The fine line that every photographer must walk

Cave Mine, Ghana. Photo by Lisa Kristine

By Ray Leyesa

“A still photograph stops time. It gives the viewer a moment to think, to react, to feel.”

This is how the acclaimed photojournalist Renee Byer described the power of pictures in storytelling in her TEDx Talk in Japan last year. She made the point that  still images in documentary photography need to both inform and bring understanding to issues, all  in an instant.

Now imagine the following dilemma. You are dropped in the middle of a rescue operation of trafficked victims from modern day slavery. You are there to document what’s going on. How should you go about it?

Journalists, photojournalists and humanitarians all follow a code of ethics. But for  international organizations like IOM dealing directly with the victims of trafficking and other  violations, there’s an extra  duty of care aimed at ensuring that that those being assisted are never exposed to further harm or danger through exposure in the media.

In short, this means that victims of trafficking should never be identifiable in the photographs. Thus photographers “blur” elements such as faces, locations, and markers in order to keep the identity of the subjects hidden.

The United Nations Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking (UN.GIFT) takes it a step further and gives the media a list of what not to do when covering human trafficking stories:

  • Be a little more human when doing a story.
  • Do not treat the survivor as an object.
  • Refrain from treating them as 'victims'.
  • Try and avoid taking pictures of faces of the survivors.
  • Try not to ask the victims questions that violate their dignity.
  • Try not to take them (on a mental recap of their actual journey) to the brothel.
  • Try not to be patronizing, compassionate or even sympathetic.
  • Do not distort facts to sensationalize even with blurbs, captions and visuals.
  • Avoid tabloid-like, sensational headlines.
  • Avoid an us-versus-them attitude.
  • Be objective.

With all these guidelines, why do we still see photos showing the faces of victims of trafficking? 

In mainstream media, photographs of victims of trafficking often get printed because of a general agreement that the issue is too big, too important, and too urgent that it cannot be communicated enough without using high impact images that shock people into action. Even UN.GIFT recognizes the media’s role to educate people on the many appearances of global human trafficking. The UN agency adds that media should present the problem in a more humanistic or realistic way with all its painful details.

Take the work of humanitarian photographer Lisa Kristine, for instance. Kristine’s work shows harsh realities of modern-day slavery. Her photos are powerful and haunting and behind each image is nothing but a tragic story. Her work, which covers 28 years of documenting human trafficking and enslavement in 100 countries on six continents, elicits discussions among humanitarian organizations, governments and civil society.

In an interview with The Huffington Post Kristine was asked if she thinks her photos can change the perception that slavery is over. “I hope so. Because when people find out what's going on, their attitude changes. I've seen this issue light a fire under people the way it did with me,” she answered.

“We are all connected. And we all have human value. That's what my work is about,” Kristine added.

Watch Lisa Kristine's TEDx Talk:


Lake Volta is the largest man-made lake in the world. It is estimated that there are at least 4,000 children enslaved on Lake Volta. Photo by Lisa Kristine

Mounds of Gold, Ghana. Underground there is always risk of a cave-in. Above ground the loose earth gives way beneath their feet. Photo by Lisa Kristine

Orange, India. Photo by Lisa Kristine


Ray Leyesa is a Communications Specialist in IOM