1. bookVolumen 44 (2023): Edición 1 (January 2023)
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01 Mar 2013
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Future directions of professional photographers: A case study of changing hats between journalism and humanitarian photography

Publicado en línea: 20 Feb 2023
Volumen & Edición: Volumen 44 (2023) - Edición 1 (January 2023)
Páginas: 65 - 84
Detalles de la revista
Primera edición
01 Mar 2013
Calendario de la edición
2 veces al año

During the past decades, the number of nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) has increased remarkably worldwide, the advocacy sector has professionalised and institutionalised, and NGO work has been increasingly incorporated in governance (Chouliaraki & Vestergaard, 2021; Lang, 2013; Powers, 2018; Waisbord, 2011). Consequently, NGOs have put more efforts into communication, which has meant, for example, that NGOs have hired communication professionals, such as journalists and professional photographers, and increased their visibility in social media along with other channels. This might be a win-win for both the NGOs and the media professionals. For example, those professional photographers who have accepted invitations for NGO assignments have valued the NGOs’ organisational structures, guaranteeing security and providing knowledge and access to the field, while the NGOs have benefited from the high-quality professional photography, and in some cases also the reputation of the recognised photographers (Dencik & Allan, 2017).

By hiring communication professionals, NGOs strive for high quality material and a wider media publicity for the issues that are important from their perspective. Earlier research has found, however, that NGOs have struggled to gain media visibility on their own terms, and therefore, NGOs mainly adopt the established news norms to get publicity (Powers, 2015). Lang (2013) argued that NGOs are marginalised in news media, because national governments and established interest groups are ranked higher as news sources than civil society. In addition, NGOs might lack professional media relations, or they might not be actively seeking media publicity.

This study explores the intersection of media and NGO work from the viewpoint of photographers and other visual professionals. The research is based on qualitative interviews with Finnish visual professionals who have worked for both humanitarian NGOs and the news media. I focus on the visual professionals’ work from the perspective of NGO communication and aim to shed light on their work practices and professional values when they are employed by or assigned to humanitarian NGOs (i.e., they produce visual content primarily for NGO communication purposes). These visuals are published on the NGOs’ own communication channels, such as bulletins, newsletters, fundraising letters and posters, marketing material, social media channels, as well as on the websites of the major funders of NGO projects. Thus, the work introduced in this study could be described as humanitarian photography, which simply refers to photography that is mobilised “in the service of humanitarian initiatives across state boundaries” (Fehrenbach & Rodogno, 2015a: 1). This definition of humanitarian photography carries with it the long history of humanitarians and humanitarian organisations utilising photographs to increase public awareness and raise funds to relieve human suffering (Fehrenbach & Rodogno, 2015a: 1–6).

Occasionally, some of these NGO images get published in journalistic media, since the studied NGOs offer them free of charge to media organisations. Sometimes, the interviewed professionals also use their personal contacts in the media organisations and get some of their material published in the mainstream media, while the material is primarily produced from the premises of NGO communication. In such cases, NGO photographs and videos are possible to understand as parts of humanitarian journalism. For example, Scott, Wright, and Bunce (2021) have defined humanitarian journalism from three approaches: 1) as journalistic reporting about humanitarian actors and events, 2) as a form of journalism that puts the principles of humanitarianism into practice, or 3) as journalism that conforms to ethics of kindness to all human beings universally.

In the context of this research, the latter two approaches best describe the basis on which the visual content is produced in NGO communication. When the interviewed professionals work for humanitarian NGOs, they are committed to humanitarian values, such as helping people in distress by fostering solidarity, dignity, and human rights protection (e.g., ICRC, 2020). Meanwhile, similar principles may sometimes also be adopted by journalists who cover humanitarian issues (Scott et al., 2021), and the interviewees of this research may practise somewhat similar ethics when they work for journalistic media.

The starting point for this research was my observation from the interviews that the visual professionals occasionally struggle with the different professional values and ethics when they work for different employers. It has also been found in earlier research that when photographers work in crisis zones, they often end up in the intersection of different professional ethics. Calain (2013) studied this intersection from a medical ethics perspective and found that humanitarian ethics and photojournalism ethics do not meet the standards of privacy and dignity in such a way as they are applied in medical ethics when images of suffering bodies are displayed to the public.

This study is yet another attempt to shed light on this diversity of ethics in the work of professional photographers, while at the same time, the demanding task is to try to shed light on the complexity and blurriness of the professional fields in the current media environment. Instead of strictly comparing the fields, I aim to discuss the ethical groundings of journalism and NGO communication and approach them in relation to the interview findings. The focus of the study is on the photographers’ career paths, professional ethics, and NGO–media relations. From these grounds, I seek to answer the following questions:

RQ1What motivates professional photographers who work for humanitarian organisations?
RQ2How do the professionals reconcile their photojournalist and humanitarian photographer values?
RQ3What kind of an impact do the professional photographers assess they have on the media publicity of the NGOs?

