Global Health and Development Photography Ethics

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Note: The information provided here is not a qualified legal opinion. You should seek legal advice if you have any questions or doubts about your use of images.


Field officers doubling as amateur photographers face a variety of challenges in maintaining an ethical stance toward photo subjects: lack of awareness and guidance on legal, editorial, and ethical issues; language and literacy barriers; and time and resource constraints.

Whether organizations rely on program staff or professional photographers to obtain editorial photographs for educational materials, we encourage them to develop guidelines for photography and photo use. Amateur and professional photographers alike, as well as editors and publication designers, have a responsibility to consider country laws governing photography practices, editorial principles, and ethical issues in development photography.


Stringent regulations regarding patient privacy in the U.S. prohibit the use of images of actual clients without authorization and compliance, with very strict privacy protections. However, a full examination of various country laws is beyond the scope of this website. Please keep in mind that the information Photoshare provides on development photography ethics does not constitute legal advice. Development teams working overseas may wish to investigate country laws related to photography, privacy rights, and publishing.

Editorial Principles

Unlike commercial photography, which is usually obtained for promotional purposes through contracts with professional photographers and stock agencies, editorial photography calls for a journalistic approach to taking and using photos. In other words, editorial photography is intended for objective, accurate representation or illustration of a real situation, subject, or physical location.

As a note, the Photoshare collection falls under the category of editorial photography. Photoshare images are available strictly for non-profit, educational use promoting international health and development, under the principles of editorial photography. They may be used to visually portray the people, stories, and issues referred to in Photoshare captions. Above all, we expect Photoshare users to respect human photo subjects and take into consideration whether photo subjects may experience negative consequences of having their photo used. The value and importance of using a photograph should always be weighed against regard for the photographic subjects' reputation, privacy, and integrity.

Common examples of misuse of photos include:

  • Using a photo to illustrate persons affected by HIV/AIDS (or any other issue) when there is no evidence to support a connection between recognizable individuals and the content of the material.
  • Using a photo of another organization's activities to showcase your own organization's program without disclosing the true content of the photo.
  • Using a photo of people in one country to represent people in another country.
  • Making a false or unfair, presumptive statement about a human photo subject in an explicit or implicit manner (e.g. captions, text, headings, document layout). For example, it is impermissible to use a general photo of a woman breastfeeding on the cover of a report on "Mother-to-Child HIV Transmission" or next to a caption that highlights statistics on HIV transmission, even if the text does not make specific reference to people in the photo.

Here are a few suggestions for sound editorial photo use:

  • Never distort the true context, content, or meaning of a photograph. If, however, your purpose is to protect the identity of vulnerable populations who may be put at risk of reprisal, violence, or rejection in their communities as a result of telling their story, it may be appropriate to leave out detailed information about the content of the photo, even if you have written consent.
  • Use the original caption when possible. Do not make false statements about the photo content or context in your captions. If you are unable to place text alongside the photo, consider including the original caption with your photo credits.
  • Carefully consider the implications of your document layout. Is the reader likely to misinterpret the subject of a photo based on its placement? Ask yourself, "will the nature of this photo and its proximity to the headline lead our readers to infer that persons in the photo are ---- [fill in the blank, e.g. HIV positive, actual clients, program participants, etc.] when in fact they are not?"
  • To prevent any possible misunderstanding on the part of your reader, include a disclosure in your print or electronic material. For example:

    "The photographs in this material are used for illustrative purposes only; they do not imply any particular health status, attitudes, behaviors, or actions on the part of any person who appears in the photographs."

    If you are unable to place the original caption alongside the photo, consider including the caption with your cluster of photo credits, to prevent any misunderstanding of the true context, content, or meaning of a photograph. For example:

    "Credits: p.3, Rosemary Jones/DCNGO (Villagers benefit from the DCNGO water project in Ghana); p.7. Development Org International (From 'Saving Lives,' a Peruvian family planning television series)."

  • ALWAYS credit photographers, regardless of the format of your materials. The following presentations offer tips on how to credit Photoshare images in various media formats.


In addition to laws and editorial principles, you may wish to consider these five general ethical principles in developing policies for best practices in development photography:

  1. Autonomy - In what way can I show respect for a person's right to decline or consent to photography? How do I handle informed consent?
  2. Non-Maleficence (Do No Harm) - Am I creating and using photos in a manner that will do no harm to persons appearing in photos?
  3. Beneficence (Do Good) - What is my intention or purpose for taking this photo? How can I use a photo to promote a good cause while ensuring that I do no harm to individuals in photos?
  4. Fidelity - Am I using photos in a context that fairly represents the real situation, subject identity, or physical location of the image? What steps am I taking to properly credit the photographer?
  5. Justice - Am I photographing people and communities with the same respect I would show to neighbors and strangers in my home country?


