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Everything you wanted to know about humanitarian photography


Image by Boston-based photographer Jessica Scranton

While humanitarian photography may seem like a combination of documentary, editorial, and photojournalism, its history has a long tradition of photographers advocating for change.

Early twentieth-century photographer Lewis Hine’s images of children working in factories prompted government officials to develop and strictly enforce laws against child labor. Exposing mercury poisoning in the Japanese city of Minamata, W. Eugene Smith’s work brought justice and visibility to the victims. These photographers’ humanitarian images affected change by making visible the human condition.

Photography is a small voice, at best, but sometimes — just sometimes — one photograph or a group of them can lure our senses into awareness.

—W. Eugene Smith

A humanitarian photographer’s emphasis is on storytelling and calling the viewer to action. When thinking about humanitarian photos, faces of hungry children in campaigns for UNICEF and Save the Children come to mind. Still, humanitarian photography can encompass a broader scope of projects – almost any project that puts the welfare of humanity, the climate, and even animals at the forefront.

What is a Humanitarian Photographer

Having a passion for helping others and advocating for change is at the core of humanitarian photography. One of the ways humanitarian photographers have developed their careers is through pursuing specific personal projects that reflect the mission of NGOs (non-governmental organizations) and charities. Below are some of the answers to the question of how to become a humanitarian photographer or even an NGO photographer.

Atlanta-based humanitarian photographer Gary S. Chapman’s image on the cover of Christianity Today

Developing Personal Projects

Develop personal projects that you feel passionate and curious about. Connect with organizations aligned with your interests. You will be more invested in causes that speak to your heart, and your imagery will convey your concern. Do you know someone that has faced homelessness? Having a personal investment in a cause creates a more profound desire to photograph for change. Hanoi, Vietnam-based photographer Tim Gerard Barker advises, “The most important thing is to find issues that you care about and want to document on your own time.”

Building Relationships with Humanitarian Organizations

Marketing your work to humanitarian organizations is much like approaching any commercial client. First, research, contact photo editors, producers, marketing specialists, or PR managers to inquire about their freelance hiring procedures and any humanitarian photography jobs they may have in the future. For some smaller NGO photography jobs, you may be contacting the executive director directly. Share a pdf of your humanitarian work on the initial contact, then follow up periodically with updates.

Jessica Scranton’s work for FHI 360, a nonprofit human development organization that advocates for family planning and reproductive health

For Boston-based photographer Jessica Scranton, as well as for Tim, relationships with nonprofits and NGOs developed organically. After Jessica studied international affairs and photography at Northeastern University, she saved money and worked for a women’s empowerment group in Rajasthan, India. “I quickly learned that my best skill set for helping was taking photographs for this organization. From there, I was based in Nairobi, Kenya, and Kampala, Uganda, and started working with public health schools and nonprofits to tell their stories about women’s rights, conservation, and access to medicine and testing.”

Tim Gerard Barker’s work for Fargreen

Tim was living in Asia and focused on working on projects in the wildlife trade when he launched his career as a humanitarian photographer career.

My reportage style lent itself towards humanitarian photography. Much of my humanitarian work comes through my website or recommendations by colleagues in Asia.

Best Practices for Humanitarian Photographers


Wanting to change the world doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be paid a fair wage. Whether you are working with a local nonprofit or a global NGO, issuing a contract the same way you would to a commercial client is always the best practice. A contract sets the parameters of a project and defines your deliverables to the client. It protects you and the organization that hires you. Tim bases his contracts on the ASMP contract model. “Your contract shouldn’t be any different than any other contract, and it should clearly state the working days, the deliverables, the rights to the client, the fees, payment terms, and clauses for cancellation or postponement.”

Rights and Usage

When working with charitable organizations, the best practice is to license your humanitarian pictures for specific use. The same is true for a humanitarian videographer. Once you’ve sold the rights, you have no control over how the image is used, and you will never be paid again for its usage. Atlanta-based photographer Gary S. Chapman avoided these problems by keeping his copyright and extending the usage rights:

Their needs are different from most commercial clients. Nonprofits, NGOs, and other community development organizations often need to share their photo stories with partnering groups and can’t realistically contact the photographer every time for a new usage fee.

Gary S. Chapman’s work for Tom’s

More NGO clients want to own the rights, and in my experience, they are usually not prepared to pay more to get them. It’s essential to keep the rights, mainly when there is a chance that work might end up in a wider body of work on the same issue and when you may be able to sell to other organizations down the road. —Tim Gerard Barker

Ethical Considerations

Amid the difficult or emotional circumstances that you may witness in developing countries, don’t forget to give dignity and respect to your subject. Have empathy for victims, and give them a voice without exploiting their vulnerability. Refrain from making controversial “poverty porn” images that provoke the viewer. Photographer Jessica Scranton strives to tell a well-rounded story.

I prefer to focus on what connects us as humans. A hug between mother and child, a woman giving birth, a kid playing with toys, laughter, cooking over the stove, people brushing their teeth. I think it’s important to humanize people so that we can see ourselves in each other.

Tim puts the moral imperative into a different context as he equates humanitarian photography ethics with those of being a photojournalist:

Everything must be accurate, and I don’t change anything in the scene. I don’t remove any elements in post-production. It’s important to take clear and concise details about where I am shooting and the names of anyone in the shot to caption my images accurately.