Changing media work: The photographers’ viewpoint

In addition to the reduction of photography departments worldwide (Ferrucci et al., 2020; Hadland et al., 2015; Mortensen, 2014), work opportunities for professional photojournalists have diminished also in consequence of the spread of mobile phone cameras and fast Internet connections, which have enabled citizens all over the world to shoot photographs and videos and get them published in journalistic and social media. Furthermore, text-based journalists have entered the field of photographers, since they are expected to multitask and take their own pictures. As an effect of digitalisation, the financial value of images has also plummeted to a fraction of what it once was (Gürsel, 2016).

Consequently, most news photographers of today are self-employed (Hadland et al., 2015). Thomson (2018) has dated the shift from a staff-based to a free-lance model to the early 2000s. For many photographers, the shift has meant increasing job insecurity, financing their own equipment, and paying for their own insurance, among other things. In addition, many media outlets have offered freelance photographers agreements to sell all the rights to their images without proper compensation (Thomson, 2018). This happened in Finland in 2009, when the country's biggest news media company, Sanoma News, decided to weaken its contributors’ rights to their own production (Yle News, 2009), and it was followed by a similar contract by Sanoma Magazines in 2012 (Atarah, 2012).

Consequently, there has been discussion about the de-professionalisation of photojournalism, meaning that photojournalists have struggled to defend their profession as important and different from amateur practice (Ferrucci et al., 2020; Gynnild et al., 2017; Mortensen, 2014; Yaschur, 2012). Photography teacher and theorist Fred Ritchin has even argued that in the current state, photojournalism is a “hybrid enterprise of amateurs and professionals along with surveillance cameras, Google Street Views and other sources”, and what are needed, rather than more photographers, are curators to filter and make sense of the abundance of images (as cited in Shore, 2014: 11).

Despite these shifts in the media environment, the change has also opened new doors for photographers. According to Gürsel (2016: 282), “it is not photography but rather the press that is in crisis”. Many professionals have expanded their scope from still images to videos and from journalism to other fields to make a living from photography (e.g., Thomson, 2018). These fields include, for example, commercial photography, public relations, corporate communications, artistic projects, and NGO work, which is scrutinised in this study. As the income for freelance photographers comes from various assignments from different fields, it requires photographers to redefine their professional values and reorientate them when they change employers.

Professional values of photojournalism and humanitarian photography

This section discusses the professional ethics and guiding values of photojournalism and humanitarian photography. These two fields are not always strictly distinct, and their boundaries may not seem clearly defined as the professionals travel between journalism and NGOs and similar work is done in both fields. Despite this blurriness, photojournalism and humanitarian photography are practised with somewhat different guiding values and ethical foundations. My intention here is to highlight some of the most common similarities and differences in this respect. The professional values presented here are on a general and ideological level, and they do not rule out the possibility that individual professionals or organisations may adhere to different values.

It can be argued that today's journalists and humanitarian NGOs are both following high ethical standards. Western journalism organisations have a long tradition of self-regulation, with a central value of providing information that is accurate, fair, and thorough. The main emphasis is on informing the public, which is crucial to the functioning of democracy. At the same time, it is important for journalists to minimise harm and to respect human dignity in their reporting (e.g., Society of professional journalists, 2014). In a similar vein, NGOs formulated a code of conduct on images and messages for the first time in 1989 (NGDO-EU Liaison Committee, 1989), with an updated version in 2006 (Concord, 2012). In 2014, the Irish Development NGO platform Dóchas published an illustrated version of the ethical code (Dóchas, 2021). The NGO guidelines emphasise humanitarian values of solidarity, dignity, human rights protection, and truthful representation when reporting from the Global South. In practice, the code recommends, for example, that photographers ensure they have a full informed consent of the subject before taking a photograph or interviewing people.

Despite the fact that journalists and NGOs alike value truthfulness in their reporting, both have struggled with questions of fair and trustworthy representation of reality throughout history. As for photography, the ethical codes of journalists and NGOs are largely intertwined with these issues.

According to Fehrenbach and Rodogno (2015a), humanitarian photographs have always been highly selective, since the aid organisations decide which catastrophes or social problems will be intervened in and taken up as humanitarian issues. Once a cause is raised, then images of suffering are expected for achieving the desired outcome. Thus, humanitarian photographs have for many decades raised concerns about racial stereotypes, power relations, and the human dignity of the represented victims, in addition to the burden of using colonial metaphors and creating humanitarian identities for subjects (Chouliaraki, 2013; Fehrenbach & Rodogno, 2015a).

