“Everyone deserves dignity!” This is the motto of the documentary photographer Laura. She has worked with dozens of NGOs in Arica, Asia, and The United States. And she says “ Yes, there are many hard and sad situations in Africa, and also in the rest of the world. It’s important to tell those stories but to do so with respect and dignity for the people being photographed.”
Especially in Africa, many humanitarian organizations share miserable people to promote aid calls. Contrary to common attitudes, you emphasize human dignity. What is the importance of positive/hopeful photography on vulnerable people?
Everyone deserves dignity. That’s the bottom line. I want the people I photograph and film to feel proud of how they look in a picture or video. I want their pictures to be published in a way that maintains their dignity. If you’re wondering whether or not you should shoot or publish a photo, ask yourself, “Would I portray my own family or friends this way?” If the answer is no or if you have any doubts at all, don’t do it. It’s that simple. Yes, there are many hard and sad situations in Africa, and also in the rest of the world. It’s important to tell those stories but to do so with respect and dignity for the people being photographed.
Are there international ethical standards in NGO photography? If there is not, should it be?
There are many organizations that publish NGO photography guidelines, including Bond UK, PhotoVoice and Ethical Storytelling. But there is no international standard that all humanitarian organizations and photographers must adhere to. There probably should be an international standard. The main hurdles are implementation and enforcement. As far as I know, most of the organizations releasing ethical standards are from the Global North. Personally, I’d like to see more Global South organizations taking a stand on ethical standards and also train their own staff to become photographers so they can document their own communities.
What are your suggestions to NGO workers who want to improve themselves in the field of photography and storytelling? (What are their sources etc…)
For photography, just practice. Read blogs and watch videos about improving your photography both technically and from a storytelling standpoint. Just Google and thousands of websites will come back with advice and tips. Study photographs that you love. Why do you love them? Is it light? Is it the composition? Is it the expression on someone’s face? It’s very possible to become a professional photographer without formal schooling.
For storytelling, also practice. Humans have been storytellers for millennia. This talent is already inside all of us. We tell stories every day to our friends and family about that funny person we met at the shops or that weird situation at school. I think the hard part for many people is figuring out how to get that story down on paper or into a video. That requires structuring the story in an interesting way (not always in time order) and deciding which details should stay in and be left out. Study the news stories and books and movies and video stories that you love. Why do you love them? Do they start the story in the middle, in the end, or at the beginning? What important details do you see or read about? Why do you think the author or director left in those details?
Can you briefly tell us about NGO Storytelling?
NGO Storytelling is a website for inspiring and informing humanitarian storytellers. I started it in 2012 and Crystaline Randazzo joined me as co-editor in 2015. Together, Crystaline and I interview people in the industry; share storytelling and photography advice based on our own experiences; and feature photo and video stories about humanitarian issues. We also have a podcast and an Instagram feed where we share photos tagged with #ngostorytelling.
What are you doing for/with NGOs?
NGO Storytelling doesn’t work directly with or for any NGOs. Our mission is to create content about humanitarian storytelling.
If NGOs in Africa want to seek advice from you, how can you help them?
One thing Crystaline and I do on an informal basis is advise NGOs about their photography and video guidelines. For example, what kind of photographs do they collect and why? How do they use photos and why?
Laura Elizabeth Pohl is a documentary photographer and filmmaker who has worked with dozens of NGOs in Africa, Asia and the United States. She started NGO Storytelling to share her experiences as a humanitarian photographer and to explore different ways of telling stories about humanitarian issues. Laura believes it’s important to show the dignity of all people who have entrusted her with their stories. www.laurapohl.com