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Ethical Photography

A Guide for UM Students

Digital photography has empowered nearly every one of us with the ability to take photos and capture video at will. With that power comes responsibility.

As you engage with communities abroad, remember all that you’ve learned about intercultural engagement and how photography changes your interactions with locals. Think about what kinds of situations would make you uncomfortable—as a local here in the US—and avoid putting others in similar situations. And remember not to assume that your own comfort with being photographed means that others are as well. Employ the Platinum Rule (treat others as they would like to be treated), and take cues from locals in this respect.

Here are some guiding principles to help you navigate the dynamic circumstances of intercultural engagement:

Dignity, Respect, Legal Concerns

  • Choose photos that represent people truthfully and show dignity, equality, support and integrity.
  • Acquire the full understanding, participation, and permission of the subjects whenever possible.
  • Always ask for permission before photographing homes, stores, religious spaces/buildings, and so on.
  • Follow local laws. Photography is banned in many places around the world.

History and Power

  • Learn about your host community and ask locals for ideas about what and how to photograph local people.
  • Abstain from using photos that potentially stereotype, sensationalize, or discriminate. Aim for complex portrayals of subjects that avoid reinforcing stereotypes.
  • Be aware that there is a long and often exploitative history of outsiders documenting what they perceive to be "exotic" subjects.

Planning and Sharing

  • Plan your photographs rather than shooting freely without thinking carefully first. This will help you avoid many of the pitfalls mentioned above.
  • When showing your photos to others, think about the implications your work will have in various communities.
  • Think about what your photo will communicate to others in light of the fact that images and even video offer only limited context and perspective and tell only a part of the story at hand.

Do have fun and be creative! These principles are meant to be inspiring, not restricting. If you can keep these things in mind, you will be able to focus on the artistic and social aspects of your capturing. And you likely will value your memories captured on film more fully if you are confident that you interacted responsibly with your host cultures.