Representing People: Photography & Visuals

Representation of people and places is powerful. Photography, drawings, and words communicate experiences, opinions, perspectives, and judgments about the people and places depicted in our work. Consider these guidelines for ethical representation.

Blue Page: Representing People: Photography & Visuals

Articles Addressing Ruin Photography
The Case Against Economic Disaster Porn – Noreen Malone, The New Republic
In Defense of Ruin Porn – Richey Piiparinen, Rustwire


Before a site visit, consider conducting the Entering & Exiting Communities training. Discuss the details of your visit in advance with your team.

Photography on Site Visits
When you are taking pictures in a public space, individuals have forfeited their legal right to privacy, but not their ethical right to privacy. Consider these tips:

  • Avoid taking identifiable photos of people: take photos from a distance, from behind, or cropped to obscure their identity.
  • Always be able to explain why you’re taking a photograph.
  • If someone confronts you and asks for a photo to be deleted, comply and demonstrate that you’ve followed through.
  • If someone asks not to be photographed, respect their request.
  • Avoid photographing sensitive or secure buildings or sites, such as the interiors of people’s homes, security infrastructure, or healthcare facilities.

Alternatives to Photography
In some situations, photography may be negatively perceived by members of the community. Consider alternatives such as sketching or note taking. You may want to agree on a framework for observation before you visit the site to help your group make the most of your time.



Asking for permission to take a photo or an image is part of building trust with people you might work with. Permission can range from a verbal agreement to a formal media release.

Verbal Consent

  • Verbal release can be appropriate for instances such as events where consent is implied by participation (such as a photo booth at a public event).
  • You may want to ask: Do you mind if I take your picture? Can I use this photo to show the work I’m doing in this project? You may need to further explain how you would use the photo.

Media Release

  • If you plan to use the likeness of someone in a way that is shared beyond your own reference, you may need to obtain a media release.
  • For official University activities, such as events, outreach, or courses, contact the Communications Office ( to get a media release.
  • Media releases are always needed for minors (children under the age of 18), and must be signed by parents or guardians.



All forms of documentation are biased and incomplete perspectives of reality. It is your responsibility to both capture and utilize representations in an authentic and honest manner. Representation should respect the dignity of the subject, be that a person or a place.

A Moment in Time
Whenever you create a representation of a person or a place, you are capturing a moment in time, which may not represent a full range of current realities nor aspirations. Consider how you can include other angles in your representation.

Ruin Photography
Sometimes referred to as ruin porn, ruin photography is a term referring to photography that documents the decline of the built environment, particularly cities, buildings, and infrastructure. The aesthetics of ruin photography are particularly prevalent in the media, and in discussions about St. Louis and surrounding communities.

While the subject matter can be compelling, it tells a specific story about a place and the people in that place. Be sensitive in considering how to represent the life of a place, and the people in it. For more details, consider commentary from The New Republic and Rust Wire.

Keep in mind these examples of misrepresentation through representation:

  • Using a photo to illustrate people affected by an issue (such as HIV/AIDS) when there is no evidence to support a connection between recognizable individuals and the issue.
  • Using a photo of people in one country to represent people in another country.
  • Making an explicit or an implicit connection between a photograph and a false, biased, or unfair statement about the subject, such as using a generic photograph of minority youth on a report titled “Juvenile Offenders.”



Consider how your subjects will access your completed work. Will an organizational partner view, receive a copy of, or use the work? Will you send individuals a copy or thank them?

Sending a copy of the final product can be a good way say thank you. If you plan to exhibit or present your work, consider inviting the individuals and organizations represented.



This Ethical Code was developed by the International Guild of Visual Peacemakers.

  • We research and respect the culture we are documenting.
  • We value our subjects by taking measures to interact with or involve them, and by treating storytelling and image making as a collaboration.
  • We use discernment in candid photography and videography, and all published material, because another’s dignity and honor matters to us.
  • We inquire about how others are impacted by our images, examining the actual results of our best intentions.
  • We are intentional about highlighting common humanity through images and storytelling.
  • We explore both macro and micro factors that affect a place or people in an effort for multidimensional coverage.
  • We refrain from making an image if asked not to.
  • We foster the courage to delete some images that may reinforce destructive stereotypes, or publish them only along with other images that tell a more complete story.
  • We refine and upgrade our own vision, because well-crafted images have greater potential for effective visual peacemaking.
  • We live generously by helping others around us, wherever we are, and by volunteering to support the visual peacemaking movement with our talents and resources.