According to Websters, the definition of a humanitarian is this: “A person promoting human welfare and social reform.” So a reasonable extension of that definition to the title of humanitarian photographer might look something like this: A photographer focused on the promotion of human welfare and social reform through the medium of photography.
For me though, the work of a humanitarian photographer is much deeper than simply advocating for a cause and promoting human welfare. I believe that the primary work of a humanitarian photographer is to celebrate the value of human life.
Often the situations that we work in as humanitarian photographers are not ideal for the people we are photographing. Their lives are affected by poverty, sickness, lack of clean water, exploitation etc. But the hardships that people face in difficult circumstances do not need to, and definitely should not, define who they are and how they are seen.
It is incredibly easy to be invited to photograph a person, a family, a situation, a program, a village, and to only see the problems that need solutions and funding. Often that is why we are hired. We are put in that situation to communicate, through photography, what is needed and to generate interest in addressing the problems. But when we approach the situation from that point of view, people can quickly become statistics, clicks of a shutter, compositional decisions.
Where do I put them in the frame to best demonstrate the issue?
How can I frame this to showcase the need?
How many different faces can I show to show scope and scale?
In the end, the individual can be further marginalized for the sake of the problem.
I believe that there is a better way to be a humanitarian photographer, and to ultimately be an ethical humanitarian photographer. That better way is to always put people above problems and projects, to always value and celebrate the individual, their life, their family and their accomplishments first and foremost.
The human experience has always centered around storytelling, celebration, and human connection. We have more tools at our disposal for telling stories that inspire and lift people up than ever before. A quick scroll through youtube, or any podcast service will quickly reinforce that we long to hear stories about people. We love authentic stories of struggle and perseverance, stories of chances taken and opportunities that changed the course of people’s lives.
An ethical approach to humanitarian photography means approaching each assignment with a desire to see and capture the inspiring parts of the situation. It is about sitting and listening as much or more than it is about taking photos. It is finding smiles shared between family members. It is looking at the hard work that goes into everyday life for so many people and finding the beauty and honor in a job well done. Sometimes it means finding the beauty and value in the simple accommodations and food that are staples of everyday life. Other times is it choosing not to photograph something because honoring people means respecting consent and preserving dignity.
Being an ethical humanitarian photographer means moving beyond the simple, single portrait of a constituent and working to gain a deeper understanding of the person and their situation. It is understanding where they have been, where they are, and where they hope to go. It is seeing the joy of a grandmother caring for her grandchildren, or the pride of a young girl sitting at her desk in school.
Ethical humanitarian photography and storytelling is celebrating the beauty of people and their everyday lives, promoting the idea that we are all equal and deserve to pursue the best life we can for ourselves and our family. It is also celebrating opportunities that people have been given that have made an impact on their lives.
Humanitarian photography is often done in partnership with non profit organizations that are working to improve opportunities and conditions around the world. Since it is a partnership, it is essential that we cover the organization’s role in the stories. The key to doing it well is to realize that the organization’s role in the story is that of a supporting actor, not the main character.
In most cases, organizations are supplying an opportunity. When telling stories, placing value on the effort to capitalize on the opportunities rather than the opportunity itself or the financial value of the end result, keeps the tone of the story positive and dignifying. It moves the narrative from charity to hard work and achievement.
The successful promotion of “human welfare and social reform” is dependent on hope. These ideas only have life, and change will only happen, when people see it as possible. I can’t think of a better, more effective way to inspire hope, improve the livelihoods of people, and successfully promote social reform, than telling the stories of people who have succeeded or are pursuing success.
Authentic human stories of opportunity, hard work and success are the foundation on which projects, movements and organizations are built. The value of all these things is not in money raised, but in lives changed and people valued and celebrated.
Being a humanitarian photographer means looking for ways to value and celebrate people. It is finding ways to help the world see every person as valuable, and showing that we have reason to celebrate each other’s accomplishments, hopes, and dreams.
Bryon Lippincott is a humanitarian photographer, filmmaker and brand strategist working primarily with nonprofit and humanitarian organizations in Asia and around the world. His work is focused on helping organizations communicate the impact of their work by designing brand strategies, producing films and capturing photos that portray the courage, value, and spirit of the people they are serving. You can find out more about his work with humanitarian organizations at Sharing Dots.org.
To date he has worked on assignment in 11 countries, with over 70 different organizations and individuals, and produced video projects in 8 different languages.