Podcast 4: Informed Consent & Ethics in Nonprofit Storytelling
Working with vulnerable people almost always leads to questions about how we should behave as ethical storytellers. In this podcast, we discuss the difference between consent and informed consent, model releases, and how to handle difficult situations like photographing children. If you’d like to see more of this kind of podcast, leave us a comment below or send a note to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Crystaline: Hi! I’m Crystaline Randazzo.
Laura: And I’m Laura Elizabeth Pohl.
Crystaline: And today, we want to talk about ethics and storytelling and share some of our experiences with you.
Laura: Oftentimes when I’m out collecting stories for nonprofits, it’s vulnerable people that I’m meeting and that I’m talking with, and there’s usually a staff person from the nonprofit or maybe a translator who’s helping to explain why I’m there and how the media is going to be used. Then the person gives consent but there’s a difference between consent and informed consent. So to me, consent means they’ve just agreed, “Yes, I’ll do this,” but informed consent means the person has agreed to be interviewed, photographed or filmed, and they also understand what it means, the implications. Some of these people, they might not actually have ever been on the internet so then, it’s a question of how do you explain the reach of where their story’s going to go.
Laura: Then something else I need to think about when I’m getting consent is do they actually feel like they can say no because many people that I end up telling stories about, they’re beneficiaries of a nonprofit. They might think that if they say no, they’ll stop receiving benefits. So I think it’s really important to fully explain that people have the agency and autonomy to say no if they want to.
Crystaline: Sometimes someone can tell you no with their body and not through their words. I think I’ve become very tuned in to somebody’s body language, if their arms are crossed and they’re very closed down. They don’t seem like they want to be there. I would rather find somebody else to talk to who is open than feel like a person felt like they had no choice.
Crystaline: So what other ways do you help show a beneficiary what the piece will be? Do you have any techniques for that?
Laura: Well, I don’t do this often enough, but talking about it here is making me think yeah, I need to be a little bit more diligent about this. Try to bring along any print materials or even pictures on your phone or a video that’s already downloaded on your phone that you can show to the person and say like, “Hey, this is someone else that we photographed for the same project and this is how their photograph was used or here’s the video and this is how your interview might be used.”
Crystaline: That’s a great system that we should put into our work more often. We should work with our clients to say, “Can I have some sample materials that you have used in the past?” so we make sure people understand what we’re asking them.
Laura: Right, because then people can give fully informed consent. Now one thing I know a lot of nonprofits have is a consent form. What do you think about using consent forms?
Crystaline: This is a mixed bag for me. I think I understand the purpose of consent forms and I do use them. Particularly if an organization has a consent form, I will use it, but I think it has its problems and usually when you’re working with vulnerable people, some of those people are illiterate and many of them don’t speak English and a lot of the organizations give me an English consent form and I don’t think that’s true consent. If somebody signs a consent form in the US and they didn’t understand what it means, it’s not binding. Now I don’t know what the international laws are at all. I’m not a lawyer, but I question whether a consent form is really doing its job.
Crystaline: So one of the things that I’ve done in the past is I do have a consent form that I bought from lawtog.com and I’ve had that translated when I lived in Rwanda, I had that translated into Kinyarwanda so that people I was interviewing could read it. That’s one of the ways that I tried to bridge that gap. I still get consent forms, but I don’t know if they do the job they’re supposed to do.
Laura: Yeah, I feel totally the same way. For me, it goes back to that consent versus informed consent. Someone can sign a consent form, but still not have a total understanding of what they’re getting into, especially with organizations that require a consent form for literally every single person who’s interviewed or photographed. That can be hundreds of people depending on if you’re taking group shots or how many days you’re out photographing, and that means you don’t have time to explain to every single person how their photograph should be used. So to me, it feels like what was the point of that exercise in getting that consent form from literally every single person being photographed? Oftentimes, I think it’s more the organization trying to CYA than trying to help the vulnerable person or try to help the beneficiary understand what might be happening with the photograph.
Crystaline: So this is a great place to segue into what to do if you’re working with a nonprofit who wants you to do something that you don’t feel is ethical. This probably applies a little bit more to storytellers, but it can serve as a cautionary tale for anybody working in nonprofits and if your nonprofit is doing some of these things, you should probably reconsider and try to build in better systems into the work that you’re doing.
Crystaline: So a good example of this for me personally in my career, I was hired to go out and do initial interviews for a project. I interviewed 13 people for this organization and we were trying to figure out which stories would be great stories for their campaign and as I was interviewing people, I found out that at least seven of the people I was interviewing of the 13, they weren’t actually beneficiaries or they were receiving very little or nothing from the organization. I finished all the interviews. I did what I was hired to do, but I went back to the organization and I shared all the stories and then I said, “I will not interview these seven people because they are not actually beneficiaries of your organization. Some of them have compelling stories, but you shouldn’t use somebody’s story who’s not actually being helped by your organization.”
