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Ethical Global Photo Guidelines

Respect for the subjects and communities you are documenting should always be your first consideration when taking a photo, but it’s a particularly important consideration in a global context. Whether you plan to take photos for personal use, to share only with family and friends, or to distribute more broadly, please consider the following guidelines on ethical photography before and after you step behind the lens.

Before You Photograph

Research and Reflect

  • Research the people and places you’ll be visiting before you travel, and be aware of cultural customs and social norms, especially before taking photos.
  • Educate yourself about the neo-colonial history of photography abroad. (The history of global photography is deeply tied to colonial legacies, and photography has been used as a tool of white supremacy and a weapon of imperialism to subjugate, exoticize and objectify.)
  • Give deep consideration to the emotional, psychological, political, economic, cultural, social or physical circumstances of your subject before taking a photograph. Pause before staging a photo, and consider your reasons for doing so.  Do not take a controversial photograph for the sole purpose of being controversial.
  • Above all, be empathetic and considerate in your approach.

Ask yourself:
“Could my photo cause harm to the people or communities represented?”

Request Consent

  • You should always ask for consent before taking a photo, whether verbally or through gestures. If you do not receive consent, do not take the photo. Just because someone is in a public space, it doesn’t mean it’s appropriate to photograph them. If you do not receive consent, don’t take the photo, and do not attempt to hide your camera or the fact that you are taking a picture.
  • When photographing subjects in vulnerable situations (like refugee populations), take care to protect the identity and privacy of the individuals photographed. Please take special care when photographing minors and individuals with special needs. In photographing minors and some populations with special needs, you will need consent from the individual as well as a parent or guardian.
  • It’s also important to be cognizant of the environment where you’re taking photographs. Places of worship, clinical settings and museums and art galleries may have specific rules and require additional sensitivity.
  • Consider how your own nationality, economic status, physical ability or any other factors might make it uncomfortable for the subject to refuse consent or make them feel vulnerable. If such power differences exist, it may be best to refrain from photography.
  • NOTE: You may not submit photos to the Carolina Global Photo Competition that were taken without the full consent of your subject(s).

Ask yourself:
“How do your own circumstances and positionality shape your relationship to the subject?”
“Is there any reason why your subject might feel uncomfortable refusing consent?”
“What power relations are implicit in the photo you are taking?”

Before You Share

Give Respect and Context to Images

  • Contextualize your photo so as not to contribute to stereotypes or generalizations. Keep in mind the research you have done on the community you are photographing, and ensure that your photograph and corresponding caption are respectful, specific and reflect what you have learned.
  • Activist and editorial photos should be used with the intention of raising public awareness and not exploiting sympathy.

Ask yourself:
“What story does your photograph tell?”
“Does it risk perpetuating a ‘single story’ about the place or people you are photographing?”   

Writing a Caption

  • Your photo caption should offer a short description of your photograph as well as offer contextual details that label and describe the broader environment and circumstances. Captions should offer information that provides essential context for coming to a better understanding of the places, persons and communities being photographed.
  • Whenever possible, provide information about your directorial choices in the caption, photo description or accompanying text. If you staged or altered your photo, consider your reasons for doing so, and use the caption as a space to explain why.

Ask yourself:
“What is the story behind this photo?”
“What would the uninformed viewer not know about this photograph that seems like a necessary context for better understanding the place, people, landscape or creatures pictured?” 

Sources and Further Reading