Philip Laubner of Catholic Relief Services on Creating Photography Guidelines
Philip Laubner is the photo editor for Catholic Relief Services, the official relief and development agency of the U.S. Catholic Church, based in Baltimore, Md. NGOS Thanks for agreeing to be interviewed. Could you please share why CRS decided it needed a photography ethics policy?
Philip CRS has been in existence for over seventy years. Prior to 2008 we were without an official photo department. There was a photo librarian who would catalog images when they came in, but there wasn’t a photo editor, or, to my knowledge, a written policy of photo usage or ethics. That being said, prior to 2008 our marketing staff did have an unwritten code – based on our Catholic Social Teaching – that they would adhere to that's still in existence today. The code, in its simplest form, is a desire to protect and uphold the life and dignity of every human person. We’ve created our photo ethics policy as a way of ensuring this theme or code in all of our imagery.
NGOS How did CRS develop its policy?
Philip Our photo ethics policy has mostly evolved organically over time out of necessity. As an example – there was a time when well-intentioned staff would question if it was acceptable to use photos from one country to document a similar program in another. Realizing that this practice of misrepresentation would be unethical we chose to use the situation as an object lesson to speak to even broader ideas of photojournalism and photo ethics in general.
NGOS What do you think is the most important part of your guidelines and why?
Philip The idea of upholding the dignity of the individual is the most important part of our guidelines. It's an ideal place to begin when considering how to document our beneficiaries. How can we tell their story with – to borrow a term from medical ethics – nonmaleficence, in other words, how can we do no harm.
NGOS What is a common photo ethics issue that people run into when they're photographing in the field, and what do you think is a good way to solve it?
Philip A common issue is subject direction. It's unethical to ask a subject to do something that they would never do in order to satisfy an agency directive or shot list. That being said, unlike an unfolding news event where the photographer is unknown to the people being documented, our shoots are always clearly explained and cleared with the authorities on location, and to our beneficiaries before we even raise a camera and we only document people who, after hearing our intentions, agree to participate. Here's an example question: can I ask someone to use a well if we've built one for them, even if it's not the time of day that they regularly use the well? If it's a question of not getting the shot because of limited time, as long as the subject is not taking them away from an activity that they need to attend to, and as long as the water will be put to good use and as long as the person getting the water is the same person that always uses the well, then I will ask them to do it. But I need to ask and be sure of all of these considerations first. The solution is always communication and consent.
NGOS As a photographer yourself, how do you navigate getting consent from a potential photo subject, especially if you don't share a language?
Philip I have the benefit of always having a translator when I'm in the field. That being said, if I'm in a clinic or location with several staff, some of whom may also need the translator, I will use simple hand gestures; I will nod to them and then the camera, and if they are reluctant I move on. If they aren't reluctant I will take the photo, but I will then tell the translator, when they've become available, to explain to the person my intentions and to thank them.
NGOS Thank you so much, Phil.