Thomas Patterson: The Editor's Take on Ethics in Nonprofit Storytelling
“Better to fail with honor than succeed by fraud.” – Sophocles
Many of us who tell stories for NGOs and other nonprofits come from the journalism world, and we consciously try to bring along the ethical framework we learned in journalism: using truth to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted, with respect for the vulnerable subject being paramount; never faking a photo or using computer software to misrepresent a scene; gathering accurate, authentic information to explain and support the story as it is, rather than the story as we would like it to be. I try to use the same ethical framework that I learned in J-school, but now in a largely non-journalistic environment. That’s what the best nonprofits specifically want as well — someone who can reliably capture the stories they need, in a conscientious way.
I recently spoke with Mike Fancher’s graduate class on Digital Ethics at the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication, and Fancher, a longtime executive editor at The Seattle Times, emphasized that lost journalistic resources can come back in other ways outside journalism.
"Truth-telling within an organization can be journalistically sound work in a storytelling sense, with a different mission,” Fancher said.
An ironclad ethical framework is a North Star when things get murky, and it’s crucial to stick to it, especially when it’s difficult, Fancher said. He urged his students to create a personal statement of ethics based on their own mission, standards and identity.
“What happens if I am asked to do something ethically unsound?" Fancher said. “Prepare before it happens. Truth and honesty, thinking as a journalist and as a human being... The best PR people are the ones who get this. You want to still tell truth [even if] there’s a different frame for the truth."
Motivation and priorities
So, how to develop your ethical framework? As with so many things in life, the answer comes down to motivation and priorities. Why are you doing this work? Why go to a war zone or a place of genocide, for example, with a camera worth more than all of your subject’s possessions combined? To “give voice to the voiceless?” No, they already have a voice, and it’s not yours. As an interested party you can show the truth as you see it. But this is not about you, so don’t make it about you.
"The problem with speaking for someone else is that that someone else is left without a voice,” said filmmaker Brian Storm of MediaStorm, who spoke at the Kalish Visual Editing Workshop about working with NGOs in the field. "My opinion is no match for your experience.”
These age-old considerations of consent and representation, so important in the NGO community, are sometimes at loggerheads with journalism’s credo of objectivity, which does not require a subject’s consent to being documented.
Benjamin Chesterton, who runs the film production company duckrabbit.info, objected to Adam Ferguson’s recent striking portraits for The New York Times that featured young victims of Boko Haram, writing that the images were “self-serving” and “reduced these Nigerian girls to zero.” Given the accompanying interviews and the stylized nature of the portraits, clearly the Times had the girls’ consent, and Ferguson was likely working under a restriction to not show his subjects’ faces — a difficult assignment for any photographer. It’s journalism, not NGO work, but Chesterton still argued that the ends did not justify the means.
"In a meaningful sense there has to be empathy,” he wrote to me. “[A subject] standing in the corner facing the wall doesn't do that.”
Chesterton has sought that empathy while filming for large NGOs and nonprofits as well as corporate and editorial outlets around the world.
"People often think that I am against showing difficult images or in favor of censorship, and this really isn't the case,” he wrote. "On the contrary I think they are very important."
So, where is the line? How much potential for awareness to create some hypothetical “greater good” is necessary to make taking pictures of people in despair justifiable? How best can storytellers lead the viewer from dry statistics to the world of real human lives without exploiting those lives? Reasonable people can disagree, and personally, I don’t claim to know the answers. But considering questions like these is crucial to developing an ethical framework when you’re telling stories in a grey area, particularly one involving vulnerable people.
Even within NGOs, there can be a push and pull between differing preferences or requirements. A fundraising department may seek images showing need or even despair, the better to describe the problem to be solved by potential donors. But a program department needs optimistic success stories to show how their work improves beneficiaries’ lives. These competing needs have the potential to muddy the ethical waters for storytellers in the field, who are under tremendous pressure to make people happy back at headquarters.
Both sides of the camera
For the best NGOs, it’s crucial that human beings are presented as more than mere visual elements in an artful composition. One final ethical conjecture: Is “subject” even an appropriate word to use when describing people without power being photographed by people who have it?
Siobhan Warrington and Jess Crombie of Save the Children wrote a fascinating research paper to learn and show what the people in their pictures really thought about the storytelling process.
"On every trip I met person after person who asked what story I was there to tell, and then proceeded to tell me what story I should be telling, often different from the one I was there to gather,” wrote Crombie, Save’s director of creative content. "People who demonstrated, rather unsurprisingly, that they have views, opinions and ideas on their own situation, who were aware of the reach and influence of media and communications. Views that ultimately challenged the existing and entrenched perception that those portrayed in our images are innocent others unaware of the wider world and their role within it… The debate about representation shouldn’t exclude the very people we are representing.”
In other words, they’re not subjects. This is not to say every NGO portrait needs to be “empowering” or everyone’s perspective catered to; a storyteller’s individual vision will always be vital. But here’s my own ethical framework, one I’ll try to balance with my own human failings: The people in the pictures are partners in the process, with a bigger stake in the results than anyone else.
Thomas Patterson is a photographer, photo editor and consultant based in Portland, Oregon. He specializes in projects for editorial, corporate and nonprofit clients around the world; and in helping visual storytellers work together better with the businesses that hire them. After nearly two decades working at newspapers and NGOs, he now leads the Projects Committee on Blue Earth Alliance’s board of directors.
Image: ©Thomas Patterson