This is amazing, I love it." Portrait of Veronique Eulalie Rasoarimanana outside her home in Madagascar.
""This is amazing, I love it."" Portrait of Veronique Eulalie Rasoarimanana outside her home in Madagascar. WaterAid/ Ernest Randriarimalala | ATTRIBUTION-NONCOMMERCIAL 2.0 GENERIC (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Informed consent: why conversations are crucial

If someone you had never met turned up at your house and started taking photos of you and your family how would you feel?

If they were really nice, if they told you they’d come from far away, if you thought that they could help you in some way, if they asked: “can I take your photo?” – what would you expect then? Would you feel pressure to say yes? Would you presume that you had given consent for your image to be used for them personally, shared on social media or used in any advertising that they felt like?

We are guessing that a) you wouldn’t like this situation, and b) you would presume that it wasn’t ok to share your image around the world without you knowing about it or discussing it first.

Why then, would we as NGOs ever presume that this is appropriate when we gather images from the countries where we work?

The images we take and the stories we gather aren’t just a way to promote our cause. They are personal accounts of someone’s life. The way we gather and use them is important and can have long lasting impacts.

While the use of imagery and representation gets a lot of airtime, the actual gathering of content and all the considerations that should go in to the process are less discussed.

Full consent needs full conversations

For a sector that is so focussed on community involvement and empowerment, this area is still over-looked. If we want to uphold our values of respect and protection, and if we want the people in our pictures to be actively engaged in the image-making process, full informed consent is crucial.

Asking “can I take your photo” is simply not enough. We all need to spend time with the people we are working with – discussing what we want to do, why we want to do it, what stories they might want to tell, what concerns they have, and whether they are interested in being involved.

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Crucially we need to be clear on what that involvement really means – that their image and story could end up on a billboard, a Facebook feed, on TV or anywhere else – before we even begin to gather images and stories. It is only by having these conversations that we really ensure that we have informed consent.

If this sparks alarm bells of “this is so much extra work”, then there is good news: in our experience at WaterAid and Save the Children, having fuller conversations means that the people in the pictures become engaged participants, taking an active stance on their own representation and the elements of their life that they are happy to share. And the stories we create together are more powerful, more effective pieces of communication.

This also helps to overcome the power imbalance between content gatherers (often from the UK) or national staff (who are often seen as providing a service) and the communities we work with. A full conversation enables you to see who really wants to tell their story and gives those who want to say “no” the space to do so.

From ethics to rules

Legal arguments also come in to play: GDPR rules mean that if you are gathering personal data, you need to have evidence of “specific, unambiguous, freely given and informed consent”. And while the laws of data relate to EU countries, we all have a duty of care to those we work with. We should ensure we are following the same approach regardless of where we collect that “data”.

Contributors should:

  • know how their images could be used
  • know how long you will keep their image for
  • know that they have a right to withdraw their consent at any time and be given details on how they would withdraw their consent should they wish to do so
  • be reassured that withdrawing consent is not just ok, it is their legal right.

These rules don’t just apply to those working with professional image makers – they apply to everyone collecting photos and stories, be it a supporter on a visit or a field worker gathering data for a report. We all need to consider how and where an image can end up and ensure that the person in the picture is an actively engaged in that process.

It’s important not to make false promises too. If you say the image is only for a report, can you 100% be sure of that? Someone can easily take that image and post it online. And if it ends up online, is your contributor suddenly at risk? It’s better and more honest to say that they could end up anywhere at the start of the conversation.

A win-win situation

If this blog is making you panic – don’t worry! It’s not that complicated. Just remember to have a proper conversation with people and ensure you have their full informed consent before you gather their story.

It may take a bit more time and you may get less content, but if you tighten your brief you’ll get better quality stories to make your post-production easier too. If you do this right, you’ll find you have informed, engaged contributors and better images and stories for your cause as well.

The Bond People in the Pictures Group commissioned Siobhan Warrington, Director of Oral Testimony Works and co-author of People in the Pictures, to produce new ethical image guidelines for the sector, which will be submitted to the Bond membership at the AGM for approval to be included in the Bond charter (replacing the Conchord code of imagery) later this year. These include ethical guidelines for the collection and use of content (images and stories) and a statement of ethical practice on NGO content gathering and use.