Therefore, in their ethical codes, humanitarian NGOs call for visual representations that reflect reality, in the sense that the images are accompanied by a proper contextualisation and that the images do not unnecessarily depict vulnerable people in idyllic, exotic, or helpless victim positions. Since the late 1980s, such images were increasingly considered unethical and ineffective in both NGO communication and the news media, and this opened a path for replacing images of suffering bodies with more positive and empowering images (Kotilainen, 2016). This, in turn, has been criticised as a simplistic solution that does not solve the structural causes of humanitarian crisis but may rather uphold the unequal positions between the Global North and the Global South (Chouliaraki, 2010).

The concerns of truthful representation in photojournalism, in turn, have chiefly focused on fostering the idea of unmanipulated photographs in both daily work and in the ethical codes of the practice (e.g., World Press Photo, 2022; Associated Press, 2023). Consequently, such questions have also gained wide scholarly interest since the digitalisation of the late 1980s (e.g., Carlson, 2009; Lehmuskallio et al., 2019; Lowrey, 2003; Mäenpää & Seppänen, 2010; Reaves, 1992).

In addition, journalists value the idea of documenting the right moment and avoiding staging and manoeuvring of the situations (Wheeler, 2002), while critical research has considered these as objectivity rituals for constructing credible images in journalism (Schwartz, 1992). This ideal has led to a common journalistic practice where pictures are often taken first, and permission to use them is asked from the subject afterwards.

Less attention, however, has been paid to the ethical questions of photojournalism from the viewpoint of the photographic subjects. Miller and Dahmen's (2020) study is one of the rare examples in this respect. It shows that of the different occupational groups of the newsroom, especially photographers who work intimately with their photographic subjects have been found to apply an ethics of care, a will to empower, and a genuine interest in questions of how capturing and publishing images would affect their subjects.

Generally, balancing between the fundamental values of information provision and respecting human dignity is a dilemma in journalism, and it is constantly considered in daily practice (Morse, 2014). This balancing is routine-like in the photojournalistic work, while the practical constraints and business logic also largely influence the ethical decisions of photojournalism professionals (Mäenpää, 2022).

In addition to ethics, Powers (2016) studied other ideological values that guide the work of journalists and NGOs and found that journalists and NGOs share values that overlap but also differ. For example, fact-based reporting, accuracy, and balance are shared values, whereas NGO advocacy is a value that departs from journalism norms (Powers, 2016). Getting the facts right and investigating what is going on in the world is undoubtedly important for journalists and NGO communication alike. Despite this, however, there are differences, for example, in sourcing and investigation strategies. Powers (2016) found that humanitarian NGOs tend to trust mostly the evidence they gather “on the ground” by interviewing the affected people, whereas official sources are treated as secondary to that. Journalism, instead, tends to utilise and trust mainly experts and official sources in their reporting (Berkowitz, 2020), and such authorities are usually ranked above civil society (Lang, 2013).

Furthermore, timeliness is valued by both journalists and NGO professionals, but for different reasons. For NGOs, timeliness is connected to advocacy, since the aim is to utilise the current information to act fast and provide help where it is needed (Powers, 2016). However, for the NGOs, building long-term trust with the communities they work in is more important than publishing material as fast as possible, and therefore, for example, the consent process is always done carefully even though it might delay getting interviews or photographs (Dencik & Allan, 2017). As for journalists, the concept of time is central to the very idea of news. News is something that has happened recently and is currently in the interest of the audiences and, thus, must be published immediately (Roscho, 1975/1999). The logic of speed is also an integral part of making a revenue in commercial journalism. Timeliness is particularly central in photojournalism that is dependent on the available technology and that has always taken advantage of the newest innovations to increase speed.

Material and method

The purpose of this research was to study the career paths, professional values, and motivations of professional photographers and other visual communicators who work or have worked for both journalism and humanitarian NGOs. In addition, the aim was to shed light on what kind of approach the humanitarian NGOs have taken towards journalistic media and how the professionals balance between these two fields. For this purpose, I conducted semistructured interviews with twelve Finnish visual professionals, most of whom have a background in journalism. Nine were photographers and three were visual communication specialists who all work or have worked for the Finnish Red Cross, the International Red Cross/Red Crescent Movement, or the Finn Church Aid (FCA).

Most of the interviewed photographers had worked for the Finland-based Field Communications Unit (FCU), which is part of the International Aid and Disaster Response Unit of the Finnish Red Cross. These photographers represent about one-tenth of a pool of professional photographers that the Finnish Red Cross has in their delegate reserve. All the interviewed photographers could be considered established professionals, and some of them are also award-winning photographers in Finland.

The FCU was established in 2012 by a few Finnish visual professionals, and it is a rapidly deployable team of one to three communications and audiovisual experts with extensive media contacts. They aim to work within emergencies and disasters as well as producing longer-term documentary projects, mainly for the Red Crescent national societies around the world, while also offering free materials for the news media to use. At the time of conducting this research, according to the interviewees, the FCU was well recognised among the international partner Red Cross organisations. In addition, the Finnish Red Cross has communications, marketing, and fundraising teams that also plan and produce visuals. Sometimes the interviewed photographers also fulfilled the needs of these teams.

