Evening. At the Zanmi Lasante Orphanage. Cange, Haiti. May, 2015 [photo: Pradip Malde]
Today we, Zamni Foto and Zamni Kafe teams, returned from our weekly overnight in Bois Jolie, Haiti. It was a very good trip. It was good because both groups completed a large amount of work. However, what I found more interesting happened on the car ride back from Bois Jolie. Geanina Fripp, a Kafe intern, asked me about consent and photography. This is, in fact, a very important topic.
Before I start talking about consent and photography let me lay out a scenario:
I am walking along the streets in a place, X. I have my camera with me and I am stopping on and off to take photographs. All of a sudden I see a person, Y, walking towards me and I make the decision to take Y’s picture. Y gets closer and I take their photograph.
This is a very diluted way of describing street photography. However, despite it’s simplicity, this scenario shows a very complex relationship of consent. First let us look at this relationship with X, being located in the united States, and Y, being a typical United States citizen. In the United States, photographers do not — even though I think they should — need to ask for consent to take a persons photograph so long as both are on public ground. This is possible thanks to our freedom of speech/ freedom of expression. When I take a photograph in the United States, I am expressing my self, thus falling under the first amendment. So in the scenario the relationship of consent is, technically, not important. (Again, I would like to emphasize that I do not think this way, I think there should be consent in taking another person’s photograph.) Haiti is different though. (In the United States portion while I only looked at it from a legal perspective, culture is also important to consider. Our society is so used to cameras and pictures, that we are, I think, desensitized to getting our picture taken.)
Here in Haiti, consent is extremely important. If X is Cange Haiti, and Y, a typical Haitian; the relationship of consent is Y having the right to say no, to getting their picture taken. This is not due to any laws, but is a cultural expectation. For the last few weeks Mansell Ambrose, a Foto intern, and I have been working in the Cange Market taking portraits of some of the market sellers. Before we take any photos, we ask if we can, since if we do not we would probably get yelled at. To get around this though, I sometimes sneak photographs by not acting like I am taking a photograph—incognito, or shooting from the hip photography, framing the shot by guessing/ knowing how my lens sees, relying on the auto focus and guessing on the proper exposure settings. Yet is this ethical and what are the subjects entitlements if I choose to exhibit, publish or sell the photograph? There is one more view though.
The final view is quite simple and shared by a few photographers that I know — none of them are here in Haiti with me. This view is: my camera, my film or memory card, my photograph. This is a very blunt view, however, it does have some validity. Why should I need consent if all thing involved with creating the photograph are my property?
Considering all these examples, all documentary photographers need to ask the fallowing questions. What type of consent relationship exists between me and my subject? Do I need to ask for consent? What rights do my subjects have, if I present the photograph, or sell the photograph, of them in it. Is it — taking photographs of a subject secretly — ethical? What are the subject’s entitlements if I choose to exhibit or sell the photograph?
I have talked about the topic of consent in a very large context, but it is very important for Zamni Foto; for when we visit our farmer’s houses and take photos we have to ask ourselves these questions. 100% of the time we ask for consent to take photos of the people at the farm, and for consent to even take photos of their property. This is important, for by doing things this way we are building positive relationships with the the Zamni Foto families, and that is the real mission of Zamni Foto, building relationships aided by photographs.