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What Is Informed Consent in Digital Development Photography?

By Josh Woodard on March 16, 2016


Whenever I look at publications produced by development organizations, including those I’ve written, I can’t help but wonder if all of those smiling people pictured within could have even imagined how far their photo would travel.

There’s one woman in particular that I think about often. I call her the eggplant lady. She was used by one of my organization’s designers in a toolkit I wrote a few years ago on low-cost video. Soon I started seeing her in other publications that my colleagues had written.

At first, I felt as if she was cheating on me, but after brushing aside my irrational reaction, I started to wonder how she would have felt.

Do the people in our photos realize their reach?

Sure, if people were doing their job properly – and I’m sure in this case they were – they made sure to get them to sign a piece of paper that said we could use her photo however we wanted. Although I was reminded the other week that it is not a safe assumption that all development practitioners even ask for consent for using people’s photos.

But anyway, even if a consent form is obtained, what does that piece of paper really mean? If I’m a small farmer in a poor rural community who has no concept of what something like the Internet really is, can I truly comprehend what signing that piece of paper means?

What would eggplant lady think if she found herself the face of my toolkit? Hopefully she would feel a sense of pride, but is it fair for me to make that assumption on her behalf?

All of this has got me thinking about what informed consent for photographs really means in a hyperconnected world. I don’t have all of the answers, but I do have some thoughts.

How to improve informed consent in digital development photography:

  • Throw out the blanket ‘we can use your photo however we please’ language. Instead, let people know the different types of ways that you might use their photo and let them opt in/out of each.
  • Throw out language related to perpetual usage rights. By default, there should be time limits to how long you can continue to use someone’s photo for new purposes. This time limit should be agreed upon by the person being photographed.
  • Help them to envision exactly how widely their photos might be seen. If you have never used the Internet, being told that your photo will be posted on the homepage of an organization’s website is meaningless. Try to put it into terms that people can conceptualize.
  • Compensate people for their photos if you use them. This is not without its complications, but at the very least we should be exploring how we might be able to compensate people each time we use their photos. As an increasing number of people have mobile phones, simple methods like transferring airtime top up to them can help reduce the burdens of having to make these types of micro-payments to often unbanked people.
  • Of if not, at least notify them. If compensating them is not feasible, shouldn’t we at least be notifying people when we use their photograph and sharing a copy of however it was used with them? Again, this is not without its challenges, but it can at least be addressed in a significant number of cases.

I’m not blind to the fact that adhering to all of the above would be more of an administrative hassle than current practices. Nevertheless, sometimes a little extra hassle is necessary in the interest of transparency and respect.

Interested in Defining Informed Consent in Digital Development?

While this post talks about photography, that’s just one form of digital data we extract all too easily from our constituents. Might we also need to think about:

  • New kinds of Terms and Conditions for mobile platforms in developing countries?
  • How to do informed consent when doing digital data gathering?
  • How to change informed consent when data will be open or shared?
  • What are the legal frameworks around informed consent in different countries?

If these questions interest you too, please tell us in the comments. We are looking to organize an event on informed consent in digital development and want to know who else would like to help shape it.

Filed Under: Featured, Thought Leadership
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Written by
Josh Woodard is the co-founder of Civi, a civictech platform connecting people across the aisle, as well as a senior digital advisor at USAID. You can find more of his writings on his personal site and occasionally via his LinkedIn feed
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28 Comments to “What Is Informed Consent in Digital Development Photography?”

  1. Toks says:

    How do we keep organizations accountable though? I see all sorts of photos and many of them are exploitive and no one seems to care.

    • Josh Woodard says:

      Without adequate legal protections and enforcement, there is no way to definitively keep organizations accountable. Although employees within those organizations can certainly take action themselves. For example, I use a more restrictive photo consent form than my organization uses.

  2. Can we start with outlining the purpose of this initiative? I think we are presuming harm, when I think the situation is a lot more complicated. There are so many different issues of copyright, privacy, technology chamges, and the very real need for images to gain support from funders (like Congress), and the need to personalize development.

    We do a lot of communications work with implementing partners and good photos are already hard to come by. There is a real negative impact of making that harder on international development. So whatever approach we take has to take this fact into account.

    Finally, please do not presume that a farmer has no concept of the internet. Instagram is hugely popular in many parts of Africa and the African diaspora had been a huge driver in Internet adoption from the beginning in the mid 90s (something I did my dissertation on).

    In a northern Nigerian village (without any telephony at all) I was in this summer, there were at least 20 people with cellphones and one iPad taking video of me and my colleagues observing a village meeting – and no one asked us for our consent while we asked for theirs. They may have no idea where the image will end up, but then neither do I.

    Any rules for digital photography need to reflect our cultural expectations as well as those where we are. In the US, if you are in public, you can be photographed without your permission, period. And the copyright of that photo belongs to the photographer. Informed convent in international development is more protective than what we in the US routine get ourselves.

    • Josh Woodard says:

      I’m not involved in the follow up discussions that were mentioned at the bottom of this post, so I’ll let those who are respond to your specific points on that.

