What are You Looking At? Photo Policy Points to Ponder

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I read this great piece the other day about the use of photos on nonprofit organization sites. For anyone who has worked in nonprofits, you know the importance of fundraising, and nothing helps “please give” like the photo of a person benefitting from the organization’s services. You want donors to see the success in their support. But it isn’t always as easy as that. On the Nonprofit Marketing Blog, Nancy Schwartz writes about establishing a photo policy that respects legal and ethical concerns.

She writes about developing a vision and plan for photo use; and considering the legalities and ethics of using client photos. If you do use photos of clients, she stresses the importance of always getting written permission. Her post is more detailed than that and worth the read, but one of the questions she raised about using client photos resonated with me. It was about whether using a photo of a client might do harm to them.

I used to work at a nonprofit that provided support services and education to women living with HIV. This is a disease that is highly stigmatized and people suffer discrimination because of it all the time. Very few women were comfortable having their pictures used anywhere on the website. They had good reason to worry about harm, and written permission was required before any image was used.

I blogged once or twice every week on the two work sites I maintained at that time, and I used concept shots rather than people’s faces from stock images. One of the reasons was that I think once you put a person in a photo, the mind naturally categorizes an idea of who a blog or article is about. I really wanted to avoid this when writing about HIV.

The idea came from a woman I worked with who became infected in the early days (sadly, she died before really effective treatments were available). She was a public speaker who wouldn’t answer the inevitable question, “How did you get AIDS?” She said she felt answering that question would put people’s minds at ease and make them think, “Oh that can’t happen to me.” She said she would have thought it about herself too, but there she was, infected. I took her prompt when I developed the practice of concept photos. I didn’t want a reader to a) cast the face in a photo in a role or stereotype and b) count themselves out of learning.

On this site I try to use as many of my own shots as possible, because I can usually get what I want, and if I don’t have a suitable photo, I’ve at least fine tuned the search in my mind by the time I turn to stock photo sites. Although I love looking at photos, I can easily fall into hours of searching through sites, and I generally don’t have that kind of time. I like concept shots, so I’ve stuck with them for my work here.

What kind of photos does your fundraising or marketing work include? Does your workplace have a written photo policy? If not, it’s a good thing to consider for the creative element as well as the ethics.


Image: One of the offspring saved for months to buy a camera. Photography love runs in the family. 

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