The Finn Church Aid is Finland's largest international aid organisation. Unlike the Red Cross, however, FCA does not have an international umbrella organisation that would mutually share communication material. FCA mainly assigns photographers as freelancers, and their material is published in the NGOs’ own channels and offered free of charge to the media.

Out of the twelve interviewees, there were eight women and four men. The predefined interview themes included individual career paths, the photographers’ practical work under NGO contracts, ethics, and the relationships between NGOs and media organisations. The main questions that drove this research were related to the photographers’ professional values and the differences and similarities between photojournalism and humanitarian photography.

The interviews, lasting an average of 60 minutes, were conducted May–November 2020 and were carried out via remote connections such as Zoom, Teams, or Skype due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Conducted in Finnish, the interviews were recorded, transcribed, and coded with Atlas.ti software, and the chosen interview quotes were translated into English for the purposes of this article. To maintain anonymity, the interviewees were consecutively numbered in the order the interviews were conducted.

The dataset was coded into 21 initial thematic codes, which were created inductively by reading and revisiting the data and searching for patterns and repeating themes. The initial codes included titles such as work history, photographer training, photographic style, truthfulness and objectivity, assignments and briefing, and professional values, for example.

The interview data was analysed using thematic analysis (Nowell et al., 2017) to organise the data into thematic clusters that were then discussed in dialogue with earlier research. The final themes were created from the basis of the research questions by combining two or more initial codes into one theme. The themes introduced in this article are 1) photographers’ motivations for NGO work, 2) professional values between photojournalism and NGO photography, and 3) NGO–media relations from the photographers’ viewpoint.

Photographers’ motivations for NGO work

Almost all the interviewed photographers had been active in the Delegate Reserve of the Finnish Red Cross for some years at the time of the interviews, each having one or more assignments lasting one to four weeks per year. Two of the interviewees had a longer-term contract with the Red Cross or the FCA. Before getting to the Delegate Reserve of the Red Cross, they had to take a so-called IMPACT training, which is a one-week basic training course for anyone who wants to work for the organisation.

According to the interviews, a common reason for choosing NGO work was to gain new work experience and get to work abroad in different countries. Since news organisations have reduced the resources they commit to foreign coverage (Powers, 2018), it is rare that photojournalists get to travel to remote countries. NGOs offer the photographers access around the world to locations where one would have difficulty or even find impossible to get to as a journalist or as a freelance photographer. One photographer felt lucky because of the many opportunities:

For example, I have been a couple of times photographing in North Korea […]. I have travelled quite a lot around the country […], only few people have been to Pyongyang or anywhere outside of it.

(Interviewee no. 3)

In addition to getting to travel and see new places, the interviewees considered this kind of unique work experience as a potential benefit to their future work. As one of them put it “the last work is always the next job application” (Interviewee no. 11). In addition, a couple of the interviewees mentioned noble ambitions, such as humanitarian values and the willingness to do something important. They also compared humanitarian photography to other kinds of photographic works they had done before:

I have done tourism journalism and travelled quite a lot, and then I thought that there are topics that interest me and are socially significant, but newspapers are not interested, or they don’t know how to grasp them […]. Tourism journalism is somehow light entertainment […] so these NGO jobs came along then.

(Interviewee no. 10)

Photographic art is so much more personal that occasionally, it feels good to do something else […]. I see it [NGO photography] as taking part in the humanitarian aid, since I have the skill that I can use and contribute on this matter.

(Interviewee no. 6)

I wanted to try [NGO photography] since the hectic news photojournalism is not something for me […]. The work suits me in the sense that it feels natural to work in such environments, even though the assignments are heavy. I think I can face the people calmly and as human beings […]. However, I am not planning a career in humanitarian aid. I still want to earn my living from the journalistic field.

(Interviewee no. 12)

These quotes reveal the fact shared among almost all the interviewees that NGO work is or has been a temporary option for them. There are both pushing and pulling factors that have led them to work for NGOs. The pulling factors in the NGO sector have to do with the sense of relevance, values that feel right, and the possibility to work abroad. In addition, since Finland is a small country, the photographers mainly know each other, and the knowledge about the work opportunities at NGOs had passed from person to person.

On the other hand, one of the pushing factors has been the diminishing work opportunities and tightening pace of work in the field of journalism (see also Thomson, 2018). Some photojournalists have also felt that journalistic work has changed more towards entertainment, and photojournalists have less and less possibilities to photograph what they see and instead are hired to implement predesigned concepts.