Crystaline: I really caused some issues because I don’t know if a photographer had ever pushed back with them in that way. I remember they really wanted this one woman’s story and I just you know I said, “No, I can’t do that. She just isn’t receiving anything from the organization.” They called me back like two days later and they said, “We put her three children into school. So would you interview her now?” But for me, those ethical lines are there and even if somebody’s paying you, I mean I would’ve walked away from the job because I don’t feel like that’s right. What about you? Have you ever run into a situation with a client where you really felt it was unethical and what did you do about it?
Laura: I have been in a similar situation as you. So I was sent to photograph people in a very remote area where there were no roads. There was no cell phone service. There was no internet. There was barely electricity. When I got to the village and I was introduced to the people I was supposed to photograph, I found out it was two children, quite young. They had been orphaned and were living with their grandparents. These two siblings were actually supporting the family. They were working and they really wanted to go to school, but they weren’t beneficiaries. I still have no idea how they were chosen to be part of the story.
Laura: I felt quite distraught and I could really tell that the older sibling, the way he posed and the way he held his facial features when I photographed him, I just knew he thought that allowing himself to be photographed was going to bring him some kind of sponsor overseas who would pay for his school fees. It was so sad. I couldn’t contact anyone at the organization. Of course, there were the people on the ground that I was working with for the organization, but the people who had hired me who were in headquarters somewhere else, I couldn’t get in touch with them to say like, “Hey, this isn’t right. They’re not your beneficiaries. They’re in your catchment area, but they don’t meet the criteria to be your beneficiaries.”
Laura: So I did what I was asked to do, but then when I finally got back to a place where I had cell phone service and internet, I basically bullied the organization to doing something to help them. I cried when I came home from that assignment. It was terrible.
Crystaline: I think this is a good time to point out that sometimes you go and you shoot a whole assignment and you think it’s fine and then, you find out how the piece was used and then, it’s not fine because it’s been edited by someone else and they put things in an order or a way that you would’ve never done it.
Crystaline: So something that has happened to me in the past is I shot a campaign. A few months later, somebody took a picture of an ad for this organization that had one of my pictures in it and sent it to me. I was horrified because it was just a regular portrait, but the organization had applied quite a bit of graphic re-touching. So they darkened the images. They had put sort of a gritty texture on top of it. It was done in what I consider poverty porn style that is definitely not what I do. I realized reading over my contract; there was nothing I could do. I had done the service, I had agreed to the organization doing the editing, but I did never work for that organization again and sometimes, that’s your option, right?
Crystaline: There’s organizations that have a lot of money, but it’s up to you whether you want to work for that money. I will feel bad about the way that was used for the rest of my life and it sounds like you’ll feel really terrible about the way your work was used for the rest of your life. You can’t undo those things. You can make sure that you’re not in that position again. I really listen to my inner voice now if my gut is telling me this is not right. Right at the beginning things are off, I will rather walk away from a job cause I know what it feels like. I feel like a sell out.
Laura: Yeah, and I think you make a good point about options that you have, which are just not working for them or saying something to the organization. I think if you’re an employee of a nonprofit, there’s maybe a little more you can do where you can bring up the issue with your boss of whoever’s in charge of this kind of storytelling assignment or ethical guidelines and see if there’s a way you can change that culture within the organization.
Crystaline: If you can have a starting point for ethical guidelines, for example, when I’m shooting children, I often refer to UNICEF’s guidelines on how to interview children.
Crystaline: So working with children is really complicated, and it’s one of those places where sometimes I ran into issues with what the marketing shows and what is the ethical choice. Usually, the marketing shows that using children is quite successful, right? Young children tend to bring in fundraising dollars. There’s no doubt about it, but I have to ask myself does a child with no agency, should they be in a media piece? How do they look in that piece and what would happen if 10 years later they Googled themselves and saw that media piece? How would they feel about themselves?
Crystaline: If it’s a children’s organization, of course, there’s going to be children beneficiary stories, but what I try to do is convince them to work with a slightly older child. I would really like to work with a child who’s between the ages of 12 and 18 because I feel like they have more autonomy.
Crystaline: On the blog, we interviewed Kate Lord about her collaborative editing process and she often works with children and she does collaborative editing with them, which means she shoots the piece, but then she works with them in the editing process to make sure that they feel okay about how their story is told. I think that’s a space where you can work with children, but you can do it in a way that gives them a little bit of agency within their story. It’s really tough because every nonprofit wants to raise money and they know what things work for their donor base, but you have to try to find middle ground between money and ethics.
Laura: It’s so true. As we were saying a little bit earlier, if your organization has ethical guidelines, that’s a great start for figuring out how you’re going to deal with working with children because they are especially vulnerable. If your organization doesn’t have ethical guidelines and especially doesn’t talk about how to address working with children, then that’s something you definitely need to talk about.
Crystaline: So we really want to hear from you guys. We want to know if this kind of podcast is helpful to you and if you have any specific questions that Laura and I could answer about ethics. You can always email us at email@example.com or just leave a comment below. Talk to you soon.
Laura: Talk to you next time. Bye.