Tag Archives: Ethics

Why you shouldn’t post photos of kids to Facebook

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!”

The Rock meme: "It doesn't matter what you think."
Meme from MemeCrunch.
 It doesn’t matter
It doesn’t matter if you are a tourist,  aid worker or volunteer; the same rules apply as if you were in your home country. You can’t go up to children, take their photograph and post it to Facebook or Instagram #cute #iwantone #kidsbeingkids.

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?

The people’s consent

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.

Know your role, jabroni!

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.

The Rock in the film "The Tooth Fairy".
Posting photos of Dwayne’s niece online would make him quite mad. Photo from The Movie Bastards.

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.

The ethics of photographing locals

I was drinking a cup of tea in a village in eastern Indonesia when they arrived. The young Spanish couple looked like typical tourists – big floppy hats, beige cargo pants and backpacks. Slung around their necks were fancy cameras which they immediately started snapping, recording the faces and movements of villagers husking rice, women weaving cloth and children playing outside their homes.

The couple slowly got closer to where I was sitting, and I tried to ignore them. I was chatting in Bahasa Indonesia to a woman from the village – a friend of a friend – who had offered to take me on her motorbike to explore more of the island the following day. Yuli had fetched me tea, and the women sitting with us offered betel nut.

A frown etched across Yuli’s forehead momentarily as she noticed the couple, and one of the women beside us shifted her position on the bench, turning her back on the man now attempting to take her photo. With her face now hidden, he lost interest in her, and he turned his lens to a child sitting on the ground a few metres away.

The couple’s approach to exploring the village made me feel uneasy. It was not the first time I had seen tourists behave in such a way. The particular island I was visiting in Indonesia doesn’t receive many tourists, but the village – with its traditional thatch-roof houses and megalith tombs – is accustomed to visitors. Even so, visitors must sign a guest book and make a small donation to enter.

But just because a place is accommodating of tourists doesn’t make it a zoo.

Too often I see tourists rush in to villages, and even homes, reaching for their cameras without attempting to make any connection with the people they are so anxious to photograph. Often this is without the permission of those they are photographing, or when those people are clearly uncomfortable.

I find this strange, and question the intent of tourists in these circumstances. What value is a photo of someone whose name you don’t know, a stranger with whom you haven’t had a conversation? Their culture, clothing and home may look different to yours. But what does that mean if you haven’t built any rapport with that person? When you look at their photo years from now, what will you remember about them and the interaction you had?

When I see tourists objectify local people and take photos of them in their homes and going about their everyday lives, I wonder why they want such photos. Is it to flood their friends’ Facebook feeds with the faces of smiling children they claim to have befriended on their travels? Is it to prove how “local” they went or how much they now really understand the culture and traditions of the country they visited?

One of the best things about travel is the people we meet – and we don’t always need to speak the same language to make a connection. But making a connection of some form is key, particularly before snapping a camera in the face of a stranger when you are a guest in their home. Ask questions about the food they’re preparing, the materials their homes are made from and the beliefs and practices of their community. Show an interest in something more than just taking their photo.

When I see tourists photographing locals, I also worry about the locals’ privacy and safety. I don’t think it’s enough to ask someone’s permission to take their photograph. Even if they nod their head, say yes or accept payment for a photo, it is likely they are not aware of the full extent to which their photo and information could potentially spread. Often, in the cases where permission is sought, it is from the child, rather than their parent or guardian. Language barriers aside, it is unrealistic to expect most children to understand the dangers associated with their personal information being publicly accessable, particularly with the reach of social media.

When a tourist takes a photo of a local, even if they seek their permission, it is unlikely they explain how they will later use that photo. This can be dangerous. A photo harmlessly posted on Facebook perhaps with seemingly minor details like the person’s name, town or village can lead to that person being contactable or located.

Most international and grassroots organisations that work with local communities, particularly those that work with children, have policies and procedures in place to protect their beneficiaries from abuse and exploitation. These include strict rules around the collection and use of information including photos and personal data. When these organisations collect such information from their beneficiaries, they are required to explain how it will be used, whether it be in a brochure, a TV advertisement, a website article or for internal records. The person being photographed, filmed or interviewed must understand and be comfortable with this before the information is collected, and parental consent for children under 18 must be sought.

Reverse the situation. Would you let a tourist visiting your home country – one that you’d had little or no interaction with – take a photo of you or your child because they thought the way you looked or lived was interesting? I would hesitate, and question why they wanted my photo and what they would do with it.

If no rapport had been built and there had been no attempt by the tourist to gain an insight into my life, I would find it insulting and intrusive. I would probably refuse, and be upset if they tried to take my photo without my permission.

This is what I want tourists to consider when they travel. Why do you want a particular photo? How are you using the information you collect and are the people you photograph aware of and comfortable with this? Are you considering and protecting their privacy and safety?

Photos are a fantastic way to capture and preserve a moment. Long after our travels are over, and perhaps our memories faded, photos are what remind us of the adventures we had and the people we met. I’m not saying we should never take photos of the people we meet on our travels – but make establishing a connection a priority, so that your photograph has meaning. Consider your intent and whether that is fair on your subject. And hold their privacy and safety in the highest regard.

Featured image from DeviantArt.