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Ethical volunteering and work placements in Ghana, West Africa

#volunteertakeover Ethics of Photography

Date Posted: 19/08/2018

This week #volunteertakeover has been a celebration of our volunteer’s favourite photographs, here PWA volunteer Emily discusses some of her thoughts around the ethics of photography in volunteering and development work.

This week #volunteertakeover has been a celebration of our volunteer’s favourite photographs, here PWA volunteer Emily discusses some of her thoughts around the ethics of photography in volunteering and development work.


"The question of ethical photography arises not only with the images you take for personal memories or social media but aid organisations media campaigns and publicity. I’m going to look at these types of photographs and whether we should be taking these photos or not.

When exploring a new country whether it be as a tourist or volunteer, taking photographs is an important part of any trip. Usually it is as an aid to your memory and to show friends and family places you have been, and things you’ve done. However, it is important when taking photographs to reflect on how these photos can portray a country. We want our photos to empower developing countries, not degrade or disrespect them. It is important to ask yourself if the photo represents a stereotype of people from this country, and does it represent them with dignity? The hashtag #TheAfricaTheMediaNeverShows illustrates the way photography negatively effects the African continent and posts positive pictures of Africa. 

When photographing individuals, it is important to build a relationship with the person you’re photographing and ask permission. If someone took a picture of you without your permission or knowledge, you will most likely find this intrusive and insulting. It is important not to just take a photo as you walk by but gain an insight into the life of that person, so both parties involved can gain from the experience.

Recently in the media ‘Poverty Porn’ has become an object of criticism and discussion. Poverty Porn is considered to be images that show people in abject poverty, for example very thin babies, women in ragged clothing with hands outstretched, big eyed people projecting the message that only you, the viewer, can help. Charities often use these images to persuade people to give money to their causes, however many people find it offensive. Last year Ed Sheeran’s film for Comic Relief was nominated for the ‘most offensive’ campaign of 2017 by the Rad-Aid Awards. In his film Ed Sheeran offers to pay for hotel costs for street children in Liberia and was described as verging on ‘poverty tourism’. Eddie Redmayne and Tom Hardy also featured in films nominated for the award. These videos were by the Disaster Emergencies Committee (DEC) and showed graphic images of unidentified starving and sick children – the awards described these films as ‘devoid of dignity’. These films bring to the fore the issue of whether this ‘Poverty Porn’ is ethical and necessary or a very over-simplistic and outdated way to communicate poverty and development.

Charitable organisations have always assumed poverty porn style appeals work as they have raised enormous amounts of money, the DEC’s Africa appeal raised £60 million. However, there has been limited research into the effectiveness of ‘Poverty Porn’ and it shows it might not be as effective as organisations think. Beathe Øgård, president of the Saih (Norwegian Students’ and Academics’ International Assistance Fund), said ‘They are horrible to watch. People are so used to them that for many they reinforce the feeling of helplessness and apathy – and even a negative view of development in that nothing is going in the right direction.’

These images are used to evoke the feeling of guilt in people so that they donate money. This may work in the short term, but we see these images all the time. Once you have paid some guilt money, next year you will need something more horrific to notice. You become numb to these images, and this may be what is contributing to a steady decline of engagement with global poverty in the UK. Another problem with the images is that you are asking for money to ‘fix’ a problem, but the problem of global poverty is very hard to ‘fix’.  When people who have previously donated money see the same images a year later they may stop believing in their ability to make a difference. A deeper issue with these images is that they are dehumanising. They perpetuate an image that the ‘white saviours’, are superior to the rest and only people from developed countries can bring about the end of poverty. All these reasons demonstrate the ineffectiveness of ‘Poverty Porn’ and how it is not necessary to photograph children, women and men without consideration of their privacy, dignity or desire to be photographed.

The media campaigns often fail to mention that in general global poverty is getting better. Child mortality in developing countries declined by 25% in 1990s, and in 2015 global poverty fell below 10% of worlds population for the first time. Research has shown that charity appeals do not need to show unethical images, but if you focus on the similarities between donors and recipients you can also elicit donations. For example, War Child Holland and Mama Hope.

Ethical photography is a polarising issue. For charitable and international aid organisations ‘Poverty Porn’ can be an effective way of raising huge sums of money quickly, but even though it is effective it is dehumanising. I think that it is unnecessary to show anyone in abject poverty without any consideration to their wellbeing, and there are other ways to persuade people to give money than evoking feelings of guilt and helplessness. Celebrities should not be portrayed as the only ones who can help but can be a good way to raise awareness of others plight. In my personal photography I think it is important to make sure you are truly engaging with a country’s culture and people, rather than using the photos to show others you’ve been somewhere new or to make yourself look good."

Author: Emily - PWA Volunteer

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