Tim Gerard Barker’s work for Hear The World Foundation

Guidelines for Ethical Storytelling

  • Be accurate and provide context.
  • Build a relationship with the people you encounter.
  • Get your subject’s consent in writing.
  • Avoid cliches and stereotypes.
  • Balance the story with hopeful images.
  • Consider photographing a subject from behind or silhouette rather than exposing their identity.
  • Don’t manipulate the scene or the photographs.
  • Be respectful while making photographs and in image selection.

When asked about ethical storytelling, Jessica Scranton noted she does not shoot for an organization if she disagrees with their work.

I always travel with a translator who can speak the local dialect and convey the work we are trying to do. Usually, the work I do is positive and shows how a project has helped lift a community out of poverty or how vulnerable populations now have access to HIV testing and drugs.

Jessica Scranton’s humanitarian photography

If the story is more sensitive, like photographing sex workers, I will talk with everyone, and they will tell me if they are comfortable being on camera. If not, I don’t photograph them, or we get creative by showing their backs or shadows. Respecting people and showing them with dignity is my number one concern, and I get hired because I take it very seriously.

Fair Use, Informed Consent, and Written Consent

David Alexander, Photoshare Manager, for Johns Hopkins Center for Communication Programs discusses fair use and the difference between informed and written consent in a presentation for Child Family Health International on best practices in global health photography. He describes fair use as, “using photographs for the objective, accurate representation or illustration of a real situation, subject identity, or physical location.” Informed consent is a “yes” or “no” from the subject when asked to be photographed. He tells his subjects, “My name is David Alexander and I am working for an NGO to improve the health of your country. Do I have your permission to take a photo of you for non-commercial use?” David encourages photographers to shift using “take” a photo to “make” a photo.

In situations where the subject is revealing personal information, health status, behaviors, and legal status, get written consent whenever possible.

Unite for Sight executive director Jennifer Staple-Clark says that a humanitarian photographer should, “Preserve the dignity of the subject and community.” She stresses that the reality of each individual and community should be conveyed accurately in photography. All volunteers and professionals working with Unite for Sight must undergo training as part of the organization’s Global Health University where a portion of the training is dedicated to ethics and photography in developing countries. Jennifer emphasizes, “Photography is a privacy and human rights consideration. The solution lies in humility.”

Ethical responsibilities don’t end when you’ve finished photographing. Dr. Helen Brotherton, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine points out that any of the following is a misuse of humanitarian photography:

  1. Using a photo to illustrate persons affected by any issue when there is no evidence to support a connection.
  2. Using a photo of another organization’s activities to showcase another organization’s program without disclosing the true content of the photo.
  3. Using a photo of people in one country to represent people in another country.
  4. Making a false or unfair, presumptive statement about a human photo subject in an explicit or implicit manner.

Whitney Curtis‘ humanitarian photography featured in Saint Louis Magazine

Hiring a Humanitarian Photographer

The nonprofit organization Habitat for Humanity uses photography to tell their story and to define their vision of a world where everyone has a decent place to live. They utilize original photography on their website, social media channels, marketing materials, volunteer and donor engagement letters, presentations, the Habitat magazine, fundraising campaigns, yearly calendar, and annual report. “None of our photography is stock imagery,” said Erika Cotton Boyce, the Director of Public and Media Relations for Habitat for Humanity International.

Even though Habitat for Humanity has an internal photography and video team, we occasionally hire freelance photographers. We encourage photographers interested in collaborating with us, whose work has a style, look, and feel that aligns with our brand and messaging to reach out. We regularly add names to our database of photographers in case the need arises to hire a freelancer. Photographers can also reach out to local Habitat affiliates to see if they have specific needs.

While Habitat for Humanity’s staff photographers’ and freelancers’ images fall under “works made for hire,” the organization is currently working on a standard agreement when hiring freelance photographers. “Local Habitat for Humanity affiliates operate independently at the discretion of their own boards and may handle contracts differently,” explains Erika.

Making a Living as a Humanitarian Photographer

Being a humanitarian photographer may not pay all the bills or elevate you to a lofty lifestyle, but it can sustain you when combined with other commercial photography income streams. Jessica’s work ranges from portraits for magazines, commercial assignments, and humanitarian work. “I don’t think you need to limit yourself to one type of photography. I get hired because of my style of photography and how I capture people. Your style can translate to all sectors,” she explains. Jessica also notifies potential clients when she’s in a specific region to pick up assignments and takes off traveling on her own to build her portfolio of travel imagery to sell as stock photography.

I welcome all commercial work that will use my shooting style, but my heart is really about showcasing the empowerment stories of communities and individuals. In many ways, I shoot the same moment-capturing style for either commercial or humanitarian groups.

As a humanitarian photographer, you may find yourself in emotionally-charged situations. Still, you certainly reap the rewards of feeling that you have contributed to making the world a better place.

About the Author

Polly Gaillard is a fine art photographer, writer, and educator. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism and a Master of Fine Arts in Visual Art from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She has taught photography workshops and college courses including summer study abroad programs in Prague, Czech Republic, and Cortona, Italy. She has exhibited her fine art photographs nationally and published a limited edition artist book, Pressure Points, with a foreword by actress Jamie Lee Curtis. Polly’s photographic skills traverse contemporary art, documentary, portrait, and traditional photographic practices. You can find more of Polly’s work on her website and connect with her via LinkedIn. This article was also published on Wonderful Machine and shared with permission.


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