Through a Glass Darkly

In response to exploitative photography of children, Robert Godden, Director of Campaigns and Communications at Rights Exposure and Jason Tanner, Founder of Human Rights for Journalism have put together a strong proposal for the use of images of vulnerable or abused young people. These ethical guidelines have been sent to editors, publishers, photo award bodies and photography agencies in the hope that we can begin to change attitudes and practices.

This article was originally posted on Witness, a blog by World Press Photo.

Have we been blind to the exploitation of children in photography?

It is not unusual for industries and professions to be rocked by scandal. This sudden and powerful disruption can often be both an indication of the need for systemic change as well as a catalyst for it. Other forms of controversy are slower burning, a series of events never individually powerful enough to reach the tipping point that drives a tectonic shift. Instead, they become a slow accumulation of disquiet, driving change that is measured in small increments as values shift over time, gradually influencing how industries and professions work. In recent years, the controversy that has preoccupied photojournalism and documentary photography is the manipulation and staging of images, and the success or failure of various attempts to address the problem. Yet, at the same time another issue has been brewing, largely in the shadow of these debates, but rarely generating as much heat. The issue? The problems with how we visually represent vulnerable and abused children.

The relative lack of attention this issue has been given by the photography industry could be taken as either a failure to acknowledge the problem or a failure of how to address it. The result has been that what debate has taken place has been limited and inconclusive—usually not involving those in senior, leadership roles in the industry—with no concerted effort to generate workable solutions. To many outside the photography industry this may be puzzling. Surely respecting the rights of a child forced into prostitution should trump whether an object was removed from a photo through toning? Yet a cursory look at the column inches given to each issue—both in articles and social media—speaks volumes. Why is this? Is it because the “objective” imperative of certain types of photography shuns engagement with their subjects? Is it because many are largely ignorant of how laws have changed in recent years to protect abused children? Is it because photography must at times deal with difficult subjects and so should be unapologetic to our sensibilities? Is it because in order to expose these terrible realities the rights of the individual must be sacrificed for the greater good? Is it because the practicalities of protecting the rights of children who are pictured are too complex and difficult to deal with? Or is it influenced by deeper, cultural and political issues about how certain people and places are represented—a case of double standards? Maybe we can ascribe it to “all of the above”?

Central to the problem of how vulnerable and abused children are pictured is the issue of consent, and whether in situations that allow this to be realistically requested consent is being abused or ignored. Connected to this, though deserving of a separate and wider debate, is how children from certain places and backgrounds are represented in comparison to others. Are we guilty of applying different ethical standards dependent on the race, ethnicity, nationality, gender or class of the child? As photographers, editors, jurors, and as members of the audience, have we in some way traded the rights of the individual child for the spectacle of a visceral image? Did we, as those who purport to protect, actually become secondary exploiters? Has our visualisation of children failed to keep up with prevailing social attitudes or is it necessary for us to be the progressive force that leads the ethical debate?

Attitudes and laws related to child protection have evolved internationally over the last 20 years, largely driven by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (1990), the most ratified human rights treaty in history. Although each country has responded differently, there is widespread recognition that laws to protect children from exploitation and abuse are essential. Governments have responded through a mixture of pressure from progressive politicians, civil society organisations, and changes in public attitudes. Industries and professions have adapted and adopted mechanisms to ensure they comply with changes in the law as well as changes in attitudes. Yet even a cursory look at photographic work produced over the last five years will turn up half a dozen examples of work where children have arguably been exploited, put at risk, and/or child protection laws may have been broken. Yet where is the clear, unequivocal and guiding response from leaders in the industry, both condemning such images and providing leadership in fostering change?

Is it not about time we had a constructive and considered debate about the ethics of making and publishing images of children in pain? What does photographing someone with “dignity” really mean? How do we ensure we are not exposing a child to risk? What does informed consent really mean and how can it practically be sought? How can children, their guardians or those making and distributing photos judge what might negatively impact them years from now, and how can the legacy of that consent be managed? None of these questions are easy to answer, but surely they are not beyond us?

Even if you are not convinced that it is necessary or practical to protect the rights of children in photographs, then at the very least should we not do our due diligence in protecting photographers and publications from the risk of criminal prosecution or a civil law suit? Or, with more and more photographers producing work for human rights and humanitarian NGOs, would it not be useful to better understand their positions and guidelines on the representation of children?

For those who are convinced, what can we do? Where to start? Fred Ritchin, Dean of the International Center of Photography School, suggested the following in an email exchange about this issue:

“One way of thinking of it is the ‘Golden Rule’. Would you want your child depicted in such a way? For me as a picture editor that was often the prevailing ethos—just because someone is poor and far away does not give us the right to depict that person disrespectfully, or in a way that can cause further harm.”

