Anna Taylor: The wrong image can be damaging

The overuse of emotive images can harm a campaign, says our fundraising columnist

Anna Taylor
Anna Taylor

It can be easy to forget that fundraising materials are an important lens through which the public views the world's most pressing problems. Desperate images can leave a long-lasting perception of your charity's beneficiaries as helpless victims, which sits uneasily with charity rhetoric on empowerment.

Overuse of negative images can lead to the even more troubling impression that the situation is hopeless and it is better to turn off and not think about such distressing things.

The internet allows for growing access to charity materials, whether the beneficiaries live in your local area or a Mumbai slum, so it is increasingly important to consider the impact of images on the people in them. Will they feel exploited by seeing their suffering pictured? Will it put their wellbeing at risk? Or are the images respectful and has consent been secured so their use is empowering to those featured?

It is also possible to overuse positive imagery. A surprising number of charities allow their materials to be dominated by cheery but ultimately meaningless mugshots of smiling beneficiaries.

In finding a balance, there is much to be learned from documentary photography. Photos can be used to demonstrate the need, explain the charity's work in action (including any volunteering by current or former beneficiaries) and help people understand its impact at a human level. It is important to try to bring to life all these elements of the story.

There is a place for shocking and emotive pictures, particularly when faced with a complacent audience, but it is important to do this sparingly and respectfully. For example, it is possible to show a clothed rather than a naked, malnourished child and to avoid dehumanising them by using their first name and providing a caption that explains the challenges faced by their family. Doing this also makes what is pictured seem much more real.

Getting consent to take and use photos is sometimes viewed as too difficult. Of course, some stigmatised groups may not want to become the photo-girl for sex workers or HIV sufferers. But if you ask people if they are willing for images of themselves to be used to help explain to the public some of the challenges they face and the ways in which these can be overcome, you will find the vast majority are happy to agree. And because they are asked, they are also likely to be more open about their situation.

Images in fundraising materials and the ways in which these are gathered need to avoid undermining the ideals of charities' wider work. Next time you are choosing photos for a leaflet or website article, it would be worth reflecting on whether more could be done through a carefully considered caption or alternative image to show the individuality and dignity of the person pictured.

Anna Taylor is a freelance fundraiser, writer and researcher, and a former UK director of Child In Need India

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