Ethics in Nonprofit photography

Ethics in Nonprofit photography is very important, particularly when working with children and vulnerable populations. The number one guideline to remember is Do No Harm. To ensure that you are working in a sensitive and respectful way, follow these basic tips:


  • Get verbal consent from a parent or guardian before you start taking pictures. When working in a school environment, you should first obtain verbal permission from the principal, and then the teacher. When in the community, ask the child if you can speak with their parent before you start photographing. (Written consent is legally required, and is covered below.)
  • Always explain why you are taking the photograph to the child and their parent or guardian. Don’t assume that the child won’t understand your reasoning, or can’t have a say in the decision of whether or not to be photographed.
  • Respect the word “no”. If someone does not want to be photographed or wishes to remain anonymous, you must respect this no matter what.
  • Legally, you need a signed consent form for every person you photograph (and intend to publish), no matter their age. As the photographer, you may also need to sign the consent form stating you have received verbal consent as well (this depends on the NGO).
  • If photographing a crowd, or group of 4+ people, you do not need signed consent forms from everyone. It is very important, though, to explain why you are there and receive verbal consent from everyone in the group.

Taking the photograph

  • Ask people how they would like to be photographed. Do they want to change their clothes, or protect their identity in some way?
  • Respect your subject’s modesty. Ask people to cover children’s private parts and stomachs, and women to cover their breasts.
  • Take photographs in context. This can be the difference between a child appearing to be abandoned or being cared for by their parent or guardian.
  • Don’t reinforce stereotypes or prejudices about vulnerable or impoverished people.
  • Take thorough and accurate notes about everyone you photograph so that your caption information will be truthful and complete.

Concealing Identity

  • Steps should be taken to conceal the identity and location of, particularly vulnerable people and in particular children. These may include people formerly associated with armed groups, survivors of physical and sexual violence, and people affected by HIV.
  • People, and in particular children and families, should always be informed of how their information and photographs will be used and the impact it may have on them. They must give fully informed consent.
  • You can conceal a person’s identity by taking photographs of the person in silhouette, showing details of their body without showing their face, or photographing them from behind.

Why You Need a Photography + Video Policy – And How to Write It

Visuals have the power to elicit compassion and propel people to action – even change societies – in a way that words alone don’t.

Much of the power lies in:

  1. which situations get photographed and filmed, and
  2. which photographs and video clips from those situations get published.

At each step, your organization has a chance to send one message or another about its image and values. How do you decide what to do?

This is where a photography and video policy helps because it guides you in your decisions. It also sets a bar for how you want your organization to be visually represented in the public eye. Is your photographic ideal to uplift the audience and show your clients or beneficiaries as dignified and striving? If you work with young people, how far will you go to conceal the identities of children? What about their parents?

Well-thought-out photography and video policy that is communicated to and enforced by your organization can help you avoid situations like one where a nonprofit drowned in criticism for depicting a black boy as a dog being fed by a white woman. This ad even “won” the Rusty Radiator Award, which is given every year to the worst NGO fundraising video. (The organization ended up apologizing.)

Many people criticized the boy-as-dog ad for crossing an ethical boundary in its zeal to raise awareness. Since we’ve already discussed photography ethics, in this post I’ll focus on other questions to consider as you write your photography and video policy. (But please make sure ethics are a part of your policy.)

1) When photographing and filming:

  • What situations will you absolutely not photograph and why? What situations are negotiable depending on the context? What are those boundaries? For example, women breastfeeding nude babies may be OK to photograph but perhaps nude 10-year-old girls bathing in a river are not OK to film.
  • If you work with vulnerable or stigmatized populations such as children, refugees, the disabled, or people with HIV/AIDS, how much of their identity will you reveal in your visuals? Never show faces? Only backlit? Photograph someone’s portrait and obscure it later in Photoshop or in the editing process?
  • What local cultural or political situations must you take into consideration when photographing and filming? Will a family be robbed later because community members believe you paid the family to be photographed? What stigma will be attached to a person if she is filmed openly supporting a sensitive political stance?

2) When using photographs and video footage:

  • What core organization values do you want to be reflected in your visuals?
  • Who gets identified by name in photographs and videos and who doesn’t?
  • What kinds of captions and photo credits do you require or not? Who is in charge of writing the captions and making sure the captions and the photo credits are factually correct and up to the organization’s standards?
  • Who is the primary decision-maker on how photographs and videos get used?

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