Development photography – mission impossible

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Yesterday I wrote about Oxfam’s use of photographs of children in war-torn areas for social media posts. That made me think about when I worked for a Northern development organisation in a developing country, and was asked to collect some photos of a specific vulnerable group that could be used in the Global North for fundraising and advocacy (a lot of it online of course). I hired a local photographer, since I felt I needed local eyes since the issue of this vulnerable group was sensitive and she would be good at talking with locals and navigating around stereotypes. As mentioned by Bracegirdle in Africa Is a Country: “stereotypical images of the global South persist, in part, because local photographers are often overlooked in favour of flying someone in, who most likely knows little about the context. The potential for misrepresentation and erroneous emphasis is rife.”

Still, or maybe thanks to this, delivering the right photos was an almost impossible mission. 

The organisation had an empowerment photo policy mentioning agency (showing activism and resilience!), assuring consent, etc, and at the same time they wanted it to be clear in the images that the people portrayed were members of a specific vulnerable group. I have myself worked at head quarters, and I know exactly what they meant. 

I knew that this could almost only be done by showing the poor living conditions in shanty towns that were typical for this group. However doing so would make it difficult to portray these people as agents and activists since they preferred to be dressed up by a desk in their office. The perfect picture, I was told by head quarters, was a protest march with colourful banners that made the vulnerable group and their political situation visible. But these people did not participate in marches, they worked at NGOs or participated in meetings and activities held by NGOs, sharing experiences of oppression, and discussing and bettering their situation politically. At these meetings and heated discussions we had a fair chance at assuring people understood how the pictures would be used and that we had everyone’s names. The PR people of the NGOs could fully grasp the way social media is typically used to reach out to new audiences, deepen knowledge, sustain interest and motivate people to act (Guo & Saxton, 2014, p. 70), since they used social media themselves in this aspect to further the rights of this particular vulnerable group. The local people at the activities were grateful to our organisation, or the hosting NGO,  respected our work and agreed to participate in the photos. Never mind that we disrupted the activity with our presence and took lots of time to collect names and explain ourselves, we were finally at a place where we could photograph people without feeling we exploited them too much. 

Ironically, these pictures were not considered to show enough agency. Instead we tried to take some everyday pictures outside of people with identifiers that connected them to the specific vulnerable group. Here there were two categories of people, those who used and understood social media and those who didn’t. Young and informed people who used social media themselves, knew far too well that they didn’t want to be the face of misery there. They were part of a generation where images in social media have become an increasingly important form of self-representation (Rettberg, 2016, p. 13). As Marwick puts it, ‘social media allows people to strategically construct an identity in ways that are deeply rooted in contemporary ideas that the self is autonomous and constantly improving’ (2013, loc. 3091, cited by Rettberg, 2016, p. 13). When we asked for consent, no one was interested. Their situation was too sensitive, and they were not politically engaged or activists, and hadn’t heard of our organisation. 

Last but not least, we managed to take one “perfect” picture, of a very old, and by the looks of it, poor man performing a typical rural task. This man was unlikely to be an activist, politically or professionally active, and there was no way we could communicate to him how the photos would be used in social media. To be fair, we didn’t even try, since we knew that he was not a typical social media user in this fast developing country.

I guess the reality is that the more informed (or easy to inform) a person is of how a picture of them can be used with the help of information and communication technologies, the less likely it is that they will want their vulnerability to be portrayed and, also, the less vulnerable they will probably be. My personal opinion is that taking great photos that evoke emotion, and at the same time truly respect and don’t exploit,is a fine line.


  1. Manuela

    I think that the issues your raise in this and your previous post are really crucial. Sisil, in a comment to the previous post, talked about power relations and this is even more evident here: nobody wants to be the face of poverty (and rightly so!) and when they do, it’s because they don’t understand how their likeness will be used and manipulated. But on the other hand NGOs need a certain type of representations for fundraising and advocacy. So the main problem really is: why is the call to action only provoked by images than haunt us, rather than narratives that makes us understand (as Susan Sontag would put it)?

    1. Emma Söderström

      Absolutely! Important input from Sontag. Maybe because narratives that make Westerners understand will inevitably lead to us feeling accused (since our lifestyle, politics, and history is largely part of the explaination).

  2. Angelica

    I hope that media and NGOs are starting to follow the trends we see in social media. An advert or campaign can be just as emotional when we feel sameness as when we feel guilt. If we see a picture of a starving child we feel guilt and we feel like we can save someone, but we can feel just as much need to create change if we feel sameness with this child. If we are able to connect with the picture and think – this could be me. Media and NGOs have traditionally showed us a certain set of images because it has had the desired effect – people give. It is high time that people start giving because we feel that people are our peers.

    1. Emma Söderström

      This is an interesting point. Nandita Dogra actually talks alot about creating a sense of “oneness” being an established strategy by NGOs, to make Westerners feel connected to people of the developing world. This partly explains the frequent use of children (think of We are the world, we are the children kind of discourse..). She argues, if I recall correctly, that this can create a false sense of unity, since it still disregards historical and political context. Read Dogra’s Representations of Global Poverty: Aid, Development and International NGOs if your are interested!

  3. I find it very interesting that even if organizations are aware of the issues of mediated content communicated for development we keep on reiforcing images of the vulnerable helplessness calling for agency. For example, UNHCRs campaings in Sweden are full of Swedish celebreties next to vulnurable ofther traumatized people. The people getting interviewd have no control over the story they are sharing or what image is portayed of them. The reaction of the audience might be to send money to calm the perosnal guilt when seeing these imgaes instead of looking for long term solution. And in this I really see a empowering potential in social media in terms of the “an increasingly important form of self-representation” that is embedded in tool. When people are able to report on their own vulnerability maybe we can feel closer to each other and start working together on more long term solutions.

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