The Challenge of Humanitarian Photography Part 2 – Choosing Your Voice

In part 1 I talked about the need to communicate the intangible and that often it requires us to move beyond images and fill in the details with a written narrative. Today I want to talk about the words we use and the voice we use to communicate.

I see three main options that are available to us in terms of voice.

  1. Organizational Voice – Stories about events and people are told from the perspective of the organization.
  2. Journalistic Voice – Stories about events and people are told by a non related third party.
  3. Beneficiary’s Voice – Stories about events and people are told by the people involved who are experiencing the event or benefiting from the programs and projects.

Of these three I have recently become an advocate for allowing the voice of the beneficiary to be heard. While committing to using this voice requires extra work, I feel it also comes with benefits that the other voices cannot provide.

There is power in hearing the story directly from those who experienced it. The ability to hear someone share their experience, what their life was like, what changed, how it changed and how all of these things made them feel cannot be replicated in other points of view.

As consumers of information, media and even goods and services we place a high value on the opinion of other people who have seen the information, watched the movie, bought the product or used the service. So it is only logical for nonprofits to amplify the voice to their consumers, the people who have the most personal experience with the work they are doing.

In choosing to amplify the beneficiary’s voice the challenge for the humanitarian photographer is then to bring the character of the storyteller to life. It moves from capturing a simple portrait to visually building a character that the audience will relate to.

While it is possible to visually capture a small piece of the character in one image, the story and the details of the storytellers life will be more real and relatable when they are paired with a series of images that provide a visual narrative to feed the readers imagination.

Another challenge for humanitarian photographers who choose to tell stories from the beneficiary’s perspective is that they will often need to produce both the written story and the accompanying images. This takes more time and requires more effort from the organization that has hired them. It also limits the amount of stories that can be told on one assignment.

While the current social media climate is all about speed of communication and the dwindling attention span of the audience. I believe that telling longer, deeper photo stories, especially when they are told by the beneficiary, gives the audience a reason to pause and engage with the story.

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