      On you point about the need for photographs, I agree. I am just putting forward the idea that we should start thinking a bit more about the subjects of those photos. I didn’t say that no farmers know what the internet are, and certainly there are many poor farmers that have access to it in some capacity. Using a couple of apps does not necessarily mean that one fully knows what else the entirety of the internet is.

      I also wouldn’t say that I am presuming harm. I have asked us to consider more carefully what harm and exploitation mean in this context.

      I don’t really have much sympathy for the argument that people took photos of you without your consent. You were in their community. It was not as if they came into your community and started taking photos of you. It is also highly unlikely that they were taking your photo in order to use it on a product that they will be selling. You admitted that you are making money off of these people’s photos. Do you tell them that you are going to profit off of their likelihood? Even if you are non-profit, you are still generating business in part due to your communications materials. And if that’s the case, what rights should they have to being fully informed of that in order to give fully informed consent?

      Finally, whether or not what is acceptable in the US is irrelevant. We should not be comparing ourselves to lesser systems, but rather against the ideal of what is most respectful of the rights and privacy of the individuals and communities that we are working with.

  3. Always a great topic and important as intern and field work season starts to ramp up – the traditional forms of getting consent, such as going through an IRB process at a university – can be very off-putting once you are in a community, as it introduces a formality that really illustrates us vs. them, when all of us are trying to level the interactions. I don’t know if it’s helpful, but Nimmi and I wrote this paper in 2010 about co-constructing informed consent when doing field work. It’s geared towards students, but might have something that could be useful in a convening. Happy to help on that too!


  4. Marga says:

    As programs become increasingly digital and funders push for open data, informed consent procedures need to be updated. The potential that data about a person is going to be shared more broadly than we can even imagine poses challenges to describing the risks to participants. As this post mentions, standardized language is not always the best, but given the rapidly changing environment, developing some language that is appropriate to explain how widely information can be shared on the internet is critical. Institutional review boards (particularly for research studies) and responsible data advocates are discussing this a lot right now. I’d love to be part of this conversation!

  5. Mandi says:

    I used to work for a US-based non-profit that provided addiction counseling for women. Our image/story release was on the ironclad side and including stipulations that it was only valid for 1 year, women were given several choices about what they were willing to share – still image, video, audio, story, their name, their children’s names, etc – and each release specified how the story would be used and women could decide what they were comfortable with. Some women were fine with a blanket release and checked all of the boxes. Some were only okay with sharing their story for a particular opportunity. The key was to walk them through it and explain every concession so they could weigh the consequences of sharing their sensitive pasts while knowing it could have very real effects on their children, job prospects, etc. There were also HIPAA considerations since they would likely be talking about medical/counseling issues.

    In some international development cases we may not need such stringent rules. In others, like some of the programs I work with now, there are serious security concerns to worry about if constituents are agreeing to share their stories and likenesses. It’s worth educating colleagues in the field so that they can educate the storytellers about consent and release so that we communications professionals in headquarters can be confident that the images we use and the stories we tell won’t do harm. I think it’s more important now in our ever-changing media landscape considering that once something is published it’s nearly impossible to take back.

    • Josh Woodard says:

      Thanks for sharing your experiences, Mandi. Great to hear about how proactive you’ve been.

  6. Brendan says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful post Josh. This is an overlooked area of comms + development work that tends to get sidelined. I’d like to contribute to the ongoing discussion, particularly as it pertains to photography, research, and development. I use participatory visual research and continue to struggle with ethics before, during, and after data collection…I’m at least motivated to write a post in follow up to yours and would be keen to discuss more…

    • Josh Woodard says:

      Where are you located, Brendan? I’m in Bangkok and always looking to engage with people in person here–and virtually with people elsewhere. The event mentioned at the bottom of this post is being planned by Wayan Vota in DC. So that could be another opportunity for you to engage with others with an interest in this topic. Looking forward to reading your follow up post and discussing further.

  7. Some excellent thoughts and questions here. One that I think about often. While the idea of written consent works in our privileged context, what does it really mean for a woman living in extreme poverty who doesn’t know how to sign her name, or even has a name that is used, as she is most often referred to as someone’s wife or daughter? Having worked in these contexts, I have begun to bring polaroid-style cameras to print out small photos to leave behind. I also bring newsletters or postcards with similar photos on them to more clearly articulate how a photograph of them might be used. To me it will always feel like I’m taking something from them even though it is being used for fundraising/communications. So as a result my thoughts on this extend to: How can I leave something behind for THEM? In one case, I had returned to the same village the following year to find that the photo I left behind for them is one that is cherished and exhibited in their home. Thanks for the great piece.

    • Josh Woodard says:

      Thanks for sharing, Caroline. I like the idea of giving subjects of photos that we take–assuming they have given truly informed consent–copies of photos. I’ve also been trying to send reports back to people whose photographs we use. Even though in most cases they can’t read English, I still think most people appreciate seeing how their photo was used.

