Children as development candy

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From time to time the discussion about whether or not Facebook can do what they like with your photos arises (Belam, 2016). I know a lot of people who are a little concerned, especially when it comes to pictures of children. Last month, it was rerported that an 18 year old Austrian girl sued her parents for publishing photos of her as a child on Facebook without her consent (Huggler, 2016). I came to think of this while flickering through Oxfam UK’s Facebook feed which is full of pictures of children in war-torn Mosul, here, here, here and here, captions containing descriptions of Oxfam’s work in the area and advocacy messages. I asked Oxfam Sweden’s Communications Director Robert Höglund, what his thoughts of using photos of children on their Facebook page are.

– Even if some individuals can find it troubling or scary to be featured in social media, I think the alternative, not showing the situation as it is, is worse. An organisation must be able to show their work on the ground.

Oxfam names some of the children by their first name, most are unnamed. I wonder, is it at all possible for these children, or their parents or other guardians, to consent to pictures of them in vulnerable circumstances being used in social media to boost Oxfam’s reach?

As pointed out by Bracegirdle in Africa is a Country: “Consent isn’t just about getting someone to agree to be photographed: it’s also about ensuring that they know how their likeness can be used, and if they’re entirely comfortable with that.” “Can someone be comfortable with being the face of poverty”, and in the cases above, war? (Bracegirdle, 2015).

Robert says that he expects that consent is often given verbally rather than in writing, and that most people featured are unlikely to grasp to what extent the photo could be used all over the world. He compares this to photo journalism, where pictures are even more widely spread and consent isn’t needed, arguing that development organisations such as Oxfam sometimes use photos in a journalistic rather than PR-related purpose.

Critics, such as Nandita Dogra, argue that development NGOs use images in a way that hinders a deeper understanding of development by removing political and historical context (2012, p. 129, 150). A recent study of Canadian NGOs showed that almost 9 out of 10 use Facebook to some extent (Guo & Saxton, 2014, p. 63).

While social media, if used badly can dramatically worsen perceptions of the development world, it also holds the potential to challenge stereotype and inform and educate people (Artime & Hershey, 2014, p. 639-640). Research of student’s perceptions of Africa after watching the film Kony 2012 showed that the further along in their education they were the more resilient they were to negative stereotypes (Artime & Hershey, 2014, p. 639), which confirms the obvious fact that well educated communication professionals in development organisations need to look past their own interpretations and understandings of development and carefully assess what the photos they use convey, since they are powerful. But do the objects in the photo, even have the chance to assess the impacts?

According to Dogra, images that Oxfam and other similar organisations use today mainly portray “innocent children”, making children “development candy” (2012, p. 33). However a lot of the pictures in her research of international NGOs’ imagery were cropped, decontextualising the child and making it appear even more vulnerable and dependent on the NGOs interventions (Dogra, 2012, p. 34-35). This is not the case in the pictures on Oxfam’s Facebook, where adults and activities are shown. Still pictures of children in a development context are always used strategically to convey certain messages, and are often used to project childhood as a state of “need” (Dogra, 2012. p. 36). My question remains.. can children fully consent to being used by an organisation as a symbol of need? If no, should development organisations stop using photos of children? If no, should they stop acting as if consent was possible?


  1. Sisil Benjaro

    Really interesting!
    I was caught by the first question raised at the end of the post, whether children can consent or not to being used by organizations as a symbol of need. My comment is related to power relations well perceived in humanitarian contexts (unlike for the case of the child in Austria); and to the knowledge that beneficiaries in some humanitarian contexts have about websites as Facebook. I think beneficiaries (children in this case or more accurately their parents or guardians as children themselves do not understand what a consent is) unfortunately have no other option but to give their consent to be photographed when an aid agency photographer asks them for it, believing that declining consent might put the aid that they receive from the agency at risk. Power relations are reflected even in the simple act of clicking to take a photo; (and spreading it afterward). In addition, I think that in the context of humanitarian assistance, for example in a place as Jonglei State of South Sudan, informing the beneficiary that his photo might appear on websites as Facebook does not really mean a lot. Access to social media is not universal and many of those photographed have never been on the Internet before to grasp what the circulation of an image in the digital world really means.

    1. Emma Söderström

      Thanks for your comment, yes there is definitely the factor of power relations, as always when i development organisation visitis their partners and beneficiaries. The people who know what the organisation is and that they are partly dependent on it will say yes. Others might say no when asked.

      This is interesting related to my next post. When we wanted to photograph locals they often said no, because they didn’t know the organisation, while when we asked partners and activists they would have done anything to please us, but the power relations were so obvious so we would never do so. Instead, we wanted to photograph them as they were most comfortable, and that would of course have been at work in office clothes and not at home in unworthy living conditions..

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