The Do’s & Don’ts Of Using Someone Else’s Story

Read them what you wrote. Tell them why you took the picture. Be transparent.

After years of recording, documenting, and snapping pictures in low-income communities, I’ve learned a number of lessons about doing so. The meat of my experience comes from making mistakes and being close enough with the community in Honduras that they feel comfortable telling me not to do certain things or encouraging me to do others.

This list is for the non-profit and volunteer world. While professional photographers go by a different creed, I want to speak to the good, the bad, the ugly of using someone else’s stories to garner donations.

DO ask permission, DON’T steal stories

This should be volunteering 101. It’s so easy when traveling abroad to want to soak up everything and document it, either with the lens of a camera or the text box on our facebook page. It’s amazing to be traveling in a foreign country. We take pictures of our friends on the bus, by an attraction, or on a work site. Then kids approach and we start to play and before we know it, our camera is on them.

There needs to be a trip wire here.

We need to feel hesitation and train ourselves to say ‘wait, let me think about this.’ Would I take pictures of kids on a playground in the US? Would that be acceptable? Am I demeaning these people publicly by posting stories of the conditions they live in? Would they want that information shared?

This moment is key. It should cause us to approach and ask. Ask to share a part of their story with others. Seek their permission. Give them the opportunity to decide how others see them. If they’re only kids, ask the parent. If there’s no parent, don’t take the picture. It’s as simple as that.

Remember that you need permission to be a part of someone else’s story. It’s not your plot to write, nor your face to publish. It’s theirs, so do ask permission and don’t steal stories.

DO give purpose, DON’T be ambiguous

In volunteering 102, we learn that asking for a picture is different from asking for a feature on the front page of the newsletter. If our intention is to publicize, and we only ask permission for the photo, we’re not being honest with them. Just because we asked for the cover of the book doesn’t mean we can rewrite the story.

We have to give purpose to the project.

This can be difficult and awkward. It makes us dwell on things like why we want the picture in the first place. We have to admit it to them openly; face to face. Can I take your picture to show my friends? Can I tell your story on our website?

We see them nod their heads, but we know we have to keep going. We know that many people may not understand what that implies.

I want to be sure you understand that thousands of people could see this. We want them to know the situation here so they will help and send money.

This pains us to admit, but it gives purpose to our actions. We’re making it clear to that person what we’re doing. I can’t tell you how many people have changed their minds after this clarification. I can’t tell you how many people have said No, because they didn’t want to be seen in that shirt or without a shower first, in front of thousands of people. I’ve had people approve everything until they see it online the next day (you’d be surprised how many low-income communities are on facebook). When they approach me and ask that I take it down, I do so – immediately.

This is important, and yes, it makes it harder for us. It’s time consuming.

I make videos and go around for two weeks asking each adult if I can use the image of their child. I read my blogs out loud to gain their stamp of approval. I get nervous and the paper shakes in my hand. But although it’s my writing on the page, it isn’t my story if it’s about their life.

It isn’t easy to do the right thing and afford people their own stories. It’s much easier to be ambiguous and steal stories from people. Don’t be ambiguous. Do give purpose.

DO tread lightly, DON’T be invasive

This has more to do with our physical presence than anything else. When visiting someone’s home, you knock or announce yourself. This is particularly significant when visiting a rural area. Sometimes it’s best to stay outside the fence or stand on the road. Think about waltzing onto a property in the rural USA; you may very well find yourself looking down the barrel of a gun.

Respect one’s community.

If we are not a local then we do not have the same relationship with that place as they do. We may not be welcome to walk down certain streets. If we’ve been honored with the opportunity to enter someone’s home, we sit when they offer us a seat. We photograph or record only what we’re permitted to. Remember that we are guests in a home not patrons in a museum. Sometimes snapping a picture of someone’s kitchen can be as personal as invading their linen drawer.

Why is our manner important?

It’s important because it demonstrates to that person that we are aware of their story. It shows that we are not there to make this place our own. Too often groups of foreigners roll into a community and feel the right to be in every space. We have to remember a soccer field is not a hotel courtyard; someone’s table is not our nightstand. When we pick up someone’s child without pausing to ask, our body language says ‘this is mine’ even if we don’t mean it.

We can ask all we want, but unless we demonstrate through our physical actions that our story isn’t the only one that matters – that we respect their story as well – we won’t be accepted even as guests. Unfortunately, many people don’t always have the option of throwing us out, which means it’s up to us. So don’t be invasive. Do tread lightly.

These are the Dos and Don’ts we should follow. They afford the people we serve with the ownership of their stories in our work. It goes without saying that each one of these rules is subject to the cultural norms of any given country, but the underlying principles are the same:

Ask permission, give purpose, and tread lightly.





One comment

  1. I definitely feel the strain of this, especially during the one time of year we go into the homes of the families at the school. I want to try to give people an idea of what life is like here (and I do have somewhat of a relationship with the families after being here 3 years), but it’s still hard not wanting to intrude on their privacy (although most of the pictures end up just being for me). I always feel awkward with my camera, but at the same time, I don’t want to lose all the fleeting moments that I have with these sweet families. I try to always ask first when taking pictures of anyone besides my students. How do you feel the balance shifts when you have known them for a while but still not well?

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