Negotiating Consent in Development Contexts

Savannah Dodd / Share Uganda

Savannah Dodd / Share Uganda


The issue of consent is key across the photographic community. But development photography, in particular, presents a unique set of challenges because of the complexity of the subject/photographer relationship.

Consent and the Subject/Photographer Relationship

The subject of the photograph is often the beneficiary of the development agency, with the photographer usually being employed by the development agency. This vertical relationship makes it difficult for the beneficiary to refuse becoming a photographic subject.

Beneficiaries may fear that goods or services will be withheld or revoked if they refuse to be photographed; they may feel indebted to the development agency for the support they have received; or they may believe that consenting to be photographed will improve their situation or entitle them to additional benefits.

We cannot guarantee that their decision to consent to being photographed will not be influenced by any of these beliefs. But we can inform beneficiaries that their care will not be impacted in any way, positively or negatively, by their decision to consent or not consent to being photographed.

Multi-Layered Consent

Of course, asking consent does not stop at asking to take someone’s picture. We also need to ask for consent to use the image.

It is tempting to ask for unrestricted consent: to use the image in perpetuity in case of any unforeseen opportunities to use the images in the future. However, unrestricted consent poses ethical challenges in terms of how we relate to the subject in our images. Unrestricted consent puts all power in our hands, giving no power to the people in our images.

Instead, we can give options about how we use their image. Subjects can stipulate a specific time period for usage rights, or geographic limitations — particularly if they do not want the image shown in their home country.

In order to give the people we photograph these kinds of options, we need consent processes that account for these distinctions, and enable multi-layered consent.

Consent without Access

Development photographers often work in low and middle-income countries and among communities without access to the Internet, presenting additional challenges to consent. Can someone give consent for their image to be posted on Facebook, if they have never used Facebook? How can we obtain consent in this situation?

What is important for consent is not necessarily that they understand the in’s and out’s of how the internet or social media works, but that they understand the implications of having their image appear there.

They do not need to understand that you need an email address in order to register for an account or that their image will be the cover photo. They do, however, need to understand that their image will be visible to anyone across the world when they visit your page, and that your page has 10,000 monthly viewers.

Moving Forward

As we move forward with our work in development contexts, let’s focus on good communication with the people we photograph. Let’s make sure that they understand what they are consenting to, and that they have the right to say “no” without penalty. Let’s give them a choice in how they are portrayed and how their image is used.

The central theme here is communication, and good communication takes time. Let’s take the time that good communication requires.

Article originally published in Arete Stories on 10 May 2018.