Photo by Marx Ilagan on Pexels
4 min Read
March 23, 2022

Be more ethical when you use images. Here’s how.

Images play an outsized role in brand, allowing us to bring people and places to life, making nonprofit work and projects tangible and relatable. Photography has the power to forge an emotional tie with the viewer, creating connections between the people on both sides of the lens, screen, or page on which the photo appears. But photographs can also reinforce systems of oppression, cause direct harm, and tell outright lies disguised as an accurate representation.

Photos are powerful.

To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.

Susan Sontag, On Photography

More often than not, though images are widely used by nonprofits in their materials, there aren’t guidelines on how to use them. We’ve observed that the photography and video sections of nonprofit brand guides haven’t been deeply considered—they’re the sparsest part of the guide, loosely populated with a handful of sample photos and perhaps an approved color treatment or two—or don’t exist at all. We believe this has to change. How nonprofit organizations photographically represent their communities, the people they work with and among, is critical in a sector where brand voice must be an outward expression of vision, mission, and values. It’s as critical a tool as messaging, and shouldn’t be neglected. 

At Big Duck, we’re challenging ourselves to think more deeply about the role images and storytelling play in an organization’s brand. Here are seven actions around ethics that we’ve been exploring and bringing into recent projects:

  1. Get consent.
    Are there clear guidelines to make sure that images are only being used where the subject (and the subject’s guardians where applicable) agreed to their image being used and had an understanding of where and what it would be used for? Some organizations we’ve recently worked with even include photo release forms in their brand manuals, as well as guidelines for photographers to follow. Are you using a blanket, unrestricted release? Rather than unlimited use, consider setting a time duration, or specifying the types of places the image may appear, to afford the subjects more control. An additional step is to compensate folks who you feature!
  2. Specify attribution.
    Are the photographers being credited for their work? What types of uses did the photographer allow in their license? Increasingly, even for stock photography, crediting the creative behind the image is an ethical (and legal!) requirement for use.
  3. Disrupt harmful narratives.
    It’s important to include guidelines against images that might uphold false racial and ethnic stereotyping, “othering”, or telling stories in ways that don’t promote respect and dignity. Some organizations are taking this a step further, ensuring that the artists, creators, and photographers they commission are members of the communities and regions they work in.
  4. Be accurate.
    Represent people and places without distortions. One international organization we recently worked with specified in their ethical code of conduct that background information and surrounding environments of photography subjects should remain, and could not be cropped or silhouetted. For them, background removal felt like an erasure of cultural context, and it was important to outline that ethical stance in their brand guide.
  5. Caption.
    When in digital spaces, add captions and use text alternatives or descriptions. Detailed and evocative descriptions of images will ensure that they are accessible to everyone. This added layer of text is read aloud to folks with visual impairments by screen reader software, and it is also indexed by search engines. And, when an image fails to load (or if someone has disabled image loading) the alt text will be there in place of an image.
  6. Be inclusive.
    Making sure that many folks can see themselves in the organization’s work is critical to creating inclusive guidelines. It’s also important to avoid tokenization, which can occur when you publicly communicate a more diverse representation of your organization’s community than is accurate. If your organization’s reach is not yet as inclusive or expansive, do the programmatic and internal work first to address the problem, and avoid photos altogether.
  7. Try some new resources!
    We’re often the first to recommend original photography where possible, and yet we acknowledge that using stock photography is often a pragmatic reality in the nonprofit sector, and can be essential for privacy or safety. But the stock photo world is rapidly changing for the better. Increasingly, we’re finding inspiration in (and building brand guidelines around) new collections, both paid and free, that celebrate specific identities and communities, and are upholding ethical standards in how they produce their shots.

Some of these resources include:

  • The Gender Spectrum Collection —“Stock Photos Beyond the Binary”
  • Nappy —“Beautiful photos of Black and Brown people, for free.”
  • TONL — “Culturally diverse stock photos that represent the true world we live in.”
  • Brown Stock —“A stock photo site with a commitment to providing images that specifically feature black and brown people.”
  • CreateHER Stock —“Your destination for authentic stock images featuring melanated women”
  • Plus-Size Stock Photos—“Free stock photos featuring plus-size people”
  • Disabled And Here —“This stock library is a disability-led effort to provide free and inclusive images from our own perspective, with photos and illustrations celebrating disabled Black, Indigenous, people of color (BIPOC).”
  • EDUimages“A free library of photos celebrating students—and the educators who teach them—in seven schools across the United States.”
  • Body Liberation Stock—“Stock photos and images for body size diversity and acceptance”
  •  The Jopwell Collection—“Workplace photos of Jowell’s “community of Black, Latino/Hispanic, and Native American students and professionals”
  •—“Asia’s best photographer community showcasing their photo collections of Asia’s culture, breath-taking landscapes, and beautiful people.”
  •—“Stock photos of women of color in tech”
Claire Taylor Hansen

Claire Taylor Hansen is a Creative Director, Worker-Owner at Big Duck

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