Last week I attended an event on photography ethics at the Royal Photographic Society. It was an opportunity to stop, think and take part in the discussion around this subject and relate it back to our work.
Here are my key five take-aways from the day.
To delve deeper into a subject or issue, you need time to do your research, understand the nuances and how you might portray that in your images.
We’ve worked with some clients on multiple occasions and sometimes over many years. This does make life easier in that everyone feels relaxed that we ‘get it.’ They trust us and have confidence in our work and in our approach with people. We pride ourselves in being able to adapt to all situations and I do mean all, we’ve been in hospitals in rural Uganda with emergencies rushing by, we’ve been in UK hospices where the day is suddenly altered due to patients becoming ill. The art is knowing when to speak up and when to blend into the background.
Sometimes you don’t have the luxury of time with the actual people you’re photographing but if you’ve done your homework on the brief, the client and what they are looking for you, you can get a pretty good idea of what photos to take. Listening and watching before you start work is invaluable to getting the feel of a place.
Participation and inclusivity
When you truly engage and include the people, community or group in your photography, you have a much stronger body of work that communicates with the audience in a more authentic way. By having a two-way discussion with those involved about what might work in order to tell their story, you can leave with images you wouldn’t even have thought about taking. As a result people immediately start to feel empowered because they are included in the decision making.
One key point we discussed at the event which I identified with, was that the process of participation takes time too. You cannot just rock up to a location, point your camera and expect to get award winning, natural photos. You’re more likely to capture a blank confused look on someone’s face! You have to allow time to say hello, allow people to adjust to having the camera around, explain what you’re doing, give them an opportunity to feedback, to participate, to consent. Often consent has already been formally gained before the shoot, but we will always ensure people are happy to continue. Consent can be withdrawn at any time and we are always mindful of that, especially when working with vulnerable people. As we discussed at the event, ‘consent is more than a form, it’s a two way process.’
One of the things I love about my job and photography in general is the places we go and the people we meet. I don’t want to photograph from a distance. I want to get in amongst it and I want to meet people. If you can allow yourself to let the process take its own course and not rush, then you can add real depth to the story you’re telling.
For example, when we were in India with C&A Foundation, we spent the day with organic cotton farmers, photographing and filming them, going about their daily lives. At the end of the day they invited us back to their home for a cup of tea. As I sat there drinking tea, I couldn’t help think it was too good a scene not to capture and so I asked if they would mind me taking a photograph. Because we’d built rapport and they trusted me, they were more than happy to oblige. I then made sure I put the camera down, had a chat and enjoyed my tea with them.
One comment that struck me from Emma Chetcuti at Multistory was, “consent shouldn’t paralyse.” I think many photographers and charities have become very fearful of this and of course you do need to ask permission to take or use someone’s image. However, there have been times when I have spotted an opportunity for a photo and taken it and asked for consent retrospectively.
For example this image was a great shot that illustrated the story we were in Kenya to capture. I couldn’t go over and get permission first as they were too far away from me and I would have lost the moment, but I was there with an organisation to capture a story and I was able to show the two women when they arrived and ask them if it was okay.
I guess I’m saying don’t be scared of consent, it’s actually not a new thing, it’s just more formalised now. Good photographers have always asked for permission, and that means you just have to start with a conversation.