Every person has a story. We’ve had to learn how not to steal them – especially from the poor. And, looking around, it seems like we’re not the only ones who need to learn a thing or two about telling another person’s story. So, we’ve developed a set of procedures guided by four principles. But, before sharing them, let’s get some context.
The world of non-profit marketing is on the right track when it comes to raising awareness. We’re starting to realize that poverty porn is unacceptable. We’re moving away from displaying starved children and destitution, as if every developing country were a wasteland of poverty. In our need to advertise and garner donations, we’re turning to a new tactic: telling the stories of the poor.
While this is certainly a more ethical approach, it means we have a new learning curve to cover. Too often in the last decade we have crossed a line or gone too far without knowing it, so while the final product was more considerate, the method of capturing the story was still the same as when poverty porn was the norm. Here are the four principles that guide our storytelling:
- Agency: We use storytelling to promote and respect human dignity.
- Respect: We afford people the right to tell their story their way.
- Consent: We honor a person’s wishes to use or not use their story.
- Context: We emphasize our shared humanity in our storytelling.
These principles direct our actions before we step foot into a community. We want to share with you how we put these principles into action. First, we consider how to photograph someone and what questions need to be asked before sharing that photograph with others. Next, we look at written stories, how we record them, and how we share them in blogs and articles.
Taking someone’s photograph isn’t as simple as it may seem. There are many things to consider before taking a picture. We can be so eager to capture an image that we forget we’re also capturing a story. Using our principles as a guide, we proceed with caution and respect. When taking a picture, we ask ourselves these six things:
- Did I get permission to be in their space?
- Did I keep my hands off the camera?
- Did I build a rapport?
- Did I explicitly ask for a photograph?
- Were they engaged in an action?
- Did I get permission to use the photograph?
One question we get most often is how do we capture someone in a natural pose while asking their permission at the same time? The answer is in step number three, build a rapport. By making the person aware of your actions they will instinctively feel unnatural and your photo will reflect that. Your hands indicate your intentions, so keep them away from the camera to show you are not only there for the photo. Leave your hands open for conversation in your approach.
Make the photo secondary, and bring the subject into an active relationship. Talk with them. Ask them what they’re working on. Once the focus is off the camera, the setting will feel comfortable again and your pictures will capture an event instead of a freeze frame. And, of course, alway get permission to take the photo.
Once you have the picture, you’re only halfway through the storytelling process. Before sharing a picture, we ask six additional questions:
- Did the subject of the photograph consent to the use of their image?
- Is their expression in the photograph calm, confident, resolute?
- Does the photograph offer enough background?
- Does the photograph reinforce a stereotype?
- Is my caption dignifying or demeaning?
- Have I showed the image to the subject?
As the new generation of NGOs, we have to make sure we aren’t reinforcing the stereotypes of poverty porn. Consider the subject’s expression in the photo; do they appear unhappy? Do they display confidence? What’s in their hands? Remember that the objective of any pro-poor organization is to empower the people they serve. If you’re pushing a sad image, you’re going in the wrong direction.
Show dignity and humanity instead. Bring the subject to life in your photos and reinforce it in your caption. If your caption promotes the subject’s well-being the photo will bring a sense of positivity and respect to their image. Finally, don’t be afraid to show them your work and how it will be displayed. Be clear about how many people are going to see it and remember that not everyone knows what a website is.
Frequently a good storyteller isn’t the same as a photographer. People want to get to know who they’re donating to. Writing blogs and sharing profiles is an effective way of bridging the divide, as long as we’re respectful during the process. When writing a blog, we ask ourselves these six things:
- Did we establish a relationship first?
- Did we get their permission to record their story?
- Did we inform them of our motive?
- Have we given the subject a voice in the writing?
- Is our tone informative or dramatic?
- Did we get permission to use the story?
Rarely are people willing to share their stories with strangers. Get to know the person as best you can. This means sharing something about yourself as well. Once they have accepted you into their space, you are ready to learn. Tell them why you want to know all these things. Don’t barrage them with what seem like random questions.
In a novel, each character has a life of their own and so it should be with your writing. Avoid boiling down their story to a list of events. Bring the emotion they convey into your work. If they are sad, tell the reader. But always lift the mood and show that despite the difficulties, the subject is strong in the face of hardship, because that’s the truth – humans are strong, even in poverty.
