Jessica Turner, Program Associate
Photography is a powerful tool for communication, and one that we rely on heavily in our work. Photos are fun; providing an opportunity for us to visually share the vibrancy of the communities we work with. They transport our audience to a packed community meeting, to an intimate scene of women dancing or to a busy construction site. Photographing our work in communities is a joy, as so many people enjoy having their photo taken and are comfortable in front of the camera. However, despite this enthusiasm, we have a responsibility to ensure that our communications reflect who we are as an organization. As we treat participants with respect and dignity in our program work, we must also ensure that their stories and experiences are shared in a dignified and respectful manner.
It is easy to think that ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’, but this can be a dangerous assumption, especially if a photograph is used without adequate context.
While the potential for ownership over a photograph of oneself is enormous, so is the danger of exploitation. We all know why so many organizations are moving away from presenting people as helpless and nameless, because they become mere objects. A representation that focuses only on the worst thing occurring in a person’s life is not a fair representation. While playing on the audience’s emotions may be a powerful tool for drumming up funding and interest in a situation, it provides a dangerously limited insight into the context. See here for an inspirational Ted Talk from Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie about how telling only a ‘single story’ can affect cross-cultural understanding.
However pure the intentions, and however positively represented the scene, the dangers of exploitation still exist. Does the subject know they are being photographed? Do they know what this photo might be used for? Do they really understand what that means? Have they given their consent for their photograph to be taken? Do they feel like they have a choice in the matter?
At OneVillage Partners we have been working hard to improve the way we photograph community members and communicate their stories, but we recognize that this is hard! We have been training staff in how to take better photographs, asking for consent and photographing respectfully, as well as broadening our organizational voice to ensure the images and words of both staff and participants are shared. We try to steer away from stereotypes, taking photographs of what is happening in communities, rather than what we think our audience would like to see.
When we take portraits of participants, we allow them to take ownership of how they are presented. They choose where they stand. They choose what they are wearing. They choose the way they interact with the camera. And after the photograph has been taken, they choose whether or not they are happy for it to be used. More than just representing community members fairly, we want to ensure that they have a say in how they feature in our communications.
We have presented community volunteers with printed copies of their portraits, to ensure that we are not being extractive. In the same way that we share results of surveys with communities, we share with community members when their stories have been told through our media.
We have selected some of our favorite pictures from the past year that we think communicate our work and featured them in this month’s blog.