Ethical Representation in Humanitarian Photography

I have been spending a lot of time studying editorial portrait photography recently. Not your average family portrait or business headshot, but portraits that are taken of people we admire, celebrities, athletes, business moguls and musicians. The more of these portraits I consume the more I realize that the approach photographers take in photographing people of power and influence is entirely different than the approach that is commonly used in humanitarian photography. There are many factors that make this a reality like project budgets, the amount of time available for the shoot and the guidance of magazines and advertising agencies, but a large factor is also the influence of the person being photographed. They have enough power and influence to make choices about how they are portrayed, they don’t need to worry about ethical representation. They have the knowledge and experience to know how they want to be portrayed and are able to make educated choices about how they will be portrayed in the photos.

There are several differences in the approaches photographers use but I want to focus on two of the main differences I have discovered, eye contact and staging. Photos of people with influence and power almost always feature intense eye contact and they are often photographed in places that elevate their status as people to be looked up to and admired. If you look at the portrait work of Annie Leibovitz for example much of her portrait work contains direct eye contact that draws the viewer into a feeling of connection with the subject of the photo. The location and backgrounds are chosen and properly staged to place the focus solely on the subject and make them look more interesting, intriguing and worthy of admiration. Whether an environmental portrait or a closeup headshot, we feel a connection with these influential powerful people though our knowledge of their lives and the photographers use of eye contact, gesture and location to build a connection. 

I have also been studying current humanitarian photography (photography commissioned by and used by humanitarian organizations to promote their work) trends in parallel with my study of influential editorial portraiture. The contrast is quite stark and startling when you put the two ideas side by side. If you are only looking at humanitarian photography and comparing various styles of the photographers working in field it is hard to understand the astounding gap that exists between the way we photograph people we admire and the way we photograph people who we believe need help or assistance. And that is just looking at organizations that hire photographers or have photographers volunteer. There is another layer of organizations that are ok with using snapshots from mobile phones to represent the people they are serving.

I see a significant difference between documentary photography and humanitarian photography. Documentary photography is only about, “did I capture the scene correctly as it happened and not manipulate it”, “Did I accurately portray the event or person as they were in that space and time?”.

Humanitarian photography really is a hybrid where we want to capture people in a way that is true to who they are, but we also want to help them transcend their circumstances and be seen as equal and valuable with the rest of the world. Which means moving from a pure documentary space to an editorial space, to ethical representation, where the goal is to help the world see the person we are photographing as someone who is worthy of respect and admiration despite their circumstances. Ethical representation is beyond obtaining consent to take the photo, and beyond making sure the subject understands how the photo will be used. Ethical representation is going beyond what the subject of the photo understands and working to represent and portray them in the best way possible, taking into account the lens through which the audience will view the photo and working to eliminate things that will diminish how they perceive the subject of the photo.

As I was scrolling through instagram last night I found myself moving back and forth between Annie Leibovitz’s instagram feed and the feed for #humanitarianphotography along with the feeds from a variety of NGOs.  At first it was just the difference in style that was noticeable, but as I moved back and forth between the two worlds I realized there is actually an ethical issue that this difference brings to light. That issue is how we attribute respect, dignity, worthiness and equality. While it is not fair to compare average humanitarian photography project with an Annie Leibovitz photo shoot on many levels, I do feel there are lessons we can learn. I think we as humanitarian photographers and nonprofit organizations need to address the the amount of intention and care that we invest in the people we photograph. The subjects of our photos deserve more than a photo that says this is a person that was assisted by this NGO. They deserve the opportunity to look the world in the eye and we as a global community need to be confronted with their beauty and their humanity. We need the opportunity to look into their eyes and answer their unspoken demand for respect, that we hold them up as equals, worthy of our admiration.

Portrait of a woman on Monpura Island in Bangladesh demonstrating ethical representation by humanitarian photographer, Bryon Lippincott

We, as readers of magazines or news articles feel a bit more connected if the setting for a photo is properly staged and the subject is engaged and makes eye contact with us. The lack of these elements in humanitarian photography is about more than whether or not these elements exist. I think it goes farther to whether or not we believe (consciously or subconsciously) the people we photograph are worthy of the attention, of being the focus of a piece of art. Most of us pay good money for wall art for our homes, and for artistic family portraits. But many organizations are ok with with using quickly made mobile phone photos of people in difficult situations to represent them to the world.

We also hang onto the belief that we will get more donations if our photos portray people as needing something. Regardless of potential donations, if we are true humanitarians, who really want to advocate for and change how the world sees people in difficult situations we need to change our approach to how they are photographed and how they are portrayed.

