Navigating accountability in humanitarian photography at sea: a snapshot of embedded photographer practices in obtaining informed consent during I/NGO search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean

Navigating accountability in humanitarian photography at sea: a snapshot of embedded photographer practices in obtaining informed consent during I/NGO search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean
Masters Thesis
Arran Smith
Uppsala University, 2022
Abstract
This thesis aims to contribute to ethical discussions on the production of photography in different humanitarian contexts, and in circumstances where it is facilitated by nongovernmental and international non-governmental organisations (I/NGOs). Humanitarian photography is often reproduced and circulated in various forms by different actors, highlighting the need for research on the actions, decisions, and interactions that influence how these images are produced. An extensive literature review captures the many ethical challenges surrounding humanitarian photography and provides an overview of related standards. A conceptual framework is then built around informed consent as an accountability mechanism, with consideration for certain relational and situational factors that influence the quality and effectiveness of the process of obtaining consent. Emphasising photographer and organisational accountability, an analysis of how photographers apply the concept of informed consent and its potential as an accountability mechanism is explored through the case study of embedded photographers in search and rescue (SAR) I/NGO operations in the Mediterranean Sea. Four semi-structured in-depth interviews were completed with photographers involved in SAR I/NGO missions in the Mediterranean from 2015 to 2021. The interviews suggest that a continuous and deliberate process of individual, organisational, and collaborative self-regulation unfolds throughout a mission, largely through verbal communication and body language, in an effort to obtain consent to take or use images of people who have been rescued. Use of formal means such as written consent forms are only rarely used. Photographs during the rescues were generally taken without prior consent, and photographers’ ability to obtain meaningful subsequent informed consent was easily compromised due to the unpredictable conditions during SAR operations and the variation across I/NGO-photographer partnerships. These findings support the need for further dialogue in this context to ensure that practices and processes related to the production of humanitarian photography, such as obtaining informed consent, are compatible with humanitarian principles, respect the rights and dignity of people affected by crisis, and foster greater accountability.

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