I remember clearly my first time at origin: as a long-time coffee lover from a non-producing country, meeting the people who farm my coffee and seeing how they do it was magical. So, it was tempting to take out my camera to document every minute of my time there.
But should we really be taking photos of those cute kids on the farm or the picker who doesn’t know us? And even if that’s okay, should we be sharing those photos on our personal Instagram or company blog?
When taking photos on the farm, we need to pause before we snap. We should be taking a moment to consider the issues of consent and representation. Because if not, we are doing a disservice to those producing communities who are welcoming us into their world. I spoke to Evan Gilman, Creative Director at Royal Coffee, to find out more.
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Consent: What Does It Mean for Photos?
Consent is a loaded term, so let’s start by defining what it means in photography.
Evan tells me that consent is “the willingness to participate and willingness to be a part of any given request or an action from someone. So, it has to be a mutually agreed-upon situation.”
In other words, it’s not just about getting permission. It’s about the subject wanting to be included – but more on that distinction to come. For now, let’s look at asking for consent.
Do we have to get consent every time we want to photograph something or someone?
Yes. Evan says, “It is always necessary to get consent.” He emphasizes that this is important for both ethical and legal reasons. If there is any monetary compensation or gain involved, consent becomes critical.
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Do you need the consent of everyone who’s in the photo?
If the photo features a large group of people, it becomes very difficult to receive consent from everyone – especially if people are working and so may not be as easy to speak to.
Legally speaking, the requirements will vary from country to country. You should be aware of this before you travel. Some follow the rule of “being recognizable,” which may excuse you from getting consent for people in the background.
Evan tells me that, if you know that you’ll be visiting a place where you may want to take group photographs, it’s a good idea to get in touch with your contact and ask for consent in advance.
Once you’ve got consent to take the photo, are you in the clear?
Not necessarily. Consent can be withdrawn or have limitations. Evan stresses that you shouldn’t assume that, having taken the photo, your job is done.
Your subjects should be allowed to see the photo, ask for another if they want, and even deny the right to keep or use the photo after it has been taken.
If you want to take a photograph, you should inform the subject of what you plan to do with it. They may consent to being part of your holiday snaps but not your marketing campaign, for example. Uninformed consent is not consent.
Evan suggests exchanging contact information. This allows subjects to contact you later to say that they don’t want a photo to be used.
So far, so good? Now, let’s look at when things get complicated.
Coerced Consent: When “Yes” Isn’t Really “Yes”
Power relationships make consent tricky. If someone says “yes” because they feel that they can’t say “no,” have they really consented? While legally you may be in the clear (depending on the details of the situation), ethically you’re treading a fine line.
Let’s say that a worker doesn’t want you to photograph them – but they also don’t want to anger their boss. Or perhaps a producer doesn’t want a roaster to photograph their family, but they also don’t want to lose a sale if that roaster feels rejected. In these cases, the subject might say “yes” even though they’re not willing participants.
Evan says that you have to read people’s expressions. “If they are saying ‘yes’ but not with their eyes, and their body language is closed off to you,” he tells me that they may feel coerced.
He also recommends that you “speak to [potential subjects] when they are not under the direct supervision of somebody that may have coerced them into accepting.”
This is your responsibility. You should seek real, genuine consent at all times. And if a subject’s answer is “no,” whether they state it explicitly or indicate it through their body language, it is important to respect that.
Children: Can They Ever Consent?
If consent is tricky with adults, it’s even more difficult with children and adolescents. Legally and ethically, there can be problems, since people underage are not considered able to give consent.
Evan tells me, “If there [are] children around, especially without their parental supervision, then I don’t think it’s a good practice to take photos of children.”
He acknowledges that there are times when children may verbally agree and show enthusiasm. However, it is possible that they do not have a full understanding of the situation. “They may not understand that their photos may be used for financial gain or to promote a certain agenda that they may not subscribe to later in life,” he says.
Are there any exceptions to this? Evan says, “I don’t think it’s responsible to take photos of children, personally, unless they are asking me and tapping me on the shoulders.” He adds, “I still would not publish that [photo] for use in commercial situations or any other thing.”
Represent, Don’t Stereotype
Consent isn’t the only issue with photography.
As an outsider, you often enter a community with preconceptions. However, this can lead to stereotyping people rather than representing them. How do you ensure that you bring your subject to life instead of using them as a prop in your story?
It’s important to understand that what you expect from a situation, and how you interpret it, may be different from the reality on the ground. “It’s difficult as a photographer to film people in certain situations,” says Evan, for this precise reason.
I ask him to explain it to me. He says, “For instance, when I come to work, I am sometimes asked to dress a certain way or act a certain way. And those situations might end up stereotyping your subject… because I don’t always [wear those clothes] in my everyday life.”
He adds that similar situations can be found on the farm. If you are visiting someone at their workplace, say a washing station or mill, they may be wearing clothes that they don’t mind getting dirty. But perhaps they don’t want to be portrayed that way. Perhaps they would prefer to be portrayed in better, cleaner clothes – in a way that they feel best represents who they are and the lives they lead.
The moments you choose to photograph are only a part of your subjects’ daily lives. However, the images often represent their entire lives to the people who view them.
Evan suggests spending time getting to know your subject. “I engage with [people in producing communities] on what they do on an everyday level and ask about their life. Then, people are more willing to work with you… and they get to understand what you are about as well…
“I find that not only do I get better photos but I begin better relationships with the people that I’m taking photos of, when I actually have conversations with them.”
What’s more, by including the information you learn about your subject in photo captions – such as their full name, if they give permission – you depict them as a person rather than a stereotype.
Consent: It’s Not Just For Your Subject
It’s not only the photographer who has to get consent. It’s also important if you’re interested in featuring and using other people’s photos. Evan warns against just downloading a photo from the internet unless it explicitly says that it is downloadable.
“It becomes a bigger problem nowadays [with] how much time everyone spends on the internet and how much different media we observe every day. It may seem like you can take things for free and use it however you would like, but the best idea is to, if it’s not stated that there’s copyright in the image, at least look in the properties of the image and the EXIF data and see if somebody has copyrighted the image and if there’s no credit given.”
He also states that “it’s really important to at least credit somebody with taking a photo and, if not, be able to provide some sort of compensation for it.”
From a legal perspective, some images are free to use without credit – those that have a Creative Commons 0 licence, for example. However, if there is no licence attached to the photo, you are responsible for obtaining permission, even if you just want to reshare it on social media. Note, as well, that permission from the subject alone is not sufficient. The photographer (or, if they have sold the rights to the photo, the image owner) must also give permission.
If you decide to reshare an image based on its licence, pay close attention to the terms. Some licences will give permission to use images for non-commercial purposes or for reuse without amendments (which would exclude cropping the image or adding a filter/text).
The issues of consent and representation are complex, but they’re important. It is our responsibility to treat subjects (and photographers!) with respect. And this is even more true when we profit off their hard work in some form.
So, ask permission. Make the effort to ensure that your subjects truly consent. And try to learn more about their lives so that you don’t stereotype them.
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