According to Websters the definition of a humanitarian is this: A person promoting human welfare and social reform. So a reasonable extension of that definition to the title of humanitarian photographer might look something like this. A humanitarian photographer is focused on the promotion of human welfare and social reform through the medium of photography.
For me the work of a humanitarian photographer is much deeper than simply advocating for a cause and promoting human welfare.
I believe that the primary work of a humanitarian photographer is to celebrate the value of human life.
It is a calling to capture and display the value of each individual person in a way that inspires people who see my work to understand that value and join in the celebration.
Often the situations that we work in as humanitarian photographers are not ideal for the people we are photographing. They have a hard life affected by poverty, sickness, lack of clean water, exploitation, trafficking, etc. The list of potential problems is never ending. But the problems and hardships of these people in difficult situations does not need to, and definitely should not define who they are and how they are seen.
It is incredibly easy be invited to photograph a person, a family, a situation, a program, a village and to only see the problems that need solutions and funding. Often that is what we are hired to do. We are put in that situation to communicate what is needed and generate interest and attention for solving the problems. When we approach the situation from that point of view people quickly become statistics, clicks of a shutter, compositional decisions.
“Where do I put them in the frame to best demonstrate the issue”
“How can I frame this to showcase the need?”
“How many different faces can I show to show scope and scale”
In the end the individual is further marginalized for the sake of the problem.
I would like to submit that there is a better way to be a humanitarian photographer, and to ultimately be an ethical humanitarian photographer. That better way is to always put people above problem and project to always value and celebrate the individual, their life, their family and their accomplishments first and foremost. The human existence has always centered around storytelling, celebration, and the human connection. We have more tools at our disposal for telling stories that inspire and lift people up than ever before. A quick scroll through youtube, or any podcast service will quickly reinforce that we long to hear stories about people. We love authentic stories of struggle and perseverance, stories of chances taken and opportunities that changed the course of peoples lives.
An ethical approach to humanitarian photography means approaching each assignment with a desire to see and capture the best parts of the situation. It is about sitting and listening as much or more than it is about taking photos. It is finding smiles shared between family members, it is looking at the hard work that goes in to everyday life for so many people in the world and finding the beauty and honor in a job well done. Sometimes it means finding the beauty and value in the simple accommodations and simple food that are staples of everyday life. Other times is it not photographing either of those things because, honoring people means preserving their dignity.
Being an ethical humanitarian photographer means moving beyond the simple, single portrait of a beneficiary and working to get and capture a deeper understanding of the person and their situation. It is understanding where they have been, where they are and where they are going. It is listening to their dreams and catching the glimmer of hope that reveals itself when they unveil their dreams and desires. It is seeing the joy of a grand mother caring for her grandchildren, or the pride of a young girl sitting at her desk in school.
Ethical humanitarian photography and storytelling is celebrating the beauty of people and their everyday lives, promoting the idea that we are all equal and we all deserve to pursue the best life we can for ourselves and our family. It is also celebrating opportunities that people have been given that have made an impact on their lives.
Humanitarian photography is often done in partnership with non profit organizations that are working to improve opportunities and conditions around the world. Since it is a partnership, it is essential that we cover their role in the stories. The key to doing it well is to realize that the organizations role in the story is that of a supporting actor not the main characters “hero lead”.
In most cases organizations are supplying an opportunity, that opportunity was taken and used to its full potential by a person and consequently had an impact on the life of that amazing, deserving human being. It is easy to see the opportunities and the resulting impacts as minor when compared with the financial resources and economic opportunities we have access to. But if you consider the opportunities and the work required to capitalize on them, to turn those opportunities into successes that change the courses of their lives, the effort is no less significant than our own efforts to succeed or the efforts the wealthy put forth in their pursuit of success.
When telling these stories, placing value on the effort to capitalize on the opportunities rather than the opportunity itself or the financial value of the end result keeps the focus of the story positive. It moves the focus from charity to hard work, achievement and ultimately the self confidence that comes from success.
The successful promotion of “human welfare and social reform” is dependent on hope. These ideas only have life and change only happens when people see it as possible.
I can’t think of a better, more effective way to inspire hope, increase the welfare of people and successfully promote social reform, than telling the stories of people who have succeeded. Authentic human stories of opportunity, hard work and success are the foundation on which projects, movements and organizations are built. The value of all these things (projects, movements and organizations) is not in money raised but in lives changed and people valued and celebrated.