Holy Smokes! People Really Want to Talk about NGO Photography.

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Marvin Garcia Salas and his son Jesus, 4, eat breakfast in their home near Comitan, Chiapas, Mexico. Marvin immigrated twice to the United States without papers because he could better take care of his wife and children with a job in the United States. After returning to Mexico due to health issues, he and Victoria, his wife, bought land with the help of a nonprofit called AGROS. He and Victoria now grow the crops that feed their family. Photo by Laura Elizabeth Pohl/Bread for the World

Eighty people.

That’s how many people RSVPed for a conference call I helped co-lead earlier today about shooting, using and talking about photographs in international development. Ann Hendrix-Jenkins of CORE Group, another co-leader and the main organizer, said this was the most interest she’d ever seen for one of these conference calls (she’s done lots of these for CORE Group). I think about 50-60 people actually participated, which absolutely heartened me. We need to be having more of these discussions.

The real meat of the meeting was going over the results of a humanitarian photography survey that Ann and I created and sent out a couple months ago. This was not a scientific survey with random sampling and such but the results were still interesting. My friend Jim Stipe, photo editor at Catholic Relief Services and the third co-leader on the call, summarized the findings for everyone:

  • Most survey respondents said their organization shows positive images that uphold the dignity of the people being photographed.
  • About 55% of respondents said they get trained on photo ethics.
  • Most organizations don’t have a written photography policy.
  • About 43% of respondents said they get the consent of the people they’re photographing.
  • More than half of respondents said their organization doesn’t employ a full-time photo editor.
  • The person who makes the last decision on photos is often a communications or marketing person or – in one case – the CEO.
  • Photographs used at NGOs and humanitarian organizations mostly come from staff who don’t have a photography background.

None of these results really surprised me. I’ve attended a handful of international development conferences in the past year-and-a-half and not once has photography been on the official agenda. People seem to understand that photography is important. But not important enough for a serious discussion in a serious forum. This despite the fact that photographs are being used every minute in brochures, reports, websites, blogs and Facebook and Pinterest pages by NGOs to promote their work. If these organizations are anything like the one where I work, then their appetite for visuals is insatiable. And yet many organizations don’t offer enough resources for photography training or education. Why?

There was a whole Twitter conversation going on during our call, which Linda Raftree Storified under the headline “On the ethics of photos in aid and development work.” Check it out if you have a minute.

By the way, it’s worth noting how this humanitarian photography group came about. Last summer I was part of a lively LinkedIn discussion about images from the famine in East Africa, like this New York Times front page photo. Ann was part of the LinkedIn discussion, too. Afterward she asked me to speak about humanitarian photography at CORE Group’s fall meeting. From there we talked about creating a humanitarian photography group. I got Jim to join us and now here we are. I’m hoping this group will help bring about positive change and awesome collaborations.

 


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