What are you looking at? In development photography give people the opportunity to tell their own story. Photo: Brian Wolfe

No more flies in their eyes?

13 July 2015
Author: Ian McClelland

How do the photos used by development organisations affect perceptions of international development? How do agencies ensure that images preserve their subjects’ dignity? Has social media created new opportunities for self-representation, or just reinforced the use of outdated visual clichés? These are some of the questions addressed during last week’s #DevPix Twitter chat hosted by the Overseas Development Institute. The topic sparked a lively conversation…

The problem with #DevPix

Despite largely moving beyond “flies in their eyes” imagery, there was a clear consensus among participants that NGOs must do more to embrace a positive vision of development. The reasons for this are twofold: to ensure the dignity of those in the photos; and to arrest falling support for development due, in part, to a common belief that very little progress is being made.

This is borne out by Bond’s Change the Record report, which draws on audience research to conclude that the imagery associated with Africa remains that of “barren, rural landscapes, starving children and wealthy, corrupt leaders.” And research for Oxfam’s Food for All campaign echoes this, with 43% of those surveyed saying that media and advertising portrayals of developing countries made them feel that conditions for people living in those countries would never improve.

Positive examples

Despite this criticism, the panel gave some great examples of NGOs using more positive imagery. Russell Watkins highlighted the International Rescue Committee's #VisionNotVictim campaign, and SOS Children's Villages was suggested by photographer Gail Ward as an example of how photography can be both optimistic and successful.

Good examples of participatory photography were also highlighted  Save the Children’s Inside Za’atari initiative saw teenagers in the camp using iPhones to document their lives, and the similarly-themed Project Selfie by Oxfam saw people in the Philippines taking photos and telling their own stories in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan.

But there were words of caution. Ruth Taylor pointed out that positive imagery "can still reinforce the idea of 'benevolent giver' and 'grateful receiver'", and Martin Cottingham emphasised the need to "communicate the reality inbetween" positive and negative representations. 

Changing landscape

The rise of social media and mobile technology is having a profound effect, with people in the global South better able to take control of the narrative and represent themselves  #TheAfricaTheMediaNeverShowsYou is one such positive example of individuals pushing back against the one-dimensional view of Africa often portrayed in the media. EverydayAfrica was also highlighted by Nana Kofi Acquah.

In this shifting landscape, agencies like Majority World are helping NGOs to work with photographers and storytellers based in the global South, offering value for money and knowledge of local communities, as well as negating the need for translators and fixers. PhotoVoice are another organisation doing great work to support participatory photography and digital storytelling for socially excluded groups.

But there are no set rights and wrongs in choosing between international and local photographers. While local photographers' understanding of the context may mean they're less like to misrepresent their subjects, there was also recognition that all photographers offer a selection of images and what is used often comes down to editorial judgement.

Useful resources

Bond members commit to the CONCORD Code of Conduct on Images and Messages based on the principles of respect for the dignity of the people concerned; belief in the equality of all people; and acceptance of the need to promote fairness, solidarity and justice. The top line? Be truthful, avoid stereotypes, ensure permission and understanding, and give people the opportunity to communicate their own story.

The Narrative Project also has a lot of useful insight based on testing to explore which visual ideas make people more likely to support development. The research confirms that images showing that development programmes help people to achieve independence and reach their human potential were found to be persuasive, whereas those that invoke pity can result in feelings of despondency. Interestingly, although people feel good seeing pictures of happy children, images that do not show context were least effective at building support for development.

Other resources mentioned during the chat included PhotoVoices' Statement of Ethical Practice and Manual for Participatory Photography, Reboot's photography guidelines, and Nick Cavanagh's article for The Photographer

Biggest challenge

One of the biggest challenges to overcome is the gulf between short-term and long-term thinking. It’s clear from the huge response to recent emergency fundraising campaigns that images that provoke sympathy and pity play well in getting people to give their hard-earned cash. But in an ironic twist, it’s those same images appearing year after year that perpetuate negative stereotypes, drive donor fatigue, and do damage in the long-run.

Whether we opt to use international or local photographers, we need a shift from images that provoke pity to ones that provoke empathy. We need to emphasise the independence and agency of people in the South. And we need to underscore the shared values that unite us all. Not only will this help to sure up support for development now, it will safeguard continued support into the future.

About the author

Ian McClelland

Communications and Brand Adviser at Bond, Ian has also worked for members Save the Children and Oxfam. He is a member of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (MCIPR) and has an MSc in Globalisation and Development.