Does This Picture Make You Feel Sad? Practical Questions for Ethical Photography

We explore the challenges of following our own photo policy

The international development community has come a long way since the “flies in their eyes” photography and “dollar a day” commercials of the 80s. We have since rejected portrayals that exploit communities’ circumstances and take away people’s dignity. But during a recent Twitter chat hosted by the Overseas Development Institute, many researchers, practitioners, communicators, and photographers trying to put these ethics into practice agreed that we are still falling short.

At Reboot, we take our photo policy seriously. A year ago, we shared our principles and responsibilities for a more empathetic approach to taking and using photos. Yet we’ve found it surprisingly hard to operationalize these guidelines consistently. Here are some of our tools for making it work, and hurdles we still need to overcome.

How We Take Photos

As a fundamental part of our approach, Reboot relies on imagery to capture the complexity and depth of human stories. As such, any member of our team is likely to find themselves behind the camera. We each have our own style and comfort level with photography. But whenever we take photos—whether in a rural village in Nigeria or a government office in Mexico—we try to be transparent, and make the research subject as comfortable as possible.

Introduce the camera, and the photographer, slowly and intentionally.

A camera is obtrusive. Before taking a single frame, Patrick Ainslie, one of our skilled photographers, gradually introduces it as a non-threatening object. He walks into an interview with the camera slung over his shoulder. As the trust and conversation builds, he progressively makes it more visible—first by putting it on a table, then holding it in his hands.

Photographers need to blend in quickly to help ease any tension or anxiety the person we’re interviewing may feel. Since our photographers are also experienced interviewers, joining the interview conversation can be very natural. They don’t just observe from the periphery. But while taking photos, they also try to keep an appropriate distance. They don’t intrude into a research subject’s personal space, but they do stay within his or her line of sight, especially when in someone’s home.

Ask for permission and ensure that each subject understands how his or her photo may be used.

Building trust with anyone we’re interviewing is one of our highest priorities. While photos are nice to have, they’re far less important than protecting this trust—and a person’s safety. At a minimum, we require verbal agreement from a research subject to take or use his or her photo. In instances such as workshops or events where we can easily address all participants at once, we ask for written consent forms. But this is not always possible.

We seek verbal consent by asking two questions:

  1. Do you mind if we take your picture?
  2. Can we use this photo to show the work we do?

The second question usually needs a bit more explanation. We make it clear how we might use a person’s photograph internally—for our eyes only—or externally. To show examples of possible external uses, our photographers carry the below set of laminated examples.

Printed cards showing examples of acceptable photos.

Our camera kit includes examples of our business cards, postcards, and website pages, to help subjects understand how we may use their images.

This photo kit only goes so far when we’re talking to someone who has never used or seen a website. On the other hand, in countries where smartphones are prevalent, people automatically assume that when they say yes to their photo being taken it may be shared publicly. Tailoring this conversation for each context can be tricky.

Asking for permission is probably the most crucial and awkward part of following an ethical photo policy. When we act as researchers, we balance dueling priorities to maintain the flow of the interview and capture it. We still struggle to find the best way to interrupt a conversation to ask for permission. Some of us insert it at the beginning, while others feel more comfortable asking at the end and deleting the photos if the person does not consent.

How We Use Photos

When researchers return to headquarters, they hand over their jpegs as well as the responsibility to our creative team. Those deciding where and how an image appears confront new challenges in portraying people honestly and reflecting our values.

Honor whether or not we’ve gained permission and the context.

It’s best if those who captured photos can sit with the creative team to share the context of the images. Transferring this knowledge is important to using the photos as accurate representations of the actors, the place, and the process.

Ideally, our project teams have already organized their photos into three categories: permission received, permission denied, or unknown. These explicit distinctions make it easy for our creative team to know which photos they can and can’t use. It’s frustrating to have a great photo from a workshop where one person pictured denied permission. But through workarounds, such as cropping that person out or blurring their face, we always honor people’s requests.

Use imagery consistent with our mandate, our mission, and our work.

Sometimes, we find ourselves breaking our own rules. Our photo policy helps us hold each other accountable. When working on a recent output, we were down to the wire on deadline and started to cut some corners in selecting an image to use. The work benefits children—so we picked an image of a happy child for the cover. When Adam Parker, our communications designer, began work on the final draft, he raised some questions: Yes, it is a beautiful photo, but are we portraying the context appropriately? Do we have consent from the child’s parents to use this photo in this way? The answers were “no” and “unknown,” so we chose another photo.

Of course we get excited about beautiful and captivating images of our work. And we all know the time pressure of impending deadlines. But we need these conversations to keep ourselves in line. That’s one reason our photo policy poses the following questions as a guide:

Flowchart depicting Reboot's photo policy


We also use the following principles as guidelines, but not strict rules, to evaluate the emotional tone of our imagery:


Reboot imagery should convey:

  • positivity, opportunity, engagement
  • empowerment
  • agency
  • humanity (people as people, not objects or still lifes)
  • individuality

Reboot imagery should not convey:

  • sadness, neediness, blight
  • stereotypes
  • generalizations
  • a sense of being staged
  • a sense of surprising the subject
  • objectification (people as objects)


Putting a face to the people we work with is a powerful way to show the human context of social problems. Because of this power, photography calls for discipline. Photographers and communications staff have immense control over what type of images they capture and how they present them. Our journalistic instincts may steer us toward an image that’s powerful, but that we don’t have permission to use, doesn’t respect the dignity of its subject, or just isn’t right for the context. We may not always get it completely right, but we use our photo policy as a compass to keep how we present our work aligned with our values.

Update: November 3, 2015
Responses to our original blog post sparked a productive internal and external discussion on the exclusion of imagery that portrays sadness, anxiety, or discomfort. As a result of this conversation, we’ve updated our policy, and this blog post, to reflect some additional nuance: The flowchart now directs you to “proceed with caution” if the subject’s body language communicates these emotions, instead of rejecting the photo. We’ve given relatively more weight to the question of whether or not the subject appears to have agency, moving it up in the decision chain. We also condensed the set of guidelines we use to define the emotional tone of Reboot imagery, clarifying that we do not use these as strict rules. Read more about the rationale behind these changes in our comments section.

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