Practice What You Preach: An Empathetic Approach to Photo Use for the Social Sector

At Reboot, we take thousands of photos over the course of a project. We take pictures of people and their environments—homes, workplaces, possessions, and the list goes on. Photography has always been an important part of our research and data gathering process. Imagery serves as a critical visual tool, and one that helps foster empathy for those we are working with.

Imagery is also a key component of Reboot’s visual identity, as you may have deduced from this website. Images of people are especially powerful in revealing the details of the kind of work we do, the people and places we learn from, and the principles we stand for. But using someone’s likeness publicly—anywhere—means we need to do so in a respectful and responsible manner.

For anyone that has taken a passing look at many socially-oriented organizations, especially in the international development space, you know well that this is not always the case. “Poverty Porn” abounds on the promotional materials for everything from large NGOs, to small consultancies, to personal work portfolios and photographers’ websites. Big teary eyes, small tattered clothes, images of want and famine that pull on your heartstrings. Oh, it’s in Africa? Even better.

These are images that capitalize on viewers’ sympathetic or pitying emotional reactions, and which they use for a reason. Sympathy and pity are strong emotions, they prompt strong responses—all the better for drawing attention to your work and especially for fundraising. But what do they do for the people featured in the photos? They didn’t ask for our sympathy, they didn’t ask for our pity.

At Reboot, we work to empower and to enable. A visual world of sympathy and pity doesn’t sit well with us as people, and it surely doesn’t sit with the mission of our organization. So, we chose a different approach.


First and foremost, we recognize that as the individuals who document, process, and use images of other people we have responsibilities, namely:

  1. As researchers, we must ensure that we truthfully document information, and ensure that the people involved are informed of how that information will be used to the fullest extent of our abilities and knowledge as the context permits.
  2. As photographers and storytellers, we have a responsibility to the subjects of our photographs to respectfully and accurately represent their experiences.
  3. As brand ambassadors of Reboot, we must select images that are consistent within the spirit of Reboot’s brand identity.

This means we leave a lot of images on the cutting room floor. Out of the thousands of photos taken over the course of a project, only a very select few are seen by anyone outside of the Reboot team. In fact, when it comes to showing the rest of the world the work we do, out of those thousands, we are often limited to just a handful of photos to represent the months (if not years) of work that went into each project.


To ensure that we practice what we preach and live up to our responsibilities, we’ve implemented a system of ensuring that individuals are informed about how their images might be used, and asked for their permission to use their image in these ways. Those permissions or denials are then recorded and tagged in the photo’s metadata. Beyond seeking informed consent, we also defined the ways we should and shouldn’t use certain types of images, especially with regards to the appropriateness of using images of people.

Distinguishing between images that are used internally for research only and images that could be used externally—on the website, research reports, or elsewhere—proved helpful to realizing this system. Where a photo of a person is used to draw a direct connection to an individual, place, or context, using that image makes perfect sense. But where a photo of a person is used only to draw a connection to ‘corporate’ Reboot, this doesn’t fit well with our values. We need to be aware of the fact that we are essentially facilitating an introduction to these people through their imagery, and therefore must be more intentional about how we tell their story when we do use images of people in our corporate communications.

Addressing this relies on a combination of written copy, design elements, and photo choice. For example, on promotional postcards given out at events and info sessions, we incorporate a short sentence on the reverse side of the page that provides a brief description of that person and tells where to find out more about them (i.e. a link to a case study on our webpage). Doing this creates more context for understanding between the viewer and the individual shown, and also allows us to form stronger connections within our own work and materials.

In cases where the format doesn’t allow for us to add more information, such as a business card or other small canvas items, we shift to images of people where the individuals are more anonymous. In this way, we avoid establishing a false sense of empathy, where the viewer feels a strong connection to the person, but can’t learn more about them to truly understand their context.

Most importantly, we didn’t force this system out of thin air. Rather, it came about organically and sustainably as a product of our values. While more time and difficulty is added to taking, processing, and using our photos, the fact that we as an organization decided to do it this way engenders support among the team. Having these beliefs arise from our staff organically meant that on the whole, these guiding principles had already been informing our image choices all along, even before it was “official.” By formalizing these ideas, we made ourselves, our clients, and the communities we were working with a promise that we are keeping.

We officially put this approach into practice exactly one year ago and are still working backwards to update older materials to be in accordance. It’s not perfect yet, but we’re on the road. Our hope is that by sharing the lessons from our experience, we can encourage other mission-minded organizations to take a look at their own photo use policies and ensure that they practice what they preach.



A partial list of some of the resources we found helpful along the way:

Gurl Goes to Africa

Regarding Humanity

Photoshare by K4Health

Futher reading.