recent discussion here at Resource Media, we discussed how every situation is different, but that as a guiding rule, it’s important to be intentional in recognizing power dynamics and making sure that gathering good stories doesn’t lead to increased risk when we look to build support for important issues.

Teresa Guillien