No more ‘flies in their eyes’: How do photos used by NGOs affect perceptions of global development?

British schoolteacher Keith Coughlin shows photos on an ipad to Syrian refugee children in the Za'atari camp, Jordan, March 2015. Picture: Russell Watkins/DFID

British schoolteacher Keith Coughlin shows photos on an ipad to Syrian refugee children in the Za’atari camp, Jordan, March 2015. Picture: Russell Watkins/DFID

The Overseas Development Institute recently hosted a thought provoking ‘twitter chat’ on the theme of #devpix – or, to give it its full title, ‘No more flies in their eyes: the do’s and don’ts of development photography’. They kindly asked me to participate in it. This blog post represents an attempt to collect and collate my thoughts on it.

Organised by Claire Bracegirdle, the hour-long online debate brought together a virtual panel of ‘experts’ – commentators, NGOs and development communicators, photographers, writers and picture editors. You can see the full list of contributors here.

What ensued was a fascinating exchange of views and ideas from a wide range of people around the world, all of whom clearly care about photography and how international development organisations are using it to visually represent the people they claim to be helping. Claire has put together an excellent round up of the event and other people’s thoughts on it. For what it’s worth, these are mine.

Representation is an issue that’s at the heart of development communications, largely because it presents an inherent tension – between the desire to somehow show progress (and demonstrate that ‘development works’, that extreme poverty can be eradicated), and the inarguable fact that extreme poverty and need still persists – that there are still large numbers of people around the world who remain excluded from the jobs, opportunities and services that many of us take for granted.

Broadly speaking, international NGOs need to show the ‘need’ that the organisations aim to be addressing, in order to persuade people to continue to donate money to help them. Conversely, international donors – governments – mainly want to demonstrate that the public money they spend on tackling the same issues as the NGOs is actually having the desired effect.

These objectives aren’t mutually exclusive of course; there’s lots of overlap between them. Progress is being made in some areas; in others not so much. But by engaging in this activity in terms of photography, NGOs, governments, civil society, media organisations – and even ordinary civilians – are all seeking to present different versions of the realities faced by millions of the world’s poorest people – people who have, historically, been given little say, or agency, in how they are represented.

It is often said that the hard-hitting images showing children in distress are the ones that the public respond to, the ones that make people put their hands in their pockets and donate. In times of extreme crisis and emergency that may be true – but even then, this can be done with sensitivity and care, as the Disaster’s Emergency Committee appeals try to do. And there is some evidence emerging to suggest that public audiences in ‘the west’ do increasingly want to see more positive imagery from NGOs and the media – they want to be reassured that something is being done, that aid can and does get through and reach the people it is intended for.

The challenge therefore, for all of us who create photography or visual communications material about some of these issues, is to find ways of doing this as ethically, sensitively, and collaboratively as possible, to ensure that the people whose lives we depict, whose stories we mediate, share and publish, are portrayed with as much dignity and agency as possible.

Gemma Taylor, publishing manager of the International HIV/AIDS Alliance put it most succinctly in her blog for PhotoVoice on the subject:

“It’s obvious that we can’t keep creating images that contribute to a damaging vision of one, homogenous Africa or generic person in need. […] You can’t stand for the rights and dignity of people and then show people in an undignified way for the purpose of shocking audiences or raising funds. The person whose story and life it is should have more agency over how they are represented than the person clicking the shutter.”


Schoolgirls in Ethiopia. Education is the strongest predictor of marriage age so staying in school is key for Bayush (far left) and her friends. In partnership with the Government of Ethiopia, the DFID-funded Finote Hiwot programme is helping at least 37,500 adolescent girls to avoid child marriage. Picture: Jessica Lea/DFID

We continuously strive to do this in DFID’s use of visual communications, whether they are about achievements in the efforts to support girls and women around the world, ending child marriage and female genital mutilation in Burkina Faso and Zambia, to demonstrating economic growth and social innovation in Ethiopia or Nigeria. These issues are at the core of DFID’s work. At the very centre of them are real people with real stories who are the ultimate recipients of successful British support. People whose lives  and life opportunities have been improved or even transformed. We make every effort to tell these stories in an informed, dignified, consensual, empowered and accurate way.

This is especially important, and difficult, we report on Britain’s humanitarian aid being delivered in emergency contexts, such as natural disasters or mass human displacement caused by conflict.

From the earthquakes that have struck Haiti and Nepal in recent years, to the conflicts in Sri Lanka, South Sudan and Syria, UK aid is helping people in their hour of need around the world at almost any given moment. These are the moments when people are often at their most vulnerable, when they may have lost their homes, livelihoods or even their families. We take as much care as we can when profiling anybody who has been caught up in these kinds of situations, to be absolutely certain that we are not going to expose anyone to any further suffering, risk or vulnerability as a result of them appearing in any of our communications. Where necessary, names are changed, exact locations not given; protection is paramount.

We almost certainly don’t always get it right. We could probably do a lot better. But we are trying.

In the age of Instagram, ever-cheaper smartphones and ever-widening access to the internet and mobile data networks, these arguments and issues will only become increasingly blurred, possibly even redundant. The people that NGOs, donors and the media have historically had almost exclusive access to, and ‘ownership’ of, in terms of representing them visually, are increasingly doing it themselves. Possibly. In recent weeks, the hashtag #theAfricathemedianevershowsyou has attracted tens of thousands of images – many of which may or may not be from or of places in Africa at all, and just in the last few days an Instagram account has emerged purporting to be the visual diary of a migrant Senegalese man trying to travel to Europe – although all might not be what it at first seems here either.

Whatever the case, the future of development communications is inextricably linked with photography and technology. How we collectively respond to that fact – as photographers, editors, publishers –  will define our collective credibility and, ultimately, the credibility and very existence of the organisations that we work for.



About russellphoto

Photographer and multimedia producer/editor working in international development. Also on Twitter @russellphoto
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