For those us who knew Dwayne Johnson before he starred in The Tooth Fairy, he will always be fondly remembered for his wrestling alter ego, The Rock. He referred to himself in the third person and had some of the best catch phrases in the business.
We imagine he would also have some amazing advice about photographing children in overseas contexts. The Rock says, “Don’t photograph children and post them to Facebook, you candy ass!”
Posting children’s photos is not only irresponsible and disrespectful, it’s also potentially dangerous.
In many countries, laws on taking photos of children have tightened up. For example, in many parts of Australia, you can’t even take photos of your own children at sporting events, for fear of photographing someone else’s child. In addition, if a child’s identity can be ascertained from a photograph, then “the collection, use and disclosure of that image is covered by the Privacy Act“.
These laws might seem over-the-top in some circumstances, but they exist for a reason. To protect the child. If you can’t and wouldn’t dare walk around your neighbourhood back home and take photographs of children, why would you do it overseas?
One of the most important, yet complex, aspects of photographing children is consent. Taking and posting photos of children in poor countries is irresponsible because it assumes a number of complex ethical issues have been fully wrestled with (no pun intended) and addressed.
A quick “Yes” or a nod of the head doesn’t necessarily mean, “I give you permission to post my image or likeness on social media or use it in any public forum”. Furthermore, if that consent was only gained from a person under the age of 18, it is incomplete. Consent also needs to be obtained from the parent/guardian. But, the biggest issue here is understanding. Do the children understand what they are consenting to? Do they understand how you’re going to use the image? Are they in a position to say “no”?
One of us (Brendan) is conducting visual research for a PhD, asking out-of-school children to document their literacy practices using cameras. The ethics application – design of research protocol, consent forms, plain language statements, image waivers, confidentiality, roles, ownership, minimising harm – took months to put together and had to be approved by two university committees. Ethics is no light matter when it comes to photography and children.
Posting photos of children in poor countries is disrespectful because it assumes our own set of standards used in rich countries doesn’t apply elsewhere. “But hang on, people in Mongolia don’t have privacy laws, they’d be fine with me photographing their kids!” you might think. However, you might want to do your research on national laws regarding privacy and children protection.
We would argue that in the absence of informed consent and a deeper understanding of national laws and culture, it’s better to err on the side of caution. That is, take a photo if you must, but don’t go posting it everywhere on the Internet.
Posting photos of children in poor countries is dangerous because it strips them of their anonymity and privacy. There are inherent dangers in that. As an extreme example, a child who is an asylum seeker may be fleeing persecution. By putting his or her image up on the Internet, you’re revealing the whereabouts of this child and putting him or her at risk.
Sure, you might see this example as a one off, but would you want the location of your child, little brother or sister, nephew or niece publicly broadcasted? Probably not.
If you ever, and The Rock means ever, want to photograph a child, this is what you should do:
There are simple guidelines you can follow. If you’re a tourist, avoid taking photos of children, no matter how cute they are. If you absolutely must take them, don’t spread them elsewhere.
If you’re an aid worker or volunteer with an NGO, for goodness’ sake, you should know better. The NGO you work with should have a child protection policy and a photo permission form. If your organisation doesn’t have a policy in place, encourage them to develop one.
It should stipulate clearly what images are to be used for – promotional materials, the NGO’s website and their social media. Not for your personal Facebook account and not as a mechanism for you to get likes. For an example of a photo permission form we like, check out this one.
So, next time you’re about to hit “post” on that cute photo of a child, think about whether you’d do the same if you were in your local supermarket, in front of your neighbour’s house or down at your local school.
And, as The Rock would say, if you ever post a photograph of a child without their and their parent’s/guardian’s consent again, “The Rock will take you down Know Your Role Boulevard, which is on the corner of Jabroni Drive, and check you directly into the Smackdown Hotel!”
Featured image shows students lined up outside a school in Savelugu, Ghana. Photo from Brendan Rigby.