Ethical considerations when publishing fieldwork photos in online sources

Posted confidentially on the author’s behalf.

How can anthropologists successfully publish images without compromising individuals’ rights to privacy? I’ve wrestled with this question for over thirty years while conducting fieldwork and running ethnographic field schools. During these decades, I’ve seen that taking a camera out can create discomfort for some, ambivalence in others, and garner firm refusals from still others. Thus, my approach to taking and publishing photos has been two-pronged, and coincides with general ethical standards in the discipline. If individuals agree to have their images shown with their names visible, I get their written consent or verbal acknowledgement that I can publish, and explain where they will be published. If they don’t give permission, I don’t publish their photos. However, the ethics of publishing photos has become more complicated in this era when so much digital content has become accessible to a global audience via the Internet. Often neither the photographer nor the subject have knowledge of, nor control over, who is viewing and possibly downloading these photos. 

The potential consequences of publishing photos of recognizable individuals became acute for me when an open access anthropological journal published an article containing a photo of an extended family I have known for decades. This image included approximately a dozen family members, with some posing while others seemed oblivious to the camera as they went about daily activities.[i] It was surprising to see this included in an article that neither discussed their community nor anyone in the family. I emailed a link to the article to Robert (a pseudonym), the family member I know best, with a note explaining that it had recently been published. He responded with a number of questions I could not answer, including “What is this?” and “Why us?” He iterated that they were not involved in the research and did not know the author, nor who took the photo. 

Robert and his siblings were perplexed about why this photo – which appeared to be decades old – had been selected to illustrate an article discussing current conditions in a different village. Robert asked how the journal had gotten the photo of his family, and why they published it. He asked more than once, “Who gave them permission to publish this?” He described publication of this image as a violation of his family’s human rights and spoke of feeling they had been exploited. He replied to my offer to contact the editors with a request to take the photo down by saying, “Please. My mother is in it.” These last words underscored the poignancy of the situation, as family members were grieving the relatively recent loss of their beloved mother, who was featured prominently in the photo. 

Fortunately, the process of removing the photo went quickly. I contacted the author, who forwarded my message to the editor with a request to remove the photo. The editor explained that it had been chosen to add visual interest to the article, which had been submitted without images. The photo was intentionally selected from a site boasting a Creative Commons License, which assures copyright protection. The editors asked me to convey their apologies to the family. Robert accepted the apology and thanked all involved for removing the photo so quickly. He said he “Thanked God” that the photo was not in a book or printed journal, which would have been “more permanent.” Nonetheless, family members remain dissatisfied with answers about how and why their privacy was invaded. Although the photo is no longer visible in the article, Robert’s query, “What gives anthropologists the right to do this?” resonates.

Additional questions that arose from this situation include, How can anthropologists apply the same level of respect for confidentiality regarding the use of images that we do when publishing text?  What are our professional responsibilities to those whose images we publish? These issues are debated in multiple blogs and articles that examine our general responsibilities when publishing photos from the field, and more recent discussions of images published online. Eshe Lewis’ (2020) piece exploring “The Power of Images,” reifies this concern, as she recognizes that the process of selecting photos for the journal Sapiens “often raises sticky anthropological questions about ethics, representation, and storytelling.” Her discussion of the importance of adhering to ethical practices, including securing “confirmation that they received consent from the people pictured” (https://www.sapiens.org/culture/anthropology-image-representation/), harkens back to the 2012 Principles of Professional Responsibility (PPR) that guides our research. But are these guidelines comprehensive enough in an age when photographs can be posted on the internet without their subjects’ consent?

As we know, authors are required to get photographers’ permission to publish images and must credit them, with words