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Improving our image: how photos reflect our values


As part of our series of blogs taking a critical look at how we communicate, our Communications Officer Sorsha thinks about how we use images.

A mother and her child in a remote community in Myanmar.

A mother and her child in a remote community in Myanmar.

The use of images has often been problematic and controversial in the development sector. Photos of starving children and helpless victims have been used to generate pity in order to raise funds- a practice commonly dubbed as ‘poverty porn’. This practice of victimising people is unacceptable to us at Health Poverty Action, and has never fit with our values. However, in taking a critical look at our images, we want to ask ourselves if we have gone far enough in portraying people with dignity, respect and honesty.

We started by asking ourselves an obvious question: would I be happy if an organisation used my photo in this way? We looked at a range of images, and asked this question to try to identify which images we liked best, and what qualities these had.

Most of the images we liked were shot at eye level with the subject. This gives a message of equality and familiarity. We didn’t like images that looked down on people.

Some of the images we liked best showed people in action. Either they were protesting, or engaging in activities that clearly shows what we work on together. These images tell a story, and clearly display the power and autonomy of those we work with. We also loved images of success and joy which tell a story of progress, and give a sense of the true purpose of our work.

Young girls in Ethiopia use theatre to share important health messages

Young girls in Ethiopia use theatre to share important health messages

But what about displaying honest images of hardship and disaster where they really are happening? Sometimes images are shocking but truthful, and we are certainly not saying negative stories should not be told. But for us it all comes back to the same question of ‘would I be happy if that was my image?’

Getting meaningful consent is crucial (as it always should be when collecting images). People we photograph should know where their image could be used, and what story it will be used to tell. If they are not happy with the way the image will be presented, then it should not be used.


A child in Myanmar receives a health check up.

If the person is happy for the image to be used, then when using it the context should always be given. Too many photos simply show people in poverty with little context. What country do they live in? What are the root causes of this situation? What is happening in the photo? Without this information people in photos can be made to look helpless and victimised, fitting in to the stereotype of the ‘starving child in Africa’.


Traditional Birth Attendants during their maternal health training in Guatemala

A caption giving context to an image always strengthens the story told. Context also helps to shed light on the complexity of poverty and poor health, and the real lives behind the image.

Identifying existing photos we like might be easy, but how do we start to collect better photos to begin with? The first step is probably to be more careful choosing the photographers we use. This might be looking at the work photographers have done in the past, or ensuring we use photographers local to the area who understand the context of our work. We also need to improve the guidelines we give to photographers to ensure they fully understand the type of photos we want them to capture. We are currently revisiting our consent process to test how robust it is, and ensure people always fully understand how their photos will be used.

Our most recent photography project has gone one step further than all of these measures by handing the cameras over to the communities we work with, and allowing them to take their own photos. Working with PhotoVoice in our Girl’s education project in Rwanda, we trained our staff to give participatory photography workshops to schools. The project is ongoing, and we are really excited to see what photos come back, and share them with you.

Girls we work with in Rwanda are taking control of the cameras in our project with Photovoice!

Girls we work with in Rwanda are taking control of the cameras in our project with PhotoVoice!

Do you have any ideas on how we can improve the images we use? We are currently reviewing the images we have on our website, and will be updating them soon. Which images do you like or dislike, and why? We would love to hear from you!

Tweet us, email us at media@healthpovertyaction.org, or send us a message on Facebook.

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