There can surely be no better litmus test from which to start. Yet, how do we build from this personal and moral foundation to agree on more specific principles that can be adopted to help guide us as we produce photographs and publish them? How can we collectively and constructively go about the task of debating, promoting, and using such principles? We would have to admit that they would, in some way, be imperfect. They would need to be practical, but cannot be prescriptive and, inevitably, could not apply to every situation. What works for a long-form documentary photo project may not work for a spot news photographer. What works in Italy may not work in Indonesia. Yet, are the ethical and legal stakes not too high for us to continue as we have done? Has photography had its catalyst scandal? Maybe not yet, but do we need to wait for that to jolt us into action? Do we really have to wait until a photographer is prosecuted or evidence of the negative consequences of the publication of a photo on a child are clearly documented?

In July, prompted by recent controversies[1], we drafted and sent out an open letter that suggested a series of recommendations on what action the photography industry could consider taking in order to begin addressing these issues. It was aimed at those who publish photos, provide grants to photographers, and those who run photography competitions (see below for the full list of those organisations that were contacted). It also included details of what constitutes informed consent, aimed at photographers. The letter is reproduced in full below, including excerpts from some existing relevant guidelines. Below the letter are responses from organizations to which we sent the letter.

The answers to the issues raised here do not reside in our letter, nor the responses to it. Change of this kind is often a slow and complicated process. Just because our response may not be perfect, especially at first, does not mean we should not try. We hope that the letter and other activities that follow will generate debate and momentum, which over time will change attitudes and practices in working with children and how they are represented that respect their rights, present them in a dignified way, and are not exploitative.





Open letter on the use of images of vulnerable and abused children to editors, publishers, photography agencies, and photo award bodies.


The protection of vulnerable and abused children[2] should be of paramount importance to us all, and no less the case in the photography sector. We have an obligation to ensure that children do not have their rights violated or are put at risk through the production and publication of their images. The basis of our actions in this regard should be firmly grounded in international and national legal standards that seek to protect children from abuse, exploitation, and trauma.

In doing so, we should hold ourselves to the highest ethical standards regarding the reporting on and representation of vulnerable and abused children. Where practically possible, we should ensure that informed consent is sought and given by children and their trusted guardians. In cases where children have been sexually abused, it is vital that their identity is protected[3].

Given recent debates related to the photographing and publishing of images of children trafficked into sexual slavery, we believe that those who produce and publish photos that may include vulnerable and/or abused children should take rigorous steps to ensure their protection.

With this in mind, we call on editors, publishers, photography agencies, and photo award bodies to consider adopting the recommendations laid out below. In doing so we stand a better chance of meeting our legal and ethical obligations, protecting abused children’s right to privacy, and avoid re-traumatising them. In making these recommendations, it is understood that guidelines inevitably cannot speak to all possible situations. However, we believe it is better to implement systems of protection and remind ourselves about our obligations, than not do so because the task is perceived as too difficult.

With this in mind, we call on editors, publishers, photography agencies, and photo award bodies to consider adopting the recommendations laid out below. In doing so we stand a better chance of meeting our legal and ethical obligations, protecting abused children’s right to privacy, and avoid re-traumatising them. In making these recommendations, it is understood that guidelines inevitably cannot speak to all possible situations. However, we believe it is better to implement systems of protection and remind ourselves about our obligations, than not do so because the task is perceived as too difficult.

We also call on photographers who are or may be in the future engaged in projects involving vulnerable and/or abused children to adopt robust informed consent practices. In Appendix 1, we lay out some, although not exhaustive, considerations that such consent practices could involve.

The following recommendations are primarily aimed at organisations that publish, commission, and fund photography. We hope that through their leadership on this issue we can reflect on, reform, and evolve how vulnerable and abused children are represented in photographs. Through our individual contributions we can aim to better respect and protect children’s rights, whilst still ensuring their important stories reach the right audiences.


  • Establish a formal relationship with a children’s rights expert / children’s rights organisation, and/or children’s rights lawyer to provide advice on the production and use of images of vulnerable and abused children;
  • Establish and make public a child protection policy, with input from child protection experts and legal advisors, in relation to the images that they commission and/or publish. This should include guidance to photographers working for that organisation and in photography competition rules;
  • Establish a mechanism that would automatically refer any image(s) that depict vulnerable or abused children to a panel of experts for legal and/or ethical opinion if the image(s) is being considered for publication;
  • Ensure that any mechanism that is established includes relevant expertise on the legal and ethical aspects of publishing images of vulnerable and abused children;
  • Ensure that any mechanism that is established and all decisions that are taken regarding the images prioritizes the best interest of the child over other considerations;
  • Where practically possible, informed consent should be given by the child and their guardian, and such consent should be recorded[4] in a way so that it can be produced on request to those who publish the photo(s).