For many, NGO work was not the primary choice, however. As the interviewee in the last quote stated, many of them would like to make a living mainly from journalism (or other fields), at least if it would be possible and if they could have enough freedom. NGO work is then seen as an interesting secondary work that could be done occasionally. Among the interviewees, there was, however, one who felt a calling for the humanitarian work and who wanted to build a career there:

I worked as human rights monitor in 2011, and after that I started [doing humanitarian photography]. For a long time, I wanted to work in the humanitarian world because it felt right to me […]. My dad was very interested in politics, and at home we always talked about all the wrongs of the world…

(Interviewee no. 1)

The reasoning presented in this quote tells about the interviewee's long-held and deep commitment towards humanitarian work, and it was clearly an exception in the data. However, many other interviewees also shared the kind of “right feeling” when working for the humanitarian NGOs. This sense of doing the right thing may have to do with the humanitarian values that call for dignified encounters with vulnerable people. Most of the interviewees mentioned that they have more time to do their work when they are on NGO assignments in comparison with photojournalistic work. Being able to spend enough time with the photographic subjects and to explain to them why the pictures are being taken is an essential part of a dignified encounter. Furthermore, the “right feeling” might also relate to the humanitarian issues that the photographers generally considered important and socially significant.

Negotiating the professional values between photojournalism and NGO photography

The interviewed photographers described that their photographic work is to a large extent similar whether on journalistic assignments or under NGO contracts. In both cases, the photographer's job is often to document what is happening at a designated location, but the objectives of documenting might be different. At the humanitarian NGOs, the aims were connected to a requirement to show, on one hand, that humanitarian aid is needed, and on the other, that humanitarian work is effective. These requirements are related to the NGOs’ fundraising efforts and internal communication along with stakeholder communication, such as reporting to the funders on the results of the work.

As for photography, this has led to the emergence of images that have been typical in NGO communication for a long time: images of people receiving or providing aid. Such images often show the logos, symbols, or other distinctive features of the NGOs. Such images are, in turn, usually less interesting for the news media. One interviewee told about how the Finnish photographers try to influence the way of thinking about images through discussions and training at the NGOs:

I have been giving quite a lot of what we call storytelling trainings to the Red Crosses or the Red Crescents in other countries. And we have talked with photographer colleagues and the Red Cross personnel that we would aim to go beyond showing the aid, and we could highlight the stories of the people. […] I think that we, as employers of the NGOs, play an important role in how we frame and contextualise the situations.

(Interviewee no. 5)

In the quote, the interviewee brings up the photographers’ responsibility in contextualisation and giving a voice to the aid recipients. This aim is in line with the NGOs’ codes of conduct, and it also fits well with the objectives of grassroots or narrative journalism. The quote also reveals that the interviewed photographers have been given expert positions at the studied NGOs and that their professional knowledge is valued across the international organisations (see also Dencik & Allan, 2017).

The decisions on humanitarian images, however, depend on a multitude of factors, such as constraints stemming from charity laws, stakeholder requirements, the traditions of NGO imagery, and photography itself as an ambiguous medium (Dogra, 2007). Furthermore, it can be argued that humanitarian photography is not a single defined category, but it includes different image types, such as documentary photographs and campaigning images, that are partly based on different foundations (Fehrenbach & Rodogno, 2015b; Mäenpää, 2023).

The interviewed photographers struggled the most with the campaigning images, because such images may fall outside the photojournalistic realm and might sometimes also contradict with the humanitarian values that they had been accustomed to as NGO photographers. Marketing images of the NGOs are increasingly designed by marketing professionals, who plan the communication in detail for each channel, including marketing concepts for social media, influencer cooperation, and internal print media.

The interviewed photographers who implement these concepts were, to a large extent, content about the planning and considered the specific requirements given to them as professional image design. They also mentioned, however, some examples of the instructions that were somewhat troubling to them. These included instructions to choose a volunteer model who is “pleasant to the eye” or “thin” in addition to the NGO's tendency to prefer a story from an eyewitness who is dressed in a local outfit instead of a suit. The photographers reflected on these questions in relation to journalistic values and more broadly.

It is the same in social media images and everywhere that the imagery is a bit produced in a way […]. And when it is produced, it somehow escapes the reality […] where we show the real life that is random, complex, and shattered…

(Interviewee no. 4)

Sometimes, NGO photography raises questions, such as, am I here to make as emotion-provoking an image as possible, or am I here to show what is happening?

(Interviewee no. 11)

Some images are not used because they don’t look credible […]. Journalistically, they are interesting and could be used […]. I think that these organisations are wrong in the sense that they don’t challenge the idea of the photograph, even though they know that it is the reality, and it does not always look the same as we expect.

(Interviewee no. 2)

These quotes illustrate that most of the interviewed photographers perceive their photography on NGO assignments mainly as documentary work, and they reflect it in relation to the journalistic ideals of fact-based reporting. The above examples break from the photojournalistic value of showing the world as it is (e.g., Wheeler, 2002). This photojournalistic mindset was also prevalent when the interviewees talked about campaigning images, which they considered to be closer to marketing than photojournalism.

