With more information at our fingertips than ever before due to the internet and social media, honest and accurate representation through images must be a priority. With this in mind, photojournalists should take precautions to avoid publishing images that might harm or exploit vulnerable communities.
Here are some tips from photojournalists in Africa.
Legal context and safety
When working with vulnerable communities, consider the legal context and whether your photo subjects’ safety could be in danger as a result of your work.
For example, in Uganda, it is illegal to identify as LGBTQ. Penalties include life in prison or a death sentence. Publishing photographs that expose the identity of LGBTQ people could put these individuals’ lives at risk.
“Even if there are people who are ready to take any risk to fight for their freedom, it is important to keep in mind that even if a story is published in a foreign language, it does not mean that people in Uganda will not be able to access [it]. I always advise anonymous pictures [that conceal the subject’s identity],” said Sofi Lundin, a Uganda-based journalist.
Luke Dray, a photojournalist who recently documented an LGBTQ community in Uganda, explained how he built a base of trust and transparency for the project. “I introduced myself to everyone in the safe house and told them why I was there. I showed them my previous work with marginalized communities and people under threat from state actors,” he said. “I also let them see the pictures as I continued [shooting] throughout the day, to demonstrate how I was using light and composition to conceal their identity. Their safety was my utmost priority.”
The images you capture should never sacrifice people’s right to privacy and safety. Consider the following when photographing your subject:
- Is there a strong need to identify them, or is it safer to tell their story anonymously?
- Has your subject understood the implications of sharing their story, and how it could reach their communities and families?
- Are your subjects able to access and provide feedback on the images before they are published?
Consider the power dynamics in the relationship between yourself behind the camera and who you are photographing.
A photographer going into an underprivileged community with a camera on their shoulder will inevitably be in a position of power: they will determine how the subject is seen. It is the photographer who gets to tell the story, chooses what to tell and how to tell it.
“When working with vulnerable communities, establishing a foundation of trust, comfort and consent in the first place is key to make sure that people feel empowered throughout the process,” said Luis Tato, a wire photographer working for Agence France-Presse. “I prioritize engaging with community members by initiating a dialogue and conversing with them as much as possible before starting to take photos. This helps me clearly explain my intentions and the purpose of the photographs, as well as to understand their concerns and perspectives. I also make sure to listen to their opinions and suggestions and respect their boundaries and choices. This includes giving them the agency to decide what is appropriate to be photographed.”
Making an effort to understand how the people you are photographing would like to be represented is important. I like to ask my subject where they would like to be photographed, if they have a favorite place in their home or workplace or if they need time to get ready for the photos. You can also ask them to choose the images that they believe best represent them. By allowing your subject to contribute to how they are captured, you transfer a degree of agency to them, and create space for a more complex narrative.
The way we produce images has an impact on the stories we tell. Photographing a child from an elevated position, for instance, can convey a message of vulnerability and powerlessness. Photographing a mother holding her baby against a pile of garbage may portray her as helpless and hopeless. Be wary of images that fail to capture wider contexts of people’s lives.
It is acceptable to show people in a position of need if that is the reality they experience, but this shouldn’t be the only way they are seen. Images that only focus on a subject’s needs do not help the public to understand the issues that contributed to these needs in the first place.
We must make an effort to understand and convey the complexity of the situations of the people we photograph, by taking into account both need and agency. Questions I ask myself when I photograph are:
- Would I be happy to see myself or members of my family depicted in this way?
- Is this the only story I can tell?
When we use images in our stories, we hold significant power in shaping how viewers will see the people we photograph. It is important to be aware of this, and avoid images that reinforce existing negative stereotypes.
Gordwin Odhiambo is a photojournalist from Kibera, a highly-populated low-income neighborhood in Nairobi, Kenya. He believes the visual narrative around his community often loses touch with reality, exacerbating what is lacking and neglecting the features that the people who live here value: the strong sense of community, the vibrancy of social life, the warmth of the people, the affordability of food and housing. “Kibera is changing. It is not about poverty only. Do your research, see what people are doing for the community, get the whole picture,” he said.
Tato, meanwhile, prioritizes context to avoid misrepresentation. “This means conducting research and engaging in conversations with community members to gain a deeper understanding of the social, cultural and historical facts that shape their experiences,” he said. “It is crucial to listen to people’s perspectives and be mindful of the impact of my photographs on the individuals and communities I document.”
Context, captioning and responsible publishing
Whenever we produce and share images, it is our job to make sure we provide as much context as we can through well-written, informative captions. Without these, viewers may get the wrong impression about what is happening in the photo.
Writing great captions starts in the field. Here a some tips to keep in mind:
- Be curious about what is happening around you and gather as much information as possible.
- Do not make assumptions about the way the people in your photos feel or think, or what may have been the catalyst for their current situation. Instead, ask them directly.
- Carry a notebook or a voice recorder to collect quotes. This will help you write accurate, detailed captions.
- The first sentence of a caption should describe who or what the photo depicts, and where and when it was captured. The second sentence should give background on the subject and describe why the photo is important.
The goal of visual documentation should be to humanize – and not dehumanize – our photo subjects. It is our job to portray people in a respectful, dignified manner.
Journalists are human beings with unconscious biases that may influence our judgment of people and situations. This can change the way we cover stories and portray people. Identifying strategies to remove these biases from our storytelling is a crucial step toward ensuring fair and empathetic coverage.
Photo by Tam Nguyen on Unsplash.