A call for ethical standards in nonprofit humanitarian photography

When Laura Elizabeth Pohl started telling stories for humanitarian organizations, she applied ethical standards from her days as a journalist. But she soon realized the aid world doesn’t operate with the same codes. After a situation that felt more like exploitation than aid, Pohl made her a mental checklist to follow.

Helen helps Desire put on her shoes at Omoana House, a facility providing intensive rehabilitative care to sick and malnourished children in Njeru, Uganda. The older kids pitch in with caring for the younger kids, often treating them like siblings. Children with one or two parents who have died of AIDS make up the majority of kids living at Omoana. Photo by Laura Elizabeth Pohl, @lauraelizabethpohl

The boy was young but savvy enough to think my pictures could help his situation. He and his younger sibling supported their disabled grandparents and two baby cousins. As other children dressed for school, the two siblings came home from work. They longed to learn to read, write, and do math like other kids. But it didn’t seem possible — until I showed up with my camera. As I shot my first picture of the boy, he tried on an easygoing smile. It didn’t match the desperation in his eyes.

I wanted to help him. But I knew these pictures wouldn’t do a thing for him. I was in an ethical quandary.

This wasn’t the kind of situation I imagined I would find myself in when I studied journalism as an undergraduate. At American University, I learned a strong code of ethics. Common rules include never paying for a story, never setting up a shot, and always fact-checking your information. “If your mother says she loves you, check it out,” is a journalism saying that illustrates the rigor you’re supposed to put into your fact-checking.

After 10 years as a journalist, I began to feel pulled toward being an advocate for issues I cared about rather than being an objective journalist. I dreamed of shooting photographs and video stories for organizations in the thick of solving the world’s problems. As I slowly moved into my new career, I applied my journalistic ethical standards to my work. Some organizations considered these too stringent, but I had nothing else to go on. The humanitarian sector lacked anything approaching a uniform code of visual ethics. At a few organizations, I was the first person to bring up the need for visual ethics guidelines.

A teacher leads Helen, 12, from the principal’s office to a classroom for her first day at the school near Omoana House. Helen has been living for two months at Omoana, a facility providing intensive rehabilitative care to sick and malnourished children in Njeru, Uganda. Photo by Laura Elizabeth Pohl, @lauraelizabethpohl

This leads me back to the young but savvy boy. I found out from someone who knew the boy and his family well that they were not being helped by the international nonprofit that hired me. In fact, the family didn’t meet the qualifications to become beneficiaries of any of the organization’s programs. They had obviously been chosen to be photographed because their story tugged at the heartstrings and would compel donors to open their pocketbooks. I wondered how the organization could take advantage of such vulnerable people. This was unethical. I felt furious, ashamed, and frustrated.

Calling or emailing the editor to discuss the situation was out of the question, unfortunately. I was in the middle of the most remote and poor place I have ever traveled for work: no paved roads, no electricity, a faint and mostly non-existent cell phone signal, and a 90-minute boat ride to get there. I wanted to quit the job. But I didn’t feel it was possible. I was dependent on the organization’s local volunteers to keep me safe in this isolated location. Also, I had signed a contract; I didn’t like the idea of breaking my word.

When I got home, I bawled the whole story to my husband. I felt terrible for the boy and his family. I replayed every interaction in my head, wondering what I could have done differently. Then I wrote an email politely pressuring the organization to help the family. My first couple of messages went unanswered. They finally responded, stating they would help. I followed up on my own and, fortunately, found that they did.

But, still, I knew I’d compromised my morals and ethics and almost let down a child and a family. It’s true that even if I had photographed beneficiaries, there’s a chance that my pictures wouldn’t directly help them, or would help them months or years later. But, in this case, I knew for sure the family would not be helped by my pictures unless I interceded on their behalf. I vowed never to compromise my morals and ethics again.

1) Alizeta Sore, a community health worker, holds the yet-to-be-named child of Kadidia Sawadago before the baby receives a vaccination at the Peele Health Center in Peele, Bogodogo Health District, Burkina Faso. Catholic Relief Services is supporting improved and strengthened vaccination systems in Burkina Faso and 13 other countries through a grant it administers from the GAVI Alliance. 2) Jennifer Anongo and her husband Agbidye Anongo say their relationship has benefited from him attending Men’s Forum meetings, where men from the area discuss gender and family issues. The Men’s Forum, as the meeting is officially called, is part of a joint agreement between Catholic Relief Services and USAID called the SMILE project, which aims to improve the lives of vulnerable children and their parents or guardians. Photos by Laura Elizabeth Pohl, @lauraelizabethpohl

Now, I have a mental checklist to ensure I’m collaborating in ethical storytelling with my clients. I confirm that the people I’m being sent to photograph or film are beneficiaries of the organization. If the organization doesn’t have a written statement of values or a code of conduct, I ask them about it.

