Rethinking the photo release

Image Description: Looking over the shoulder of a photographer as they take a picture of another person who is blurred due to the distance. Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels.

Estimated reading time: 2 minutes

I originally wrote this blog for the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network of the Twin Cities (YNPN-TC). It is a follow-up to my earlier blog about the ethics and protocols of photographing people.

I had a friend who needed help several years ago with mental health concerns. After searching around, I was able to find a program that seemed to be a good fit. He went to an initial appointment cautiously hopeful, but when I checked in with him later, he said he left without signing up because they required him to sign a photo release as part of signing up for services.

Prior to this experience, I had never thought much about how we use photos in nonprofit organizations. I was accustomed to asking people to sign photo release forms that then got stored away, and I generally thought of people saying no as an annoying inconvenience (even though I do my best to avoid being photographed in my daily life). This experience made me rethink that response, however, and it led to creating an organizational policy to ensure individuals aren’t prevented from using services/events simply because of not wanting to be photographed.

The basics of waivers

When planning to take photos of clients/events, communicators are told to either:

  • Have clients sign individual photo waivers (this is required if you are using the photo to “promote a product, service, or idea”).
  • Post signs at events saying photos will be taken.
  • Include a photo waiver in event/program signups.
  • Use photos taken in public settings where there isn’t an expectation of privacy.
  • Use photos where individuals aren’t personally identifiable (such as photos of the back of someone’s head).

Templates for these waivers are easy to find online. In most instances, they give organizations the right to use an individual’s photo in perpetuity after they sign the release. There are many reasons, however, why individuals would not want to give this open-ended permission. Of particular note, BIPOC and people from traditionally marginalized communities frequently see their photos misused over and over again (we only have to look next door to the University of Wisconsin for one notable example).

The traditional photo waiver does not give individuals the opportunity to put stipulations on how or when their photo will be used. They also state that the individual doesn’t need to be shown the photos before they are published. Simply put, these photo waivers exist to protect the organization, not the individual(s) in the photos.

Developing a new policy

All of these concerns led me to work with my organization’s communications director and leadership to develop a photo policy requiring staff members to make a plan to 1) give event/program participants every opportunity possible to say they do not want to be photographed (even those who have previously agreed), 2) make it easy for the photographer to avoid these people or for their photos to be discarded, and 3) ensure individuals are not blocked from participating due to not wanting to be photographed.

There are several ways this can be done including:

  • Using color-coded name tags or stickers for individuals who DO or DO NOT wish to be photographed.
  • Designating an area of the room where photos WILL NOT be taken.
  • Having a note taker with your photographer who can document when someone does not want their photo shared publicly.

I recommend talking to your photographer about this concern as they may already have a preferred method. I also recommend considering the number of people at your event, the size of your space, and whether people will be moving around as it can make some methods better than others. For example, one of the first events where I implemented this policy was a YNPN-TC dance event, and we knew people wouldn’t be able to fully enjoy themselves if we said they had to stay in a specific part of the room to avoid being photographed. That option works fine, however, for seated events like dinners and presentations.

Since implementing this policy, I have had few instances where participants have objected to having their photos taken. This can make it feel like this type of policy isn’t needed, but it is another important opportunity to consider what you need to do to center the needs and wishes of your clients. As communicators who have chosen to work in a sector that exists to help people and improve the public good, we must ensure our marketing/communications needs never interfere with the important work our organizations exist to provide. We need to be able to promote our activities and engage our audiences, but it cannot come at the expense of our organization’s core mission or the dignity of our clients. 

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