In the face of human suffering, being equipped with nothing but a camera can leave a photographer feeling helpless. But photographers and the agencies who commission them are driven by a sense of duty, not only to tell the human story, but to create a historical record (I personally experienced this during my time as a photojournalist for CNN). There are crises taking place worldwide at any given time – from famine to war – and many countries in the northern hemisphere (especially China, many European countries & now the United States) are currently suffering through a health crisis: the Coronavirus outbreak. Although it is strongly discouraged by the Center for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), if you choose to forego Social Distancing to photograph the crisis of COVID-19/Coronavirus, here are some things to remember as the public struggles with their new normal. (And remember, if you or ANYONE you know has a compromised immune system or is over the age of 60, please do not venture out for the sake of historical documentation or curiosity).
Treat people with dignity & respect
Consider how you would feel if you were the one being photographed in a dire situation. Ask people how they would like to be photographed. Some people really do not want to be photographed (and you should respect this). Also, be aware of cultural taboos such as the belief that photos bring bad luck or that women may not be photographed.
Informed consent is more than someone just agreeing to be photographed. They have to understand who you are, how you will use the photo, and the possible consequences for themselves and their communities. Individuals and recognizable groups of people should be asked for consent. For shots taken from a distance or of large groups in public, ask a group representative or program staff member to advise if further consent is needed. Give clear instructions on how to revoke consent, and provide contact details. Remember that people may withdraw their consent non-verbally (i.e.: by walking away).
Assess the risks
Do a risk assessment. If the risk is too high – or if the risk is likely to increase over time – don’t take or use the photo. Read your organization’s security guidelines, which often refer to security risks relating to photography. For example, taking photos near airports or military installations is often prohibited by law. Make sure to think through the possible consequences of taking photos (for example, could the photo cause problems for the people being photographed?). Consult people who know the context well, as risks may not be obvious.
Train everyone involved
All humanitarians working in high-risk contexts should understand the principles of responsible photography, as well as the teams that specifically photograph and interview people. Photographers, translators, guides, etc. should be able to carry out their work in line with the principles of responsible management.
In conflict zones, it’s very difficult to assess all possible risks, so protect people’s identities by taking photos where their faces or identifying features are not visible. You should also do this in other sensitive situations, such as with survivors of violence or abuse. If you are unsure if you need to protect identities, take the safe route and do so anyway. Also, switch off your GPS on your camera/phone so the location coordinates will not be embedded in the photo metadata.
Use with care
It’s not just about taking photographs with care and consideration, but how we use them too. We should only use or share photos in line with the original purpose for which consent was given. The text around a photo affects how that image is interpreted. For example, people whose photos are used on blogs about Ebola, child soldiers, rape survivors, etc. will be assumed to have experienced those issues themselves.
In high-risk areas such as conflict zones, your organization will have rules about what material can be used publicly. Make sure to get approval to use images and other material publicly and that you know your organization’s processes on signing-off for public use.
Make it participatory
Many people want to have their photo taken and their story told, and often, they also want some say in this process. If you have time, turn a photography trip into a participatory project. Talk to people about how you want to photograph them, and ask for their ideas too. Many people have lost their own family photos, so consider giving them copies of the photos you take.
Use your imagination
There are lots of interesting and innovative ways to take photos that don’t show people’s identities: use silhouettes, take photos from behind, use depth of field to blur faces, focus in on hands or eyes, use interesting angles, etc. You don’t always have to take a photo of a person; try shots of striking scenery, people in the distance and personal belongings. In short, you are telling a visual story and every object is a part of the dialogue.
Ultimately, the goal documentary-style photography is to tell a story through images, regardless of how painful, shocking or heartbreaking. It took everything in my power to work on images of the Arab Spring Uprising, but it ended up informing the world of the historic moment and led to me winning my first Peabody Award.
While the benefits of documenting breaking news through photography may be to enhance public understanding, empathy and perhaps even effect policy change, the publication of the images can carry a risk for those depicted. The organizations publishing this material must also be aware of the particular message their use of it gives. So, before you choose to publish or sell the image, make sure you strongly consider your safety, the safety of your subject and the newsworthiness of the visual story you are conveying. At the end of the day, especially with the current Coronavirus outbreak, a stock image of an empty store shelf may not be worth the risk.