Saturday, January 17, 2015

Ethics and the Use of Images

While reading the course study guide I came across a section that mentioned the ethics behind using images of human suffering to raise awareness and funds.  The section also included a reading on the topic.

This particular topic has been of interest to me for a number of years, ever since my first trip to Africa in 2009.  I went to Ghana with an organisation called Unite for Sight as part of an internship for my undergraduate degree and prior to my acceptance into the program and subsequent deployment I had to do a training course.  The training included readings, assignments, work with a professional optometrist as well as a final exam.  Included within the training material was a great deal of information regarding the organisation’s code of ethics and in particular, their stance on taking of photographs in the field and the use of those images.

Looking back, I could not be more grateful for the insight they gave me.  They instilled in me the belief that photographs should be taken with the utmost consideration for the people and circumstances being photographed.  Not to put too fine a point on it, they are still people, suffering or not.  They are not works of art in a museum or animals in a zoo and preserving their dignity is not only imperative, but also part of respecting their fundamental rights as human beings under international law.  I was taught that unless I truly believed that a photograph would greatly benefit them and/or the situation of their population through a significant increase in funds, I should not take it.  The article by Calain appears to come to the same conclusion.  As Calain states, the ethics involved of providing medical care are inherently at odds with the normal practices used to obtain support for humanitarian aid (2013). While it is important to stand witness and advocate for the needs of the populations requiring assistance, the value of using images to do so in each situation should be thoughtfully and carefully weighed against the potential impacts on human dignity.  Unless documenting circumstances of suffering will lead to considerable benefits that will help to improve the situation, health professionals should avoid taking and sharing photographs of people suffering.

Unite for Sight also taught me to wait for consent from the individual(s) or their parents/guardians and to try to make sure that I avoided taking photographs of emotionally or physically painful circumstances that they did not want documented.  After all, I was there as someone providing a health service, not as a journalist.  Even if I had been a journalist...  Just because someone else has employed you to take photos and write stories of people does not give you carte blanche to violate the rights of individuals to privacy, consent and dignity.  The end (which is often to get people to notice that people are suffering and having their rights violated) does not justify the means if you are also causing them pain and violating their right to not be photographed (or their family member's right, i.e. children or someone who is unconscious or has passed away).  In my case, I was seeing some people at their most vulnerable and taking a photograph of that would have been a violation of their trust in the organisation I represented and myself as a volunteer.  Ultimately, I began asking myself: “Would I be alright with someone taking this photo of me?  Would I feel okay or happy with the way my life and my situation are being portrayed?  Can I say for certain that taking this photo will lead to a significant positive change for that person and their people?  Is this photo necessary or beneficial?".  That line of questioning has been my litmus test for taking photos ever since.  But above else, the decision belongs to the individual and/or their family, especially in a sensitive situation.  If they say no, then it's no dice.  That is the Golden rule.

In my opinion, the ethics of using images has never been more important or pertinent in history than it is now with social media and the ease with which images can be shared around the globe.  Having spent a total of over five months in Africa working with volunteer organisations, I have realised that not everyone understands the value of taking a moment to think before they point their camera, click and share.  At one point I watched as teachers working at a nearby school walked through the hospital that I was working at, cameras in hand, photographing everything and everyone in sight.  They spent no more than a half an hour at the hospital and when I had asked what they were doing there, they said they had simply wanted to “see what the hospital looked like and take photos so they could show people back home”.  Ultimately, there was no benefit for the patients to being photographed in the vulnerable states they were in.  Had I been the outspoken woman that I am now, I would have pointed out to them that there were people dying and suffering in the hospital and that taking photos of patients would not be acceptable in their own countries so why should it be anywhere else?  For some of the patients and their families, it was one of the worst days of their lives.  The hospital was a place to receive care and treatment, not a tourist attraction.  To this day, not standing up for the patients in that situation remains one of my biggest regrets.

In short, the point is that you should not have to violate someone's human rights to get other people to care about human rights being violated.



Calain P 2013, ‘Ethics and images of suffering bodies in humanitarian medicine’, Social Science & Medicine, vol. 98, no. 2013, pp. 278-285.


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