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Why You Need a Photography + Video Policy – And How to Write It

Visuals have the power to elicit compassion and propel people to action – even change societies – in a way that words alone don’t.


Much of the power lies in:

  1. which situations get photographed and filmed, and
  2. which photographs and video clips from those situations get published.

At each step your organisation has a chance to send one message or another about its image and values. How do you decide what to do?

This is where a photography and video policy helps because it guides you in your decisions. It also sets a bar for how you want your organization to be visually represented in the public eye. Is your photographic ideal to uplift the audience and show your clients or beneficiaries as dignified and striving? If you work with young people, how far will you go to conceal the identities of children? What about their parents?

A well-thought-out photography and video policy that is communicated to and enforced by your organization can help you avoid situations like one where a South African nonprofit drowned in criticism for depicting a black boy as a dog being fed by a white woman. This ad even “won” the 2014 Rusty Radiator Award, which is given every year to the worst NGO fundraising video. (The organization ended up apologizing.)

Many people criticized the boy-as-dog ad for crossing an ethical boundary in its zeal to raise awareness. Since we’ve already discussed photography ethics, in this post I’ll focus on other questions to consider as you write your photography and video policy. (But please make sure ethics are a part of your policy.)

1) When photographing and filming:

  • What situations will you absolutely not photograph and why? What situations are negotiable depending on the context? What are those boundaries? For example, women breastfeeding nude babies may be OK to photograph but perhaps nude 10-year-old girls bathing in a river are not OK to film.
  • If you work with vulnerable or stigmatized populations such as children, refugees, the disabled or people with HIV/AIDS, how much of their identity will you reveal in your visuals? Never show faces? Only backlit? Photograph someone’s portrait and obscure it later in Photoshop or in the editing process?
  • What local cultural or political situations must you take into consideration when photographing and filming? Will a family be robbed later because community members believe you paid the family to be photographed? What stigma will be attached to a person if she is filmed openly supporting a sensitive political stance?

2) When using photographs and video footage:

  • What core organisation values do you want reflected in your visuals?
  • Who gets identified by name in photographs and videos and who doesn’t?
  • What kinds of captions and photo credits do you require or not? Who is in charge of writing the captions and making sure the captions and the photo credits are factually correct and up to the organization’s standards?
  • Who is the primary decision maker on how photographs and videos get used?

More resources: 

Laura Elizabeth Pohl is a photographer and filmmaker who frequently works with international NGOs. You can see her work at www.laurapohl.com.