I’m looking for a commitment to treating people with dignity, clear policies on informed consent for photos and videos, and zero tolerance for exploitation and abuse, especially when it comes to children and people living with HIV and AIDS, which still carry stigma in many parts of the world.

If this is a new potential client, we discuss what they expect of me, and what I’m willing to do and not do when photographing and filming. For example, I’m not willing to stage sad-looking photographs. I’m also not willing to ask people to repeat an action over and over so I will have a “perfect” shot or video clip. I think it’s disrespectful of people’s time.

I study how a potential client uses pictures and videos to see if I’m comfortable with how they choose to represent people and the issues they face. If I see poverty porn or an overabundance of children without adults — which can leave the impression that the children lack responsible people to care for them — I don’t take the job.

I believe it’s possible to show the hard truth of a situation without shooting stereotypical or undignified images. I want the people I document to feel proud of how they look in a picture or video. “Would I want my own family and friends portrayed this way?” is a good question — and ethical baseline — for anyone to ask themselves. When I’m working, I do my best to help story subjects understand how the pictures or videos will be used by showing examples. I let them know they have the right to say “no” without losing benefits they receive from the organization.

A woman holds her child on her back at the Nutrition Rehabilitation Home in Dhangadhi, Nepal, in the western part of the country. 41 percent of Nepali children under five are short for their age, an indicator of malnourishment, according to the preliminary 2011 Nepal Demographic and Health Survey. Photo by Laura Elizabeth Pohl, @lauraelizabethpohl

One of the best clients I’ve ever worked with in terms of ethical storytelling is Catholic Relief Services (CRS). The organization has a clear, written code of conduct. They have guidelines on receiving consent from children and other vulnerable people. And their photo and video editors are committed to dignified storytelling.

On a recent CRS trip to Nigeria, I spent three weeks gathering stories about orphans, entrepreneurs, farmers, and people living with HIV and AIDS. I traveled with a CRS staff storyteller, and in every situation, we made clear that people had a choice to talk with us and allow me to photograph them. In one place, a woman wanted to be photographed but without showing her face. Of course I agreed. I don’t believe anyone felt compelled to work with us. And I certainly didn’t feel forced to produce pictures or videos that crossed my ethical lines.

Journalistic ethical guidelines still inform my personal work ethics, but the fact is, nonprofit humanitarian photography and photojournalism are quite different and thus require different ethical standards. Journalism is supposed to be objective storytelling untouched by concerns about whether or not the story will bring ad revenue to the organization. Nonprofit humanitarian storytelling is public relations and marketing meant to highlight an organization in a positive light and — usually though not always — raise money for the organization.

In my opinion, it’s the fundraising part that makes some nonprofit humanitarian organizations choose to engage in questionable storytelling practices — like exploiting someone’s sad story — or decide to publish stereotypical images — like malnourished children with flies in their eyes. Commonly-accepted visual ethical standards are needed to prevent exploitation and fight stereotypes. There are people trying to make this happen (here and here, too). But more of us need to speak up.

When I think back on the young but savvy boy, my guess is that he believed my pictures led to him and his family getting help. And they did. I’m glad for that. But I also know how easily it could have gone another way. My mental checklist helps me make sure I’m not in a dilemma like that again. I’m not interested in taking advantage of people’s situations for the sake of a story. I’m interested in showing the dignity, the hope, and the shared humanity of all people — even in difficult situations.

Tohomina Akter washes pots and dishes in a pond near her home in Char Baria village, Barisal, Bangladesh. Tohimina participates in a maternal and infant nutrition program called Nobo Jibon run in part by Hellen Keller International. The program stresses proper nutrition in a child’s first 1,000 days from pregnancy to age two, with an emphasis on breastfeeding and cultivating nutritious vegetables from home gardens. Photo by Laura Elizabeth Pohl, @lauraelizabethpohl

Laura Elizabeth Pohl is a photographer and filmmaker who works with international humanitarian organizations. She is also the founder and co-editor of NGO Storytelling, a website for inspiring and informing humanitarian storytellers.