    • Amanda Makulec says:

      Canon also has small portable printers that can work well if you want the option of printing your digital photos to leave behind. An organization called Dog Meets World actually focused on doing just that – ensuring photos were printed and shared with the local community. I’ve sent copies of photos I’ve taken (with permission) back to field offices when another colleague is traveling when I didn’t have an easy option to print easily. While phones and tablets a with cameras are getting more ubiquitous, having nice, quality prints made can still be expensive (or an unavailable service depending on where you are).

  8. Isabelle Amazon-Brown says:

    Timely point for me as I’ve been visiting duka owners around Nairobi today and was thinking about this very issue.

    In most of the work I do however (designing and running online mobile communities across Africa) it’s more about the use of User Generated Content – feedback quotes, experiences shared, etc. We certainly could do better so I think it’s great this topic is up for discussion!

  9. Wayan Vota says:

    For those that are interested in the larger data implications, we’ll have a Technology Salon in Washington, DC on the responsible use of data on April 5.

    Sign up to get invited to the event.

  10. Lauren says:

    Thanks for contributing to this discussion, Josh. At Reboot, we have been doing a lot of thinking around our informed consent practices, and make concerted efforts to demonstrate how a person’s photo may be used when obtaining consent. We do so by having our field researchers show examples of how we use photos on laminated cards when asking for consent. But tailoring this conversation for different contexts (i.e. how much each person is aware of the potential digital reach of their photo), is an important and sometimes challenging part of the process that we are still learning from.

    Beyond just getting informed consent, we’ve set guidelines for ourselves of how to use these photos so that we can maintain its ethical integrity throughout its lifespan. We try to carry the context of the photo, and the dignity of the person captured, into how we use it. Using photos with an appropriate tone and context is an important part of ethical development photography, especially when these photos can proliferate within an organization, such as in the case of your eggplant photo.

    I wrote a blog post outlining this process and our thinking around it last fall: http://reboot.org/2015/10/15/picture-make-feel-sad-practical-questions-ethical-photography/
    We would definitely be interested in furthering this conversation through the event you proposed.

    • Josh Woodard says:

      Thanks for sharing what Reboot is doing in this regard, Lauren. I really like the idea of bringing samples with you so that people can better visualize how their likeness might be used. I’ve shared your response and your blog post with one of my communications colleagues as well. Hopefully that will inspire him to think differently about how the process he currently uses to further improve it.

  11. Mary S says:

    Really interesting to think about! We make sure our photographers know to obtain consent, but I’ll have to learn more about how the subjects are made aware of how popular their photo could become!

  12. Technology can also help with this issue. We recently added an option for photo questions in mWater surveys that displays a pop-up with a customizable reminder to ask for consent or consult the organization’s photo policy. This was at the request of our partner, Water.org, who has a strict consent policy for all publicly released photos.

    This is a first step, and while someone could obviously ignore a popup, it does help ensure that policies get communicated across the organization. We could go even further, perhaps by recording the consent conversation and including metadata in the photo to make it easier to identify and contact the subjects in the future.

  13. Kara says:

    I think this is a really important topic so thank you for raising it. It’s something we in the non-profit world kind of want to avoid and think that we don’t really need to be accountable to because what we are doing is “good” and it’s for the good of the people that we serve. However, informed consent is something that takes time and is fair to provide to the people we capture in photographs/videos. Here is an organization, Photographers without Borders, that also delves into this issue in quite a lot of detail in their discussion on “Ethical Photography”: http://www.ictworks.org/2016/03/16/what-is-informed-consent-in-digital-development-photography/.

    • Josh Woodard says:

      Thanks for sharing, Kara. It looks like you shared the link to this article instead of the one you meant to share on Photographers without Borders. Can you re-share? Thanks.

  14. Dave Klassen says:

    This is an interesting discussion. I have been photographing in Africa for many years. In the years before digital, I would take my good photographs using a high-end camera shooting slides or B&W. Then I would carry a small point-and-shoot which I would use to take colour prints. I would develop their prints and send them back to the people I had taken photographs of. When the digital camera came along, I would invariably show people the photograph I had just taken of them on the screen the camera. There was immediate satisfaction and joy. As an administrator of an NGO, my main task was not photography. Thus I would go participate in a relief distribution or development project and before beginning to photograph I would develop some sort of relationships with the people. I would ask them if I can photograph them before actually photographing them. Even now, if I use someone’s photo graph in a publication, calendar or some other use, I will try my best to give them a copy of that publication. Recently my photograph of one woman made the cover of our NGO calendar so I gave her a number of copies of that calendar. And told her that her image was being viewed by people around the world. She was thrilled.

    • Josh Woodard says:

      Thanks for sharing this, Dave. I’ve been trying to convince my colleagues that sharing back reports with people that have their photo in it, even if they can’t read the text, is something that they would be happy to receive. Great to hear that at least in your case, this has proven to be the case.

  15. Great conversation. I’d also like to discuss and put some resources behind developing an educational toolkit and best practices around photography that does not perpetuate racist, sexist and xenophobic ideas in how we portray and represent people in developing countries who are the beneficiaries of our work.

  16. Captioned with names and location – minimum.