Notes from “Consent and the Protocols and Ethics of Photographing People”

Image Description: A photographer is taking a photo of a person who is looking in a different direction while, possibly, daydreaming. It is unclear if the individual knows they are being photographed. Photo by Allef Vinicius on Unsplash.

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

“It may be difficult for those of us who haven’t had our photos misused… to grasp how invasive it can feel. Basically, this reduces our subject to a commodity, a resource, a thing—not a person.”

Amelie Hyams, OED Brown Bag “Protocols and Ethics of Photographing People”

I attended a brown bag session at the University of Minnesota’s Office of Equity & Diversity several years ago. The talk focused on the use of photography done in-house for marketing materials/social media and the importance of being respectful when using images of BIPOC and individuals from traditionally marginalized populations.

This workshop was a lightbulb moment for me that shifted how I think about using photos for my organizations. As communicators, we must recognize that when we decide to use photos of our real people and clients, they have a right to have opinions about how and when they wish their photos used. This is especially true when photographing BIPOC and individuals from traditionally marginalized populations. Before this workshop, I had generally assumed I could use my organization’s photos however I wished as long as the individual had signed a release. I left this workshop knowing that, while that may be enough from a legal standpoint, taking this casual approach to consent is not about respecting relationships and individuals.

You can see slides from the full presentation here, and I’ve included some of my major takeaways from the presentation below. For additional recommendations about photography and other items, I also recommend reading Pacific University’s “Best Practices for Equity, Diversity & Inclusion in Marketing.”

Respect the Wishes of the People in Your Photos

BIPOC and people from traditionally marginalized populations have seen images of themselves or people like them misused over and over again. It is all too common for a communicator to find their “perfect representation of diversity” and use that image repeatedly until the actual context of the photo is no longer relevant (I’m no exception as it was pointed out to me during my time at the UMN that I was using a photo of a group of (now) graduated international students that was taken when they were freshman.

As such, it is becoming increasingly common for individuals from traditionally marginalized populations to be concerned about how their image will be used and whether it will be reused in other contexts. Due to this, when you take photos of people, some of your subjects may request that the image ONLY be used for a specific purpose (for example, only promoting the specific event/program they are participating in).

Recommendation: Be prepared and willing to answer questions about how and why you want to take an individual’s photo. While you cannot know all of the details, consider whether you should only use the images for specific purposes or whether they can be used generally.

Get Photo Releases, But…

Many standard photo releases give the organization open-ended permission to use the photo however staff want after the individual signs it. When creating photography in-house, it is standard procedure for communicators to either ask individuals to sign these types of releases specifically when their photo is taken or as part of the registration/sign-in process for an event/service. You can, alternatively, post a sign at the entrance to an event informing participants that their photo may be taken.

The one exception to the need for releases is when photographing individuals in a public space. The law has stated individuals do not have expectation of privacy in public, so their photo can be taken without their knowledge. However, while not legally required in the circumstances, it is still a good idea to get a signed consent form from anyone who can easily be identified in a photo.

No matter which method you use, you should always give individuals multiple opportunities to change their minds and opt-out of having their photo taken.

Recommendation: You should also be prepared to respond if someone wants to place limitations on this open-ended permission. Consider whether you believe that will work for your organization or whether it would be better for you to not take the photo.

As a practical issue, I caution that it is easy for these agreements to be lost or forgotten—particularly in organizations with frequent staff turnover or multiple people/departments using photos. If you do decide to make individual agreements, you will need to take time to set up a record keeping process that will allow these request to be consulted when a photo is reused. You will want to ensure these records will stay with the organization and honored even if you move to a new position.

You should also talk about the potential for misuse that exists if the image is shared online.

Plan an Easy Way for Photographers to Know Who Does and Does Not Want To Be Photographed

At the start of the event, you should identify your photographers to the participants and/or state who attendees can speak to if they don’t want to appear in photos. You may also wish to use different colored name tags or stickers so the photographers can know who is choosing to opt out, or you can designate specific “photography zones” that people can avoid if they do not want to appear in photos.

Recommendation: I recommend consulting with your photographer and considering the size of the event as each of these options will have advantages and drawbacks. It will be helpful to have considered whether you believe there will be large number of people who won’t want to be photographed and whether your event space could create any limitations before having this conversation.

When developing this plan, I also encourage you to ensure individuals won’t be prevented from fully participating in the event/service due to not wanting their photo taken.

Do Not Overrepresent Your Diversity

Organizations can feel pressure to show greater diversity than they have when preparing marketing materials. Do not fill your marketing pieces with images of people of color if they do not constitute a significant percentage of your clientele.

It is something done by too many organizations, and it will hurt any effort you are attempting to do to create trust. Viewing diversifying the faces in your marketing materials as the first step to creating diversity is ignoring the reality that there, likely, need to be serious conversations about what your organization needs to do to be a more welcoming place and why that has not already happened.

Recommendation: If your organization is discussing its lack of diversity for the first time when creating a marketing piece, you will get this wrong. Relationship building must happen first.

Be Authentic

Carefully consider how you portray BIPOC and those from traditionally marginalized populations in your photos. Do not only resort to obvious or stereotypical identifiers such as including rainbow flags for LGTBQIA+ issues or people in wheelchairs when discussing disabilities.

Recommendation: Allow people to come as they are, and listen to them about how they wish to be portrayed. Let their personality show!

It is also important that you are careful when editing your images to ensure any changes are respectful and authentic.

Have People From Your Target Audience Vet Your Images

Culture and personal experience will influence how people view your images. What seems fine to one person, can be offensive to another.

Recommendation: Always show your materials to people from your target audience BEFORE they are finalized and printed, and you need to be willing to make changes based on that feedback. Even better, pay a freelancer or designer from the community to create the materials—it will result in richer and more authentic representations, stronger relationships, and it will mean your organization is living its values.

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