From healthcare to food security, here are nine tips for taking photos that make a difference, whether you’re working on assignment or shooting for stock.
A few years ago, researchers from the University of East Anglia and Radi-Aid surveyed aid recipients across Ethiopia, Ghana, Malawi, South Africa, Uganda, and Zambia to see how they felt about charity ads portraying their communities. The results were enlightening. People living in communities supported by aid want to see more accurate photos, along with more context telling the stories behind the images.
Accurately represent the community you are photographing. Image by Gary S. Chapman.
Unfortunately, not every campaign hits the mark, and some photos — including those that feed into stereotypes or oversimplify complex problems — can do more harm than good. These are the kinds of images that humanitarian photographer Gary S. Chapman avoids. “A common stereotype is one of a sad-looking child looking directly into the camera, perhaps with a tear in his or her eye,” he tells us. “What’s the story behind that? Often, we don’t know.” That, of course, is the problem.
Right now, we’re witnessing a long-overdue push for more nuance in campaigns supporting nonprofits. Photographers around the world are striving to create more ethical, impactful images relating to sensitive subjects ranging from conflict to healthcare to food security. With this movement in mind, let’s explore nine tips for taking photos that make a difference.
Tip #1: Start Close to Home
An intimate look at the life of an essential worker. Image by Eldar Nurkovic.
Earlier this year, Eldar Nurkovic’s photo of his girlfriend, a soon-to-be-pharmacist, went massively viral and was picked up by leading international organizations on the frontlines against COVID-19, including the World Health Organization. The photo derived much of its power from the fact that Nurkovic wasn’t an outsider looking in. It was an intimate moment he shared with a loved one after a hard day at work.
Much of this story will focus on getting to know the communities you photograph, but Nurkovic’s portrait proves that you don’t have to travel far to find stories that resonate. Often, you can find these life-changing images close to home, within our local communities.
“At this difficult time, I am glad to be able to contribute to this global fight against the pandemic and bring attention to this problem facing healthcare professionals across the entire planet,” he tells us. “It was the fulfillment of my lifelong dream to do something more with photography and make a difference for an important cause, like supporting our frontline heroes as they continue this brave battle against the virus.”
Tip #2: Connect with a Local Organization
Work with organizations that fully understand their community. Image by Gary S. Chapman.
If you do travel to create images for charities and nonprofits, it’s vital to connect with people within the community you plan to photograph, especially when covering various socio-economic situations. “I like to work with organizations that understand their communities well,” Chapman explains. “Often, those are run by nationals. They know their people, their culture, and how to best approach the communities they serve.’
“Look for those kinds of organizations. Even if you don’t know the language of the people you’re photographing, you can sense when people are being treated with respect. No matter the story, an important ethical guideline to follow is to respect the culture of the organization and the community that’s receiving the services. Following this guideline helps create an environment of trust.”
Once you connect, ask questions. Chapman explains, “Asking lots of questions before you even begin to document a story is the best way I’ve found to avoid mistakes or misunderstandings.”
Tip #3: Seek Community Approval
Get community consent prior to your photo session. Image by Gary S. Chapman.
“Community approval and consent are vital, especially in places where there is conflict,” photographer and development worker Marlene C. Fráncia continues. “That is, the community knows beforehand that a photographer is coming. In general, the non-profit organization has already discussed the objectives of the photography session with the community leaders and various relevant community organizations.” Make sure you, or the organization you’re shadowing, have gone through the proper channels to get community approval and consent.
Tip #4: Wait to Take Any Photos
Integrate yourself into the community. Image by Marlene C. Fráncia.
“If there is time, I integrate myself into the community prior to the assignment,” Fráncia explains. “Even if there isn’t, I still rely on trying to be as unobtrusive as possible at first and introduce myself to everyone. I engage in conversation, and I try to learn some important words, phrases, and sentences in the local language. Usually, within an hour, children are following me or laughing with me.”
Part of this process is asking permission to take photos when the time comes. “I always ask permission, especially from women,” Fráncia says. “This is important in male-dominated societies where men make decisions for women and children.”
Tip #5: Get Involved
Sincerity of intent comes through in the photos you take. Image by David Aguero / Addictive Creative.
“Be nice and be sincere,” Fráncia urges. “If you truly believe in and respect people and their capacity to change their lives, your photos will be stronger. Don’t take photos from the point of view of a disinterested bystander. Get into the scene, be one with the crowd or people, and take photos from their point of view. Bring the audience or viewer into the scene itself.”
Better yet, find ways to give back to the community before, during, and after your initial session.