Photos of Influential people feel intentional, authentic and deep and make us feel like we are being invited into a personal interaction with the subject. On the other hand a lot of humanitarian photography feels shallow and rushed and fails to build a connection. Humanitarian photography done quickly and poorly withholds the respect and dignity that the subject deserves. 

So why do humanitarian photographers and organizations so often withhold the dignity of eye contact and a respectful staging of the photo from the subjects of their photos? If you start following humanitarian organizations in any significant volume  you will soon have your social media feeds filled with photos of people in need, volunteers in action, people looking inspired, people working, in class, the list can go on and on.

Organizations hire a photographer or a volunteer arrives, shot lists are made (or more often not made), photos are taken and only a few of the photos that survive do anything to connect us to the individual in the photo. We work hard to show programs, projects, needs and successes but budget and staff availability often limit our ability to build a connection with the people involved. We often fail to take a photo that is honoring, dignified and respectful of the person we are photographing. We forget that the person we are photographing is just as valuable as the celebrities on the cover of Vogue, Fortune, and ESPN Magazine. We fail to remove the constraints that their living situation places on the imagination of the audience and we “document” them in their home or on their farm or wherever we happen to find them. We should not be “documenting” people, instead we need to be representing them with the images we make. If we are representing someone we are speaking on their behalf with their best interests in mind. Representation means increasing their standing in the world and improving how people view them with the images we make. I am just as guilty of working fast and documenting rather then representing as the next photographer and it is something that I am actively working on changing and implementing more and more with each new project I do. 

What if we approached each portrait of a person like we would approach photographing a celebrity we admire? How would that change the way we photograph them and our representation of them? Would we clean up the location, allow them to put on their best clothes. Would we talk to them, make eye contact and do our absolute best to make sure they felt amazing when they saw their photo? Would we go out of our way to make sure that everyone who saw that photo thought our subject looked like an amazing person that they would absolutely want to meet?

I’m not saying we need smiling portraits of everyone, a large number of influential people are not smiling in portraits that are made of them. We don’t need to (nor should we) equate happiness with value, i.e. everyone needs to smile in their photos. Photos can be serious and still be respectful and inspire admiration and respect.

Portrait of a girl from a village in Bangladesh demonstrating ethical representation by humanitarian photographer Bryon Lippincott

Ethically the nonprofit world needs to do a better job of how it portrays the people that benefit from their programs and even the staff that make the programs run smoothly. We need to be moving our audiences and donors toward admiration and respect. Every organization needs photos to tell their story but the types of photos we take and the way they portray our clients and staff can be life changing for clients, staff and donors. Ethics are incredibly important and the need for improvement in this area stands on its own.

However, if you need more encouragement to move toward ethical representation in your photography, let me finish with this. Photography that focuses on respecting people and building a connection will be more interesting and engaging to your audience and donors. Not that you should do it for those reasons alone but engaging more people in your cause is a significant reason why you are taking photos in the first place. 

To be clear there is some amazing humanitarian photography being done today. A few of my favorite humanitarian photographers are @garyschapman @mattwillingham and @jhane7 and @charitywater.

I am not suggesting that we abandon the documentary work in humanitarian photography, much of it is necessary and good. But I am advocating for a more representation based approach for how we portray people and that we not limit our portrayal of them to a quickly made snapshot of them working, studying or doing some other daily activity. We can take those photos but let’s also work to make a portrait of them that truly captures the imagination and inspires respect, and increases the perception of their value in the world.

For more on ethical humanitarian photography check out one of my previous articles. How to be an ethical humanitarian photographer.

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  1. Leah

    Thanks for this article… This can be a good idea to dicuss with the team to enhance our humanitarian photo docs. God bless!

    • Bryon Lippincott

      Glad you found it helpful!

  2. Aria

    Hi Bryon

    I love what you do and I love love to connect with you
    My wish has always been to be humanitarian photographer, to give people dignity through my photos.
    It will mean so much to me if you can please give a few minutes of your time.

  3. MarvW

    As an emerging social documentary photographer, this is THE most insightful, relevant (reading this in 2023), and inspiring article I have read during my research on ethics.

    Thank you for these words of honesty and value. Having experienced ‘photographer’s block’ as to how to shape my practice, to ensure I do so effectively AND can sleep well at night, your article has been a significant contributor in overcoming this. I again feel excitement, and now more confident, about how to achieve the creative goals I envision towards my purpose.

    • Bryon Lippincott


      Thanks again for this positive feedback. I’m excited to see how your work unfolds and takes shape.


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