The ethics of photography
There is something very powerful about a photograph. The one still frame can transform a complex issue into a single compelling message. After stumbling across some haunting photos of garment workers in Sri Lanka I was inspired to curate an exhibition to tell the stories behind our clothes, and inspire people into action.
I contacted a number of non-profit organisations asking them to donate photos for the exhibition. The response was generally positive with campaigners interested and engaged by the idea.
But then one organisation, which had originally agreed to help, got twitchy. The request had triggered a larger debate within the organisation about the ethics of photos, particularly those of children.
It wasn't that they didn't understand about consent or model release forms. Indeed they had a library of photos that they used regularly. The problem as they saw it was when photographing children experiencing abuse. These children were often too young to give consent or even understand what it was they were consenting to. And often it was either not possible nor safe to get their parents to provide it.
In an attempt to help them I started to research photo consent policies. Interestingly most were aimed at photographers and were quite generic in their scope. If they did mention children they simply said consent from parents must be gained, but said nothing about what you should do if this is not possible. So instead I went to some of the larger non-profit organisations working in a similar field.
I found some good resources through this route, but when I returned to my charity partner they were still not convinced. They looked at the websites of the organisations in question and claimed they were not following their own rules. They insisted that it would have been impossible to get consent for a large number of the children featured on their websites.
Not being an expert in the field I can't comment on whether this was true, but clearly there were some issues with certain children in certain situations. This may include child soldiers, child slaves or those kept as sex workers. Informed or parental consent for these young people is unlikely to be obtainable. Yet without the power of photography, in a busy multimedia environment, how do we share their stories and bring their issues to the attention of the world? The experience has given me lots of food for thought, and I hope in the long term we'll find a solution.
In the short term however my exhibition will take place without that stunning photo of the little boy with beautiful brown eyes, stuck behind a spinning wheel making clothes for our High Street. You'll just have to take my word for it – it would have made you want to take action.