Tip #6: Highlight Solutions
Focus on the solution, rather than merely highlighting the problem. Image by Marshal Chupa.
Too many photos made for charities and nonprofits center around problems without showing what’s being done to help.
“Focus on the solutions,” Chapman suggests. “Show how communities are working to solve a problem. I’d like to see more stories of how organizations are working to solve socio-economic issues long-term. There is a difference between covering a disaster where suffering and damage are a focal point, and stories of economic development long-term.’
Raise support for necessary resources. Image by Gary S. Chapman.
“There are amazing organizations all over the world working with few resources that need help, but they are already doing wonderful work. For example, I documented the story of a midwife who ran a clinic with no running water or electricity. At that time, she had already delivered 1,600 babies without losing one. Documenting that story provided an opportunity to raise support to train more midwives and secure more resources for that clinic.”
Tip #7: Look for Stories Others Have Missed
Steer clear of exploitative images. Image by Darren Hauck.
“Nuance is something a photographer must always be conscious of,” Fráncia adds. “Poverty porn, famine porn, and hunger and disease porn exploit people rather than helping them. So, steer clear of this kind of imagery. Instead, focus on images of people taking action, being proactive, and taking part in local traditions and customs.’
“Show positive, everyday images of community life. One sector I feel is underrepresented, for instance, are indigenous peoples and their struggle to protect the environment. They are often stewards of the forest and produce and consume sustainably. So, I’d like to see more images sharing those positive stories of the work they do.”
Tip #8: Be Mindful of How and Where Your Images Are Used
Image by Godong / Image Point France.
Be mindful of the images you choose to submit for stock. Image by Gary S. Chapman.
“Depending on the subject, the organization, and the contract I have with them, I’m careful as to what I submit to stock,” Chapman admits. “If I decide to place some photos in stock, it’s for editorial use only, and I give a percentage back to that non-profit when a sale is made. As with all other keywords, I include only what most accurately describes the photo. Keeping with the basics (place, action, details), I believe, is the most ethical approach.”
Consider how your photos can serve the community. Image by Gary S. Chapman.
Whether you’re shooting for editorial use only (like Chapman) or opening the door to potential creative use by nonprofit organizations, be mindful of where your photos might end up and how they might serve the community. Give special consideration to vulnerable subjects. If you’re ever unsure, leave the photo out, or ask experts from within the community for their thoughts.
Tip #9: Use Specific and Accurate Keywords
Metadata is an important part of this process, as the keywords you choose will determine where and how your images surface. To appeal to nonprofits that align with your values, make a conscious effort to provide accurate and representative keywords.
“I try to find as many positive keywords as possible to describe an image,” Fráncia says. “I try to use specific words rather than generalizations. The word ‘poverty,’ for example, is so subjective and presumptuous, so it rarely describes an image accurately. Examples of other keywords I might use include ‘traditional house’ as opposed to ‘hovel,’ or ‘children fetching water’ as opposed to ‘child labor.’ It’s crucial that your keywords be factual and objective, not based on assumptions.”
Make sure your keywords are factual. Image by Gary S. Chapman.
One final thing to keep in mind is that these projects and initiatives can and often do last a lifetime. It’s not a matter of one photoshoot or photo essay, but rather a consistent commitment to meaningful and truthful storytelling that makes a positive impact. Throughout his career, for example, leading up to his viral photo, Eldar Nurkovic has pulled from his experiences. His history has deepened his ability to empathize with others.
Try to empathize with the people you’re working with. Image by eldar nurkovic.
“My approach has always been very personal,” he tells us. “I had a difficult childhood during the war in Bosnia. I witnessed civilians being killed and experienced food shortages. I experienced the life of a refugee, and my grandfather was taken to a concentration camp in front of my eyes.’
“Maybe that’s why I can relate to and fully understand other people’s problems. I believe that the photographer’s greatest assets are empathy and sensitivity. The technical part of photography is always secondary to me.” Now, he’s mentoring the next generation: “Recently, I gave a photography class in collaboration with the Youth Initiative for Human Rights. It was so satisfying to pass that legacy onward — to teach and inform young people about social engagement through photography.”
Cover image by Gary S. Chapman.
Learn more about photographing communities responsibly with these articles:
How to Properly Document Black Political Leadership in PhotographyWhat the Fight for LGBTQ+ Rights Looks Like Around the WorldSubmitting Lifestyle Imagery with Shutterstock’s Digital Model Releases6 Women Whose Little-Known Research Led the Way in STEMWhat Images Marketing Agencies Are Looking for in 2020
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