Informed Consent

Although model releases are not legally required for editorial photography, it is always good practice to obtain written consent when possible, particularly when sensitive, personal, private information is revealed in the photo or corresponding caption (e.g. HIV status). Feel free to download the following documents as sample consent forms.

Editorial Subject Release Form: [word document]
Commercial Model Release Form: [word document]

Use the chart and tips below to help guide your approach to photographing human photo subjects. The chart summarizes some of the approaches to informed consent that we have observed in the context of international development photography. Use this table as a place to begin thinking broadly and practically about ethical considerations in development photography.


Consent not Needed Obtain Verbal Consent Written Consent Encouraged
Non-recognizable individuals in public (faces and all other identifying features are obscured). All individuals in all settings when possible. Recognizable providers and clients in clinical settings.
Public figures in public (e.g. celebrities, MOHs at campaign launches). Parents, guardians, or teachers of children.

Recognizable or non-recognizable individuals in any setting where personal, private information is exposed in the photo or documented in the corresponding caption, such as:

  • Health status (e.g. HIV-positive persons, persons living with AIDS/STIs, abortion history, TB, diarrheal disease, etc.)
  • Health behavior (e.g. sex work, sexual orientation, alcohol and drug use, contraceptive use, female genital cutting, etc.)
  • Criminal behavior (e.g. perpetrator or victim of gender-based violence, etc.)
Crowds in public (e.g. an audience at outdoor concert). Directors/Managers of clinics or other service programs.  

We invite you to share your informal and formal guidelines, unique challenges, practices, experiences, and knowledge of legal requirements in various countries.

Tips for Obtaining Informed Consent

  • Cultural Sensitivity

    Keep in mind that how you approach individuals and communities creates a relationship that can have a lasting impact on field staff and future travelers. Before traveling to another culture, talk to your colleagues or consult a guidebook to learn about the views of that culture toward photography and the issues you are interested in documenting. Find out if photography is generally considered rude or sacrilegious. Show extreme care and sensitivity when photographing taboo practices or stigmatized populations. Some issues are sensitive in most societies (e.g. abortion, prostitution). At the very least, obtain verbal consent to take and use a photo for non-commercial purposes.

  • Verbal Consent

    When possible, establish a relationship before you start taking photos. When you approach photo subjects in the field, briefly introduce yourself, be courteous, and explain the purpose of your visit or the reason you want to take photos. In clinical contexts, speak with clinical director before you begin photographing health workers or clients.

    e.g. "I am taking photos for CCP, an NGO working to improve health in [your country]. Do I have your permission to take your photo for non-commercial use in educational media?"

    • If you don't speak the same language, communicate with your body language. At the very least, smile, nod, and point to your camera before shooting. If you sense any reluctance, confusion, or disdain, refrain from taking the photo. Respect a person's right to refuse to be photographed.
    • If you are traveling with someone who speaks the local language, ask him or her to translate your request for verbal consent.
    • Identify an adult who can give you verbal consent on behalf of children.
  • Written Consent

    Obtaining written consent is not practical in all circumstances. Furthermore, written documents may have little or no meaning to people who speak a different language, people of low literacy, and people who live in cultures where photography or publications are not common. However, if it is your organization's policy to obtain written consent, consider these tips.

    • Prepare your consent forms ahead of time in the local language of the area you will be visiting.
    • If you are unable to prepare written consent forms in the local language, orally translate the consent form to your photo subjects. Use an interpreter if necessary.
    • For low literate subjects, ask the subject to make a mark on the consent form. If the person does not want to or cannot use a writing tool, obtain verbal permission. Have the consent witnessed by a literate witness who can sign or countersign the document and confirm that the form was read to the subject.


Tips for Protecting Privacy

As a photographer, editor, or graphic designer, you can take steps beyond informed consent to protect the privacy of human photo subjects. For example:

  • Avoid using images of identifiable clients in clinics. When photographing a counseling session, position yourself so that you see the back of the client's head, as seen in this family planning counseling photo.

    © 2001 Moctar Ouedraogo, Courtesy of Photoshare  | A health worker discusses contraceptive methods with a couple during a family planning counseling session at a Santé Familial et Prevention du SIDA (SFPS) clinic in Burkina Faso.

  • Use a model in a clinical setting, rather than an actual patient, and obtain a written release from the model.
  • Photographing and using photos of vulnerable populations requires extreme care and sensitivity. To protect the identity of individuals who may be put at risk of reprisal, violence, or rejection in their communities as a result of telling their story, it may be necessary to leave out detailed personal information. In such cases, use false names or no names for human photo subjects in high-risk situations. Use the UN child rights and women rights conventions as the legal base for your position on altering photo content to protect human photo subjects.