The last quote illustrates how humanitarian photography often shows the world through the eyes of the NGOs. The photographic subjects must conform to the standards of humanitarian imagery, which has historically meant certain kinds of images that identify the Global South to the spectators in the Global North (Radley & Kennedy, 1997). The ethical questions the interviewed photographers raised as problematic were related to factors such as upholding stereotypes and power relations as well as the position and rights of the photographic subjects. In addition, it was a question of how far one can push the ethical boundaries to get powerful images (Nissinen, 2015).

In fact, respect and care for the photographic subjects was a recurring theme in the interviews. The photographers often talked about the people who they had worked with in such a way that it seemed they felt personally responsible for bringing justice to the vulnerable people and their stories:

People tell me things that they haven’t told anyone else yet. I must be very sensitive so that I don’t take it too far or, in a way, [it is important to consider] in what condition the people are left after the interview and photography.

(Interviewee no. 2)

This quote is an example of the commitment to the humanitarian values of humanity and dignity that the photographers raised in relation to their photographic subjects. In a similar vein, they described that obtaining written consent from the subjects is, besides being mandatory on their NGO assignments, also important from the photographers’ viewpoint. Meanwhile, they recognised the problems of consent especially in situations of crisis and due to language or cultural barriers (see Calain, 2013). In this connection, some of them contrasted the work practices of NGO photography and news photojournalism, where people are sometimes photographed without consent, or even secretly:

Our aim is to give the person a voice […]. The point is never to forcibly dig up information. Journalists may [cause] a trauma without thinking about it, but we must be very sensitive, […] for example, a gentleman at a prosthetics clinic asked me not to photograph this or that, because it might be understood wrongly. If I was working as a journalist, I might not think about it.

(Interviewee no. 1)

This statement reveals that even though journalists and NGOs alike share the values of respecting human dignity, from a photographer's viewpoint, there might be differences in what is emphasised in each practice. In the example, respecting the will of the representative of the clinic might be an important aspect of following the humanitarian principles, while also ensuring that the work of the NGO is not endangered in any way at the location. In journalism, on the other hand, minimising the harm caused to the photographic subjects, or the clinic in this case, would always be balanced against the informational value of such images. Journalists practise such balancing especially with graphic images. Occasionally, people's right to know and the informational value of certain images override the privacy and dignity of the victims and their loved ones (see Morse, 2014).

One example concerned the contextual information accompanying images from a war zone hospital where the interviewee was photographing:

There was one family that had been [harmed] in a chemical weapons attack. That is, of course, a big, newsworthy event, but I was told [by the NGO] that I am not allowed to mention the attack […]. Probably the reason was that it could have endangered the work of the NGO there, but journalistically, it bothered me, because I was there trying to tell the story of these people.

(Interviewee no. 2)

This quote illustrates that humanitarian NGOs put more emphasis on securing the conditions for providing aid and relieving suffering, whereas journalists might prioritise information provision. In this example, the photographer felt that a more journalism-like information provision would have been justified from the viewpoint of getting the subjects’ voices heard. In this case, it would have fitted her values as both photojournalist and humanitarian photographer.

Photographers as promoters for NGO–media relations

All the interviewed visual professionals had experiences of media cooperation during the time they had worked for the NGOs, and their photographs or videos had occasionally been published in journalistic media. The NGOs’ communications teams may also publish press releases and facilitate the work of journalists by arranging access to certain areas or by searching for relevant interviewees for news stories, for example (see also Powers, 2018). Especially during acute crisis, it is common that journalists turn to NGOs for information, contacts, and occasionally also for photographs and videos, such as b-roll footage.

In addition, many of the interviewed photographers had offered their photographs to the mainstream media and used their personal contacts for gaining wider media publicity for the humanitarian issues. Most of them stressed, however, that when they work for NGOs like the Red Cross, they are employees of the organisation during the whole contract period. Thus, all their material is produced primarily for the NGO communication, secondarily for the funders, and last for the media – to the extent that the media is interested.

Most of the interviewees described that their NGO employers valued their cooperation with the news media, but it was not required and not nearly always encouraged in any way. The photographers’ motivation for offering material to the media arose, on one hand, from their willingness to get the voices of their photographic subjects heard more widely, which could then help gain more attention and funds for their issues. Furthermore, since photography is an act of witnessing, it creates a certain responsibility for the photographer as a witness (Joyce, 2010). I argue that this responsibility touches the photographers on a more personal level beyond the organisational benefits. On the other hand, the photographers offered images to the media motivated by their personal economic reasons, since they hoped that the media cooperation might ensure them more work in the future. One photographer described the planning and motivations of providing material to media organisations from his NGO assignments:

Some things were agreed beforehand [with the media organisations], but then there was also something that came up [at the location], and we thought that, ok, let's make a small personal interview, so that it might fit this or that media […]. I have also used my own media contacts on assignments for both the Finn Church Aid and the Red Cross, and those have gone through. And those have been just some kind of an extra.

