On photographic consent in war zones.

What I am about to describe happens all the time. Or rather, doesn’t happen at all: getting consent for a photo from a refugee or in a war zone. There are three stories where this has come up in my life, so I’ll explain in narrative form.

I was aware of the concept of consent before I went to Syria. In March of 2013, I joined the Syrian American Council on a relief trip to Qah refugee Camp, Jarjanaz & Kafranbel in Idlib, and Aleppo City. I went to Syria with the intention of making connections and working as a freelance journalist (if all these non-Syrian people were freelancing to tell the story of my people, why shouldn’t I step forward?). In hindsight, I really went out of a desperate attempt to get closer to Syria while trying to be useful; I also went in the hopes of sorting out my own confused emotions.

There should be something disturbing about the idea of being able to walk into and out of a war zone while other people are trapped between borders. But this doesn’t register with the crowds of war-tourists going towards Syria, or the random freelance journalists who flock to the borders hoping to get a few great shots. The former go for a life adventure out of morbid curiosity, the latter out of a delusion that their random photo will benefit the subject. Both suffer from privilege blindness.

I say “suffer” because there are tangible ways to help people in war zones that sometimes require traveling to the region, and privilege blindness obscures this. Usually this boils down to leveraging resources and media connections to push Syrian voices forward and to keep Syrian bodies nourished. Eliot Higgins, aka Brown Moses, writes about weapons flowing into Syria by watching Youtube videos in the UK. Because of his research, he’s been able to discredit Assadist narratives. Digital Activism is a real thing, but doesn’t seem to be fully recognized by most people.

The first two days I spent in Reyhanli with a group of men, going door to door to meet refugees. I asked every family if I could take their photo. They all said no, but allowed me to take a picture of their setting or sometimes, their kids. Why would they let a strange woman with a DSLR take their photo during one of the worst times of their lives? Because she speaks English and says she’s a journalist?

I shared the photos with my friends. One photographer pal told me: you gotta try and get people in your photos.

As the trip went on, a few more westerners (Syrian American) told me I was extreme in asking every person for permission before taking a photo. So I loosened up a bit. Some people I asked for permission, and others I “jumped in the moment”.

There were three photos in particular that I did not ask permission for:

  1. As a family arrived at Qah refugee camp, newly displaced. Their tiny van was so tightly packed that the people and their belongings very nearly sprung out as soon as it stopped.
  2. A young toddler inside a tent, with her father (?) laboring with a shovel in the background
  3. A relief worker and a local woman in Aleppo, while he was telling her that she would not get a food basket.

I thought the shots were artistically good, that they would be usable to tell a story back in America. Then slowly, I realized what had really happened each time.

  1. As I crouched to get this shot, a girl from the van came up and put her hand out and said “stop, don’t take our picture”. I ignored her as I composed the shot. She is there in the photo, looking at me with a mad expression.
  2. Behind the serene toddler is her angry father, looking at me through the lens, probably wondering why I would stick my camera into their new home.
  3. This is such a painful moment, and the sharp, pained, confused look she gave me should have been enough to make me put down my camera and give her some privacy.

That’s the thing about war: privacy is a privilege for those who have walls and food. Just because, for example, I was out in the open air as a family was becoming displaced does not mean I had a right to document what was likely one of the most painful days of their lives. Syrians are also rightly concerned about their own safety and many (if not most) prefer not to have their photos taken.

I stopped taking photos for a long time, and focused on raising awareness in Texas for Syria. I started paying close attention to war photos coming out of Syria. Were the subjects dignified? How would I feel if my uncle’s photo was used in that way? Did that child give consent?

This isn’t just to be picky. Photos are how we see ourselves. The Syrians should see themselves as strong and dignified people during this very difficult time. Yielding consent is a form of agency.

I found that Syrian photographers took very different photos than Non-Syrian photographers. Syrian photographers took photos of landscapes, rallies, demonstrations, and dignified portraits of people. Non Syrian photographers would not likely not prize these “tame” photos. The latter took action shots of war, photos of people in their worst emotional state. Non Syrian photographers want to see pain; Syrian photographers want to provide a throne. (I am aware that Syrians use photography to document the death toll and crimes against humanity, however here I mean photographer as one who uses the camera for expression or someone who is a freelance journalist with a “style”).

Fast forward to last fall, and I’m speaking at a liberal arts college in California as an ambassador for Watan NGO. The director Mouna has always made a vocal point to use dignified photos of children in her powerpoint. “Make sure the kids look nice! They must look nice…Shiyam that’s not a nice photo, the girl has a little smudge on her cheek! Use a nice one!”

After presenting on Watan’s projects using Mouna’s powerpoint, a group from the audience came up to me. The three of them were professors, if I remember correctly. One gentleman told me he noticed a discrepancy in my description of Qah as an unsanitary place and the photos from the children’s school. “The kids look clean but you said the camp is unhygienic. Why don’t you use different, more moving photos?” He gave the UN’s photo of a Syrian girl used in Melissa Flemming’s TED Talk as an example.

“Did she ask consent?” I asked him.

He started to protest my question, but then thought about it. Probably not. Think about the difference between a group photo of your child in a school vs. a portrait of your child frowning in a refugee camp.

The last story I have to share is about the boyfriend of my best friend. He happens to be an Alexia Foundation winner, an Eddie Adam’s workshop alum, a TEDx Speaker & published author on photography as a medium for advocacy. He’s well known for two topics, and probably doesn’t realize he’s never worked outside his own identity.

During the attack on Kobane, he took a spontaneous short trip to the Syrian border. I was alarmed: it’s very dangerous at the border, not only for journalists but for the residents too. I asked him, taking care to be non-aggressive, what his goal or project was for the trip. He couldn’t answer my question and went to sleep. The next day, he uploads a photos of refugees on instagram with the hashtag #syrianrefugees.

Anyways, he winds up blocking me on Facebook after I comment “Did you ask for permission before taking this photo?”


EDIT: Wow, lots of good feedback! I want to acknowledge this is post is a first draft. I wrote it as I would have told my friends, had we lived in the same city still. I recognize there are some holes in this piece. In the future, I’ll re-write it, and include photo examples for each point.


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