Everytime I take a photo or interview someone, the issue of permission raises its ugly head.
On the rare occasions that someone has requested I take their photo it's easy to address. I just shoot away and take their (verbal) word for the fact that I can use the image when and how I want to. But, most of the time I take photographs, I need to obtain formal permission to use the photograph across a range of media and in a number of ways.
Seeking permission (or a model release) is a volatile issue for most photographers. The level of interaction required for seeking permission inevitably changes the image; sometimes for the better. However, some of the best street photography is taken with a powerful zoom without the subjects knowledge, let alone consent. Many of Henri Cartier-Bresson's timeless images would have been impossible had he been required to seek permission before making the image.
The law regarding the use of images varies widely within and between countries and continents but The American Society of Media Photographers states that:
The basic, general rule is that you need a release from people to use photographs showing a recognizable likeness of them for purposes of trade or advertising. The other side of the general rule is that you usually do not need a release for strictly editorial uses.
Does Steve McCurry have model releases for all of the people in his famous portraits series? Maybe. Maybe not. In developing countries, where international law does not apply, it often comes down to ethics. To tackle the issue ethically, at least two big international NGOs have come up with their own guidelines as to when and how photographers need to seek permission to use images of those that they have photographed.
As most of their work concerns children, UNICEF sets an excellent example of how children should be treated when they are the subject in photographs. Publicly available documents provide guidelines on the general reporting of children and the use of images by corporate partners . A number of other internal documents guide photographers in the collection and use of images that are faciliated by UNICEF. Likewise UNAIDS has excellent guidelines on images of those with HIV & AIDS to protect those from the stigma that the disease carries. Amnesty International sets a benchmark, I feel, by publishing their photography guidelines in five languages (including two Portuguese versions). Their subject release forms are available in at least 22 languages and include instructions on how to use the forms. Importantly, instructions provide advice on how to seek permission from people who can't read or fill in the form - useful when photographing women or children in developing countries were illiteracy is high.
Despite the existence of detailed guidelines, I find that permission needs to be context specific. In one of the refugee camps I worked in, a major international NGO allowed a journalist to interview a woman who had been raped. She was given a detailed explanation as to where the interview would appear and approved the copy. Regardless, once it had been published (online), she retracted her permission. After this incident, all of the communication specialists agreed that vulnerable people (also known as protection cases) would remain anonymous in all future reporting.
Illiteracy and vulnerability are two of the many reasons why the way a photographer permission needs to be sensitive to the context. Unfortunately, I cannot find any guidelines on how to report or photograph victims of violence. In the same vein, the use of the word 'dignity' is problematic in the UNICEF guidelines because 'dignity' is often culturally specific.
When training staff in different countries I often advise them to ask themselves, 'Would I allow someone to do this to me?' or 'Would I allow someone to do this to my child/wife/mother?'. Of course, I rely on the assumption that, by virtue of the fact that I am training aid workers, that they treat their relatives and family members well. This is not always the case.
Like many areas of our work, the art of seeking permission to take or use a photograph is something we have yet to perfect, but that shouldn't stop us from asking.
Also posted on anotherangle.org