(Interviewee no. 10)

This quote reveals that the professional photographers bring a valuable resource to the NGOs: detailed knowledge about the media field, such as understanding what kinds of images and stories might interest some specific media. Professional photographers have the sense of newsworthiness, and it might be easy for them to find the domestic angle that is often needed when the media reports on distant suffering. This then raises the question of how far NGOs should go in adopting the journalistic conventions in their communication. According to the interviewees, it seems likely that the existing news agenda does not directly influence the issues that the humanitarian NGOs cover in their visual communication, but the NGO communicators, and the photographers working for them, are aware of the topics and angles that are in the interest of news media (see also Dencik & Allan, 2017).

In addition, especially valuable are the photographers’ personal contacts with media workers, because a familiar photographer is more likely to increase the confidence of the journalists, which may then improve chances for publication. In the quote, the photographer states that he has succeeded in getting his pictures published in the media; however, this is not always the case. One interviewee quoted an answer that she received from a news organisation after offering images from an NGO assignment. A news department head responded to the photographer by e-mail:

The images are great and the story is touching, but we will however give it a miss. We are pickier than usual when it comes to stories that are produced on NGO assignments.

(Interviewee no. 7)

Most of the interviewees had had similar experiences from the Finnish media, and one interviewee stated that “in a way those are known” (Interviewee no. 6) referring to the media houses that don’t usually accept NGO material. The photographers with a journalism background tended to understand this stance and explained that it might have to do with the journalists’ will to protect their autonomy and integrity on the decisions about journalistic content. From the journalists’ viewpoint, free-of-charge NGO material might relate to press trips paid by a third party hoping to gain positive publicity for their agenda, which is avoidable for journalists who aim to remain neutral. However, journalists’ autonomy protection is selective. Scholars have found a bias in news norms towards governmental and business actors, and not towards civil society, as news sources (Lang, 2013; Powers, 2015); thus, journalists are not likely to utilise NGOs and other civic actors as sources (Lang, 2013).

When photographs or videos produced on NGO assignments are occasionally published in the news media, the topic is usually something that is already in the news agenda. The interviewees described the difficulties of getting media publicity for humanitarian issues that are long-lasting, are not about an acute crisis, and may not have a domestic link. One photographer told an example of such an assignment to Mongolia:

It was kind of a silent crisis because there was an extremely harsh winter. Because of the climate change, they don’t get rain during the summer, and they are not able to grow food, and then the nomads and their animals die in the winter […]. It was a fundraising trip, a kind of an appeal, because we wanted to raise the profile of that country.

(Interviewee no. 3)

It is difficult to gain the interest of the mainstream media for distant and silent crises such as the one described in the quote. And if such topics do gain their attention, the media's viewpoint might differ from the NGOs values. One interviewee stated that the NGO–media cooperation usually works well and benefits both parties, but occasionally there are differing interests:

NGOs have a bit of a contradictory relationship with media, because criticality is inscribed in the news criteria and negative issues get published more easily. […] Countries such as South Sudan, Central African Republic, and Somalia don’t ever get covered in the Finnish news in any positive terms. It's always about some terrorist attack or terrible floods, but never something like, for example, that we managed to get a first vocational school programme to South Sudan.

(Interviewee no. 8)

The aspects taken up in this quote are in line with earlier research illustrating that NGOs have difficulties in getting media publicity on their own terms and that they have usually been visible on the topics that are already on the news agenda (Powers, 2018; Thrall et al., 2014; Waisbord, 2011). In addition, earlier research has found that Western news media is very much focused on just a few countries, and Africa and other continents in the Global South rarely get any attention whatsoever (Thrall et al., 2014).

Many of the interviewees were able to list characteristics of NGO topics and visuals that are most likely to make it to mainstream media. These included a current topic and a domestic link, such as a Finnish aid worker at the location, whereas typical NGO images with the organisation's logos and symbols were considered unwanted. However, sometimes such images will do, one photographer explained:

It is kind of an exception when there is an acute catastrophe, where we have sent Finnish help with a big volume. Then images with Finnish personnel providing help go through to the media and it is ok to show logos and all, because there is some pride in it, I think. But if you want to get a longer report-age published, it must lean on something else than that.

(Interviewee no. 12)

This quote illustrates that the professional photographers have a good understanding of what the media appreciates and publishes, and when. This could be seen as an example of what Powers (2015, 2018) argued: NGOs are more likely to adopt to the news norms rather than challenge them. This study reaffirms that finding, but the interviewed photographers also shared that sometimes they manage to package and market their NGO images to the media in such a way that they are published even though the topic is not already on the news agenda.

Finally, not all media publicity will be positive and desired. One photographer gave an example about her NGO assignment to Asia, and some of the photographs from that trip that were published in a Finnish sensational magazine:

It was just terrible yellow journalism headline stuff […]. It made me think, why the hell I was even there to take these photos, to meet these people and to tell their stories, if this is where they end up.

