f:Entrepreneur #ialso Breakfast Series – Let’s Talk Photo Ethics

Do you really think about the images you use for your business and where you get them from? We recently held a fantastic #ialso breakfast session, hosted by #ialso100 Savannah Dodd, founder of the Photography Ethics Centre.

Savannah shared her business story and talked us through the ethics around using imagery in our businesses – on our websites, our social media and overall marketing. It was a fantastic session full of great insight and Savannah has been kind enough to share her knowledge with us here. We hope you enjoy and thank you to Savannah and all those that joined us!

Let’s start with some statistics:

  • When people hear information, they’re likely to remember only 10% of that information three days later. However, if a relevant image is paired with that same information, people retained 65% of the information three days later. (Hubspot)
  • Research conducted by Ebay has shown that photographs are directly responsible for increasing buyer’s attention, trust, and conversion rate. (Pixelz)
  • This is even before we talk about social media, where over 500 million Instagram users are active every day (Statista)
  • On Twitter, images also proliferate. Tweets with images receive 150% more retweets than tweets without images (Buffer)

These are just a few of the very good reasons why 88% of businesses now prefer to use visuals in their published content. (SAGipl)

This is also why there are innumerable workshops and articles about how to create and use visual content in businesses. But there are few – if any! – other workshops about how to use visual content ethically.

This is a problem because 90% of consumers are just as likely to purchase from as to boycott a company based on their ethical practices alone. (Sustainable Brands) Companies that face backlash over unethical visual media have suffered losses of trust, credibility, and profit.

So what do I mean when I am talking about photo ethics, and how does this relate to your business?

There are many topics we could cover, but I’m going to zero in on just two for now: image usage and visual representation.

Image Usage

There are both legal and ethical considerations for using visual media, and these are often not the same.  Just because something is legal does not mean it’s ethical. Moreover, I am not a legal expert, I am an ethicist, so please seek legal counsel before implementing my recommendations, as needed.

The first consideration is copyright. It is not acceptable to take and use photographs from a Google search. Just because it’s on the internet doesn’t mean it is in the public domain. The use of copyrighted work without permission is copyright infringement.

If you want to use stock imagery, you could legally use a stock image library, for example Shutterstock, Adobe Stock, and Getty Images. There are also free stock image libraries like Unsplash, but there are additional ethical considerations to look out for when using free image libraries.

Flickr can be a useful resource because tells you how images are licensed for public use under Creative Commons. There are many different types of Creative Commons licenses. Just because something has a Creative Commons license does not mean you can use the image as you like. You need to understand the license type.

Instead of using a stock image library, you could contact an image maker directly for permission to use existing work or you can employ an image maker to create work for you. You can either agree with an image maker to purchase the copyright for an image or a license for use.

It is important to understand that licenses are usually for a specific use, limited by time, format, number of uses, etc. If you want to use the image for something not agreed at the time of licensing, you will need to buy another license. Copyright, on the other hand, makes you the owner of the image, giving you full control over how the image is used and for how long. This is, understandably, more expensive than licensing and not all imagemakers are willing to sell the copyright to an image.

The second consideration for image use is consent.

When a person is identifiable in an image used for commercial purposes (to advertise or sell a person, product, or service), you need a model release form. Property releases are also necessary depending on where images were taken (i.e. private property, museums, etc.) and what is in an image (i.e. landmarks, copyrighted artistic or architectural works, etc.)

When you are paying for stock images, there should be information available about whether model and/or property release forms have been signed, if required. However, free stock sites usually do not have this information. If you are downloading stock imagery for commercial use, and there is not information about model and/or property releases, opt for images where people are not identifiable and that appear to have been taken in public spaces.

It is important to remember that people do not need to show their face to be identifiable. Distinctive tattoos, birthmarks, and other markings can identify an individual. 

Visual representation

This is the stuff that really excites me. This is the “why” of photography ethics.

Photographs shape how we see the world, and when we take and share photographs, we are shaping how others see the world. This is true of all photographs, including art, advertising, and news media.

This means that we have tremendous power when we take and share an image. However, when we are thinking about advertising, we are usually not thinking about this representational power as a social responsibility.

Every time we share an image in advertising, we have an opportunity to consider what messages we are promoting. We have an opportunity to subvert or reinforce stereotypes, to shape people’s assumptions or expectations. Have a look at Dove’s Real Beauty Pledge as an example. Also check out Sophie Harris Taylor’s recent portrait series for Dove.

Another example is Seea’s Diversify the Lineup campaign that was inspired by the history of unequal access to the coastline in the USA and the legacy that this has left, meaning that “60% of African American children can’t swim, compared to 30% of white children.” Seea have made a commitment to diversify the lineup in their swimwear to include people of colour, and also people of different ages, body shapes, and sizes.

It can be difficult for marketers to know how to do this without tokenism. Seea have done this by making a short film that explains the history of discrimination and segregation at beaches in the USA to educate their customers. They also make a point of using models’ names.


The Movement Models agency recently posted to Instagram about the importance of referring to models by their names. They explained that they are having more requests for Black models since the Black Lives Matter movement. Although it is great to increase the representation of Black people and people of colour in advertising, the requests often ask just for a “black male model.” Their agency represents 16 black male, non-binary, and male presenting model. They state: “the only thing they have in common is that they’re black, this says too little, but means too much. Most telling is that this doesn’t happen to our white models, ever.”

In their post, they ask their clients to request models by name as a first step in getting rid of tokenism and otherism in the modelling industry.

Summing up

We covered a lot, including:

  • Why photograph ethics matters for businesses
  • Understanding copyright (and copyright infringement!)
  • Stock imagery and licensing
  • Model and property release forms
  • Visual representation and social responsibility

I hope that this has given you a better understanding of how to be ethical in the way that you use visual media in your business.

NB: Ethical considerations relevant to photos will be relevant to other visual media like video and film, as well.