Appendix 1 – Informed Consent

Consent should form the basis of the production and dissemination of images of children that respects and protects their rights to express views, to information, to privacy and to protection from violence and abuse. Photographers should, wherever practically possible, seek consent from the child and their legal guardian when carrying out their work.

Consent must be: i) understood; ii) freely given; iii) informed; and iv) specific. It is important that effort is made to ensure all the above factors are present when seeking consent. Consent is a pro-active process and should never be assumed due to other forms of previous cooperation. It is also not a one-off event but an on-going process. Consent to be photographed at one time does not mean consent to be photographed in the future, nor does it mean that consent cannot be withdrawn, or that consent applies to all situations and locations.

Consent can only ever be considered to have been freely given if the child believes they are able to decline, giving them a meaningful choice. This choice may not be as immediately obvious to children as it is to adults, thus, must be explicitly communicated. Photographers should be aware that children may believe there could be benefits to them participating, thus, it is important that expectations are clearly managed. How an individual or community benefits from being photographed can never be precisely quantified. As such, photographers should only state how they intend to use the photos rather than perceived or possible outcomes. In contrast, consent also can only be considered informed if the risks of cooperation are also explained and considered. A risk assessment by the photographer, taking advice from relevant experts, is essential in being able to help children make informed decisions on whether to cooperate or not (see ‘Duty of Care’ below).

Photographers need to determine that children are able to understand why they are being photographed and the potential consequences of participating and their photos being published. In obtaining consent from children, it is important to understand that a child’s cognitive and communication skills are different from adults. It is important to assess these skills, including their maturity and ability to make decisions, when determining whether informed consent can genuinely be given. It should be noted that age alone should not be used to determine children’s ability to give consent[2]. Other factors that impact maturity should be considered and decisions made on a case-by-case basis.

Photographers need to determine that children are able to understand why they are being photographed and the potential consequences of participating and their photos being published. In obtaining consent from children, it is important to understand that a child’s cognitive and communication skills are different from adults. It is important to assess these skills, including their maturity and ability to make decisions, when determining whether informed consent can genuinely be given. It should be noted that age alone should not be used to determine children’s ability to give consent[5]. Other factors that impact maturity should be considered and decisions made on a case-by-case basis.

The notion of informed consent implies the information provider (subject/participant) should receive explanations in simple, jargon-free language, as to the following:

  • The identity of the information collector (photographer/journalist), along with a brief explanation of your mandate and that of the organisation[6];
  • The purpose of the information collection/interview/photograph and intended use of the information collected;
  • Details of the potential risks to participation in the process;
  • The meaning of confidentiality and how it applies with special emphasis on the fact that the person interviewed/photographed can request any information that may reveal his/her identity to be kept confidential;
  • Contact information so that the participant can reach the information collector;
  • Details on how long the information will be used, and how and where it will be kept (stored);
  • Reminders that the participant can cease participating at any time, and request that his or her information and images/video be destroyed, whenever feasible.

Consent signifies the approval by the participant for the information, photographs, video, and audio to be used as explained. Consent can be given with or without limitations. It must therefore be specified whether the whole statement/series of photos can be used, including the identity of the participant or whether the information may be used on condition that the identity of the participants is kept confidential. The participant may deem some parts of their testimony/photos confidential, and others not; this should also be clarified and recorded.

Duty of Care

Informed consent includes an understanding of any risks involved in being photographed and having the photographs published. Even if the photographer decides that the child and/or their guardian understand the risks involved and still agree to consent, the photographer must not transfer responsibility for the risk to the child. The child’s vulnerability to risk will be influenced by their situation. Children who are labourers, orphans, homeless, or in institutions/detention could face heightened risks. In addition, gender, armed conflict, social violence and poverty can increase the risk for the child and their ability to access protection mechanism. When assessing risk, the photographer should consult with relevant experts, and if they conclude the risks are too high, the photographer should not proceed with photographing them even if the child has consented.

Appendix 2 – International Child Rights Standards and Ethical Guidelines

When establishing a child protection policy and mechanisms for judging the legal and ethical aspects of publishing images of vulnerable and/or abused children, as well as consulting national laws the following standards should be considered. The sources cited below are by no means exhaustive and consideration on what principles to apply should be taken based on the specifics of the organisation and the type of work it does. Attempts should be made to find a balance between the child’s rights to express views freely; seek, receive and impart information, and to be free from arbitrary interference with his or her privacy, and protection from violence and abuse. Some of the standards quoted below are intended for national governments, however the principles of protection can also be applied to non-state actors such as civil society organisations and businesses.