(Interviewee no. 12)

In this example, the photographs had been published in a magazine and context that the photographer considered unwanted – and most likely unethical from the humanitarian ethics perspective. The risk that NGO material is sensationalised and dramatised in the media has also been recognised in earlier research (Cottle & Nolan, 2007; Powers, 2018). The risk is that media publicity breaks with the humanitarian values of representing the vulnerable people with proper contextualisation and dignity, and in the first place, as individuals who have names and personal stories. More broadly, abstraction of images is a problem in meeting the humanitarian values such as dignity in humanitarian photography (Manzo, 2008) and in photojournalism.


In this study, I explored the work of professional photographers and other visual communicators who have worked for both humanitarian NGOs and the news media. The research focused on their motivation for NGO work (RQ1), professional values (RQ2), and NGO–media relations (RQ3). A particular interest was in the professional values and ethical foundations that guide the work of these two fields from the visual professionals’ viewpoint.

For example, one of the dividing lines is how much emphasis is put on information provision and on human dignity and how the different valuations effect reporting about human suffering (e.g., Society of professional journalists, 2014; Concord, 2012).

Because of this point of departure, the research setting may have overemphasised the contrast between the fields of photojournalism and NGO photography, while in reality, the boundaries of the fields are more complex and blurred. Thus, it is important to note that news media and NGOs share many interests, and they often cooperate in a way that it benefits both parties (e.g., Dencik & Allan, 2017). In addition, some journalists who cover humanitarian issues have adopted similar humanitarian values that are prevailing in NGO work (Scott et al., 2021).

As for the first research question about motivation factors, it seems that for most of the photographers, NGO work is a temporary option to accrue merit vitae and to gain new work experience from abroad. In addition, the choice of humanitarian photography from other possible photographic assignments was reasoned by the importance of the work along with the fact that the invitations to work for the studied organisations had passed as recommendations from colleague to colleague. Furthermore, the diminishing work opportunities at news media were mentioned as pushing factors that force photographers to seek new possibilities for making a living.

As for the professional values, some distinctions between NGO photography and photojournalism are evident from the data. The main difference is that when the interviewees work as photojournalists, they put more emphasis on information provision, while as NGO photographers they prioritise empowering the photographic subjects and respecting human dignity.

The different emphasis on the axis of providing information and help led to the conclusion that while on NGO assignments, it was easy for the photographers to report and document what was happening and meet the deadlines, since that is what they are used to as photojournalists. On the other hand, such NGO assignments that fell outside the photojournalistic realm were, instead, more challenging for them ethically. For example, producing emotion-provoking images by stretching the limits of documentary tradition was considered unethical by most of the interviewees, even though they understood that, for example, campaigning images are not documents in the journalistic sense but rather marketing and fundraising images. One part of the problem is that, in practice, there is no clear distinction between the different mobilisations of humanitarian photography (Fehrenbach & Rodogno, 2015b).

Furthermore, the interviewed photographers had adopted deeply to the humanitarian values. As photography itself could be considered to some extent as exploitation of the photographic subjects (Sontag, 1973/2005), it could be argued that there is always a fundamental tension between photography and the aim of improving the world by communicating the situations of vulnerable people through photography to the wider public (see also Nissinen, 2015). The humanitarian values of respect and dignity towards the photographic subjects help photographers deal with this tension and justify the work they do.

The study also showed that sometimes publishing certain images would endanger the work of the NGO at the location, which would be a reason to restrict information provision in NGO communication. On such occasions, the interviewees felt conflicted because of their background as photojournalists, but also because they felt a responsibility to tell the stories of their photographic subjects. This exemplifies that journalistic and humanitarian values are not consistent sets of ideals but rather often contradictory, while sometimes the values from different ethical groundings may yet serve similar goals.

From the viewpoint of NGO–media relations, this research shows that the studied NGOs had gained media publicity with the help of the professional photographers they had hired. These photographers with a photojournalism background know the media logic, while they also have personal contacts with key people at media organisations, which can help increase trust and mediate relations between NGOs and the news media. On the other hand, the interviewed professionals did not have unreasonable expectations about their possibilities to shape the news agenda. They recognised the difficulties NGOs have in gaining media publicity for remote countries and silent or long-lasting crises that have weak links to the lives of the people in the Global North (see Powers, 2018; Thrall et al., 2014; Waisbord, 2011).

To conclude, this study has shed light on the work of professional photographers who actively seek new work opportunities outside the journalistic field. As media work is increasingly practised outside the journalistic institution, it is important to understand the ethical values and starting points from where the different professionals approach the work. Further research is needed to draw a bigger picture of the professional photographers’ employment situation and professional ethics, while national case studies are also important in shedding light on the changing media work from different angles.


RQ1 What motivates professional photographers who work for humanitarian organisations?
RQ2 How do the professionals reconcile their photojournalist and humanitarian photographer values?
RQ3 What kind of an impact do the professional photographers assess they have on the media publicity of the NGOs?

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