Respect for your subjects and the communities you are documenting should always be your first consideration when you are behind the lens. For more specific guidance on culturally sensitive photography, consider the following questions and directions:
Research and Reflect
- Research the people and places you’ll be visiting before traveling — and certainly before taking a photograph.
- Give deep consideration to the emotional, psychological, political, economic, cultural, social or physical circumstances of your subject before taking a photograph. Ask yourself, could my photo harm the person or people in it in any way?
- Ask yourself if you would be comfortable taking the same picture in your own community. If you answer “yes,” remember that this is just a minimum threshold for deciding whether or not to photograph — in most cases, you will not be considered a member of the community that you are photographing.
- Always ask for consent before taking a photo, whether through gestures or the native language. If you don’t receive consent, don’t take the photo. If at any point a participant decides they don’t want their photograph taken or used, respect their wishes.
- Consider your own circumstances and how those shape your relationship to the subject. Could your nationality, economic status or physical ability, for instance, make it uncomfortable or difficult for the subject to refuse permission for photography or make them feel vulnerable with you behind the lens? If such power differences exist, it may be best to refrain from photographing until you’ve developed a relationship that establishes sufficient trust for both parties to communicate their expectations.
- Don’t attempt to hide your camera or the fact that you are taking a picture.
Privacy and Confidentiality
- When photographing issues that are culturally or politically sensitive, take care to protect the identity and privacy of the individuals photographed if requested or needed.
- When photographing minors, individuals with special needs or in clinical settings, take photographs with the utmost care, compassion and consideration for privacy.
- Don’t intrude on private moments such as grieving; be considerate of the situation you find yourself photographing.
- Don’t take advantage of a person’s trust. If they have asked for privacy or confidentiality regarding their identity or circumstances, respect their wishes.
Give Respect, Give Context to Images
- Contextualize your photo so as to not contribute to stereotypes or generalizations.
- What story does your photograph tell? Does it risk perpetuating a “single story” about the place or people you are photographing? A “single story” reduces complex situations, communities and peoples to a single, dominant narrative; a narrative that is often misleading and simplistic.
- Activist and editorial photos should be used with the intention of raising public awareness and not exploiting sympathy.
- If you’re asked for compensation for taking a photo, consider what you’re taking from the subject by photographing them. What has already been taken by others with cameras? If this is a source of income for them, what are you consuming by taking their photo? What image of them are you portraying if they are only willing to let you make it for money?
- If you staged or altered your photo, what were your reasons for doing so? Provide information about your directorial choices in the caption or accompanying text whenever possible.
- Do not take a controversial photograph for the sole purpose of being controversial.