Convention on the Rights of the Child (1990)[7]

Article 3

1. In all actions concerning children, whether undertaken by public or private social welfare institutions, courts of law, administrative authorities or legislative bodies, the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration.

Article 12

1. States Parties shall assure to the child who is capable of forming his or her own views the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting the child, the views of the child being given due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child.

Article 13

1. The child shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of the child’s choice.

Article 16

1. No child shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his or her privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to unlawful attacks on his or her honour and reputation.

Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the sale of children, child prostitution, and child pornography (2002)[8]

Article 8, para 1(e)

1. States Parties shall adopt appropriate measures to protect the rights and interests of child victims of the practices prohibited under the present Protocol at all stages of the criminal justice process, in particular by:

(e) Protecting, as appropriate, the privacy and identity of child victims and taking measures in accordance with national law to avoid the inappropriate dissemination of information that could lead to the identification of child victims;

UNICEF’s “Principles for ethical reporting on children”[9]


3. The best interests of each child are to be protected over any other consideration, including over advocacy for children’s issues and the promotion of child rights.

Guidelines for reporting on children

3. Always change the name and obscure the visual identity of any child who is identified as:

a. A victim of sexual abuse or exploitation.

Guidelines for interviewing children

5. Obtain permission from the child and his or her guardian for all interviews, videotaping and, when possible, for documentary photographs. When possible and appropriate, this permission should be in writing. Permission must be obtained in circumstances that ensure that the child and guardian are not coerced in any way and that they understand that they are part of a story that might be disseminated locally and globally. This is usually only ensured if the permission is obtained in the child’s language and if the decision is made in consultation with an adult the child trusts.

7. When in doubt about whether a child is at risk, report on the general situation for children rather than on an individual child, no matter how newsworthy the story.

UNICEF “The Media and Children’s Rights – a resource by journalists for journalists” (1999)[10]

The purpose of this handbook for journalists is to “generate responsible coverage of children, and the impact of adult behaviour and decisions on their lives.” It has been used to train journalists internationally, supported by UNICEF and the International Federation of Journalists.

Society of Professional Journalist’s “Ethical Code”[11]

Minimize Harm

Ethical journalism treats sources, subjects, colleagues and members of the public as human beings deserving of respect.

Journalists should:

– Balance the public’s need for information against potential harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance or undue intrusiveness.

– Show compassion for those who may be affected by news coverage. Use heightened sensitivity when dealing with juveniles, victims of sex crimes, and sources or subjects who are inexperienced or unable to give consent. Consider cultural differences in approach and treatment.

– Recognize that legal access to information differs from an ethical justification to publish or broadcast.

– Realize that private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than public figures and others who seek power, influence or attention. Weigh the consequences of publishing or broadcasting personal information.

– Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity, even if others do.

– Balance a suspect’s right to a fair trial with the public’s right to know. Consider the implications of identifying criminal suspects before they face legal charges.

– Consider the long-term implications of the extended reach and permanence of publication. Provide updated and more complete information as appropriate.

National Press Photographers Association “Code of Ethics”[12]

4. Treat all subjects with respect and dignity. Give special consideration to vulnerable subjects and compassion to victims of crime or tragedy. Intrude on private moments of grief only when the public has an overriding and justifiable need to see.

Appendix 3 – Responses to the Open Letter


“Thank you for reaching out to us on this important matter. Sensitivity to and respect for the human rights of everyone represented in images that receive awards is critical and expected, as stipulated in our entry process and mission statement. We appreciate your hard work in this matter and, again, thank you for including us in your outreach.”

Eileen Mignoni, Communications Director

The Alexia Foundation


“At LensCulture, we believe that photographs have the power to raise awareness of important social issues in various cultures, and to instigate positive change in societies around the world. However, it is important, always, to take into account ethical considerations of photography, and to protect vulnerable people from potential harm that could be inflicted as a result of publishing images that expose or identify individuals or groups who may be, or may become, vulnerable as a result of the publication of photographs.

We take this issue seriously. We’ve shared your letter and recommendations with our editorial team and interns, marketing and business teams, and senior management at LensCulture. We are engaged in on-going informative, educational discussions about ethics and photography internally as well as with experts in the industry, worldwide. In recent months, we’ve reviewed and improved our internal processes, and we updated the rules for our photo competitions. We are open to developing further clarifications and guidelines when appropriate.”