Once you know the story, it’s time to tell it. Here, too, it is important to be careful. We ask ourselves six more questions:
- Do we know the subject consented to the use of their story?
- What do we focus on in the blog?
- What details have we omitted in our telling?
- Are our descriptions dignifying or demeaning?
- Have they read our final draft?
- Have we edited accordingly?
Tragedy is interesting, but not when it demeans someone’s struggles. Read your writing and decide if you’re focusing too much on the misfortunate events. Are you leaving out the uplifting events on purpose? If not, is your organization claiming responsibility for the success? Consider how hard the person had to fight to achieve their goals and focus on that.
Check your adjectives. Try not to target the reader’s heart strings using words like dirty and desperate. Such imagery might sway a donor, but it also paints the subject with a broad brush. Make sure to respect the story you’re telling, because it is not yours. It may be dear to the owner and may not merit derogatory language.
At last, the hardest part in the process is the presentation. For a full profile description, go back to the subject and read them what you wrote. This might be uncomfortable, but you should do it anyway. They lived it, so they’re the best person to edit it. Let them tell you where your facts go astray or where they feel you’re misrepresenting them in the story. It is time consuming and nerve-racking, but it’s the right thing to do, and who ever said that was easy?
There is so much more appropriate conduct in storytelling to discuss. We want to share our process with you. Download the following documents to learn more and check out our campaign with the hashtag #NoMoreStolenStories.
If we afford people the ownership of their own stories, there’s no telling how vibrant and inclusive the new world will be!
Lead Author: Jeff Paddock
Contributing Authors: Laura Meizen-Dick, Santiago Suiero, and Shawn Humphrey
Download the pdf here:
- Storytelling 101: A Guide to Telling Stories in Human Dignity (coming soon)
Check out our step-by-step checklist here:
- Storytelling 101 Checklist (coming soon)
Many other organizations have inspired us to create the methods we use today. Here are a few resources that will help in the movement of #NoMoreStolenStories. We thank them for their clarity and correct treatment of human beings!
- Reboot, Practice What You Preach: An Empathetic Approach to Photo Use for the Social Sector. Reboot is a social impact firm dedicated to inclusive development and accountable governance. They work with governments, foundations, and civil society to achieve their missions.
- How-Matters, The Development Element: Guidelines for the future of communicating about the end of global poverty. Jennifer Lentfer helps place community-driven initiatives at the forefront of international aid, philanthropy, and social enterprise.
- International Guide of Visual Peacemakers, Ethical Code for Visual Communicators.
A group of photographers, filmmakers and storytellers who are committed to a shared ethical code for visual communicators that seeks to prevent the demonization of “the other” as we tell stories and report news about conflict. Check out their video here!
- Hatch for Good, Nonprofit Photography: Ethics and Approaches. Hatch connects you to a suite of tools and a growing community that can help you leverage the power of narrative to increase reach, resources and impact for your social impact organization.
- Unite For Sight, Ethics and Photography in Developing Countries. Unite For Sight supports eye clinics worldwide by investing human and financial resources in their social ventures to eliminate patient barriers to eye care.
- Child Rights International Work, The Use of Images of Children in the Media. CRIN is a global research, policy and advocacy organization. Their work is grounded in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
- ICTworks™, What Is Informed Consent In Digital Photography? ICTworks is the premier community for international development professionals committed to utilizing new and emerging technologies to magnify the intent of communities to accelerate their social and economic development.
- Picture Correct, How to Approach and Photograph Strangers in other Countries for Travel Photography. This website is a valuable resource to photographers of all experience levels. Their goal is to serve some of the best information that is relevant to photographers everywhere.
- Shawn Humphrey – “Taking Pictures with Poor Kids”
- Sayantani DasGupta – “Narrative Humility: Sayantani DasGupta at TEDxSLC“
- Transitions Abroad – “8 Tips for Culturally Sensitive Photography”
- Ethical Storytelling – Take the Pledge
- GlobalGiving’s Community Photo Standards
This is not a comprehensive list. It’s one that includes resources that we have had the time to review and recommend. If you have others that you would recommend, please Contact Us. We would love to know what else is out there!