Water Hub Blog

Ethical imagery: using photos and videos for good

I was drawn to work in communications because I love words–– there are so many, and such a variety! Over the past 15 years, I’ve learned a lot about messaging environmental and social issues in a way that is both powerful and accessible. But I still have a lot to learn about imagery. We all do, as a field. 

Sure, nonprofits have become increasingly aware of the importance of photos and videos, especially in this digital age, but are we using them in ways that serve both our issues and our communities? 

I was fortunate to come up as a communicator at The Trust for Public Land, which always emphasized the importance of putting people in the picture. And then at Resource Media, which hosts the Visual Story Lab, I got to help with a number of image testing and photo library projects that taught me even more about the kinds of visuals people respond to, and the best practices in capturing, storing, and sharing them. 

But when I was hired to help build the Water Hub, and we dug into the development of our website, I quickly realized how much I still didn’t understand about the ethics of imagery. Knowing that people connect to people, I wanted to show water justice champions on our website; demonstrating, organizing, delivering mutual aid, and more. But my colleagues quickly pointed out that, while some of our partners might be willing to share such photos, we would have no relationship with the people pictured, and might have trouble securing their consent. 

That’s when we decided to consult the experts at Survival Media Agency about ethical imagery guidelines. We wanted their advice on everything from sourcing and shooting photos to captioning and crediting. Over the past several months, we worked with SMA and some of their creative partners, including Water Hub advisor, Jade Begay, to develop a practical guide that covers the following:

  • Planning: narrative goals, audience considerations, and hiring checklist.
  • Visual storytelling: centering solutions, avoiding stereotypes, and making a commitment to heal. 
  • Sourcing and licensing images: prioritizing local photographers/filmmakers, compensation, and consent.
  • Capturing photos and videos: portraying people in their dignity, technical tips for portraits, and knowing when to turn the camera off. 
  • Storing and captioning: key information to include in metadata, and using captions to tell a story.
  • Accessibility: image descriptions, closed captioning, and readability.
  • Follow-up: engaging participants in the review process, sharing the final product, and reporting on impact. 

Download the guide here, and stay tuned for an Ask Me Anything discussion with Survival Media Agency.