Informed consent challenges for photography in low-resource contexts

/ February 18, 2015

This paper from BMC Medical Ethics discusses ethical concerns of researchers using photography in countries including Nepal, Malawi, Gambia, Cambodia, Sierra Leone, Thailand, Zambia and Peru:

Obtaining full informed consent was considered the biggest challenge to “ethical photography”. The meaning of informed consent seemed to vary from a relaxed interpretation to full disclosure of risks and implications. Some even thought fully informed consent is impossible…A common hindrance to obtaining consent was the language barrier. Interpreters were often used but this is open to misunderstanding or miscommunication. Written consent was generally thought to be preferable but problematic.

It also suggests a practical solution: a ‘Ladder of Dissemination’ that ranks how widely the photo will be used on a 1-5 scale (with 5 the most public), as a framework for informing the photo’s subject about the ways in which the photo will be used:

‘Photographs that are freely available on the internet would have the highest degree of dissemination and require careful and exhaustive informed consent detailing potential uses and distributions. Whilst not obviating the necessity for informed consent, a photograph that goes no further than someone’s personal archive…would have less stringent criteria.

This particular framework is designed for use in academic medical research – is it useful or feasible to use this in advocacy projects or photojournalism? Participants in Responsible Data Forum events have explained examples of times when individuals have been negatively affected by photos of them that were taken during the course of a project. How do you think about anticipating the ways a photograph might be used in the future? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

All these issues are set to be discussed at the Responsible Data Lab for documentary photographers and photojournalists on 28 March, a 1-day hands-on lab organised by Magnum Foundation in collaboration with the engine room that exposes photographers and photojournalists to approaches for navigating the ethical, privacy and security challenges they face in their work.

About the contributor

Tom started out writing and editing for newspapers, consultancies and think tanks on topics including politics and corruption in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, then moved into designing and managing election-related projects in countries including Myanmar, Bangladesh, Rwanda and Bolivia. After getting interested in what data and technology could add in those areas and elsewhere, he made a beeline for The Engine Room. Tom is trying to read all of the Internet, but mostly spends his time picking out useful resources and trends for organisations using technology in their work.

See Tom's Articles

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