Jim Casper, Editor-in-Chief & Co-Founder



“The protection of vulnerable and abused children is of paramount importance to Magnum Photos. As a collective, the letter has been distributed to Magnum Photographers for their individual consideration and the agency is taking the time to consider how these recommendations guide the production of work, and apply to our archive, our new publishing initiatives, as well as how we engage with non-Magnum photographer work through our education activities and competitions.  Magnum staff and photographers will continue to discuss these topics over the coming weeks and months, examining each part of the business in turn, to ensure we shine a light on concerned areas.”

Fiona Rogers, Global Business Development Manager

Magnum Photos


“Your ‘Open letter on the use of images of vulnerable and abused children to editors, publishers, photography agencies, and photo award bodies’ obviously addresses a very important issue. It’s an issue that has a long history with many examples. It also raises a wide array of questions about how individuals and organisations can effectively and practically address the issue in the domains for which they are responsible. There are lots of things we can imagine adding to the debate. One would be a consideration of the different circumstances that can arise in spot news photography, where the visual journalists are working under extremely difficult and highly pressured circumstances – both on the ground and in relation to those who might commission them – and documentary work that is based on prior research and undertaken over a longer period.

The World Press Photo Foundation is doing three things in response to the open letter so all these issues can be properly considered. We are circulating the document to staff and having an internal debate on the issue and how it is best dealt with. We will then feed the conclusions of this discussion into our planning for the 2018 contests. Finally, we will be taking steps to foster as wide a debate on the issue as possible. This will involve commissioning articles for our online publication “Witness,” and planning a symposium with relevant organisations and individuals (such as NGOs dealing with children’s welfare, UN agencies, legal advisors, media organisations and visual journalists and storytellers) to examine all aspects of the issue in detail. We would very much like to work with you on this initiative.”

Lars Boering, Managing Director

World Press Photo Foundation


Appendix 4 – List of organizations to which the Open Letter was sent


  • Alexia Foundation
  • Aperture Portfolio Prize
  • Featureshoot Emerging Photography Awards
  • British Journal of Photography
  • Catchlight
  • Getty Grants
  • The Guardian
  • Int’l Photography Awards
  • LensCulture
  • Magnum Foundation
  • Magnum Photos
  • New York Times Lens Blog
  • Nieman Reports
  • OSI Foundation Documentary Photography Project
  • Panos (UK)
  • Pictures of the Year International
  • Sony World Photography Awards
  • TIME Magazine
  • VII

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[1]We have deliberately not included examples of work that illustrates the points made in this article as we believe they are well known and have been debated online. Rather than stir up those individual controversies again we have chosen for focus on how we come up with solutions that will allow us to avoid the worst of these issues in the future. 

[2] For the purposes of protection mechanisms recommended in this letter we use the definition of a child from the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child as anyone under the age of 18 years old. ‘Vulnerable children’ is not as simple to define, and will vary from country to country and culture to culture. All children are in some way vulnerable, in that they require the protection and support of adults. However, some are at ‘increased risk’ and ‘in need’, and in this case, consideration should be given to the following characteristics: i) orphaned by the death of one or both parents;  ii) abandoned by parents;  iii) living in extreme poverty;  iv) living with a disability;  v) affected by armed conflicts;  vi) abused by parents or their carers;  vii) malnourished due to extreme poverty; viii)  HIV-positive;  and ix) those marginalized, stigmatized, or discriminated against (source, World Bank, “The OVC toolkit in SSA – a toolkit on how to support orphans and other vulnerable children (OVC) in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA)” (2010).

[3] In some jurisdictions, there may be a legal requirement not to reveal the identity of children who have suffered sexual abuse. In addition, there may also be a legal obligation on an individual to disclose information about abuse, for example, to the police or child protection services. Photographers and publishers should check relevant laws in the country they are working in and where they intend to publish.

[4] The use of written consent forms may not always be the most appropriate method of recording consent. Such forms may put pressure on the child or guardian by creating a false sense of obligation, as well as giving the impression that once given consent cannot be withdrawn. In some places asking people to sign forms will be met with suspicion, as well as presenting challenges where literacy is limited (especially with young children). Recording consent using video on a mobile phone may provide a more verifiable and accessible option. However, it is worth noting that in some jurisdictions there is a legal requirement to get written consent.  

[5] In some jurisdictions, children below a certain age may not be legally able to give consent. Photographers should check with laws in the country they are working in, the country they are usually based and where the photos may be published.

[6] Examples of work by the photographer/publication can be shown to potential subjects/collaborators. For example, small cards can be made in relevant languages for easy explanation.







Featured image: © Jason Tanner