A hug shared in the courtroom, moments after a watershed ruling for our communities. People walking in mourning disbelief along a large patchwork quilt, paying homage to AIDS victims. A kiss blessed by the waving of a rainbow flag during a Pride march. A forest of signs lifted towards the sky during a protest. A selfie taken in self-affirmation and euphoria. The joy of a community event hosted in a safe space, with people free to express themselves at last.
No moment is too big or small, in the history of the LGBTI movement, to be documented with photos, videos, and art. In the fight for global equality, these forms of documentation have always been resonating with audiences globally. They helped raise awareness, tell untold stories, mobilise support and solidarity, and catalyse positive change.
But an image can be dangerous, too. It can expose people who may not be out in certain contexts, revealing information they may not be ready or safe enough to reveal.
Photos or videos can endanger human rights defenders by exposing their identities and locations, leaving them susceptible to surveillance, doxxing, and online harassment. In repressive environments, governments or non-state actors may exploit images to target activists, manipulating information to discredit them or their causes. Images captured during protests can be used as incriminating evidence in legal proceedings, resulting in imprisonment or persecution. The rapid dissemination of such content enabled by social media makes people even more exposed to potential harm, including re-victimisation. Artificial Intelligence (AI) is set to bring with itself a whole new set of serious impacts on individual privacy and civic space. In 2021, for example, Amnesty International warned that algorithmic technologies, like facial recognition scanners, could be used as "a form of mass surveillance that violates the right to privacy and threatens the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and expression."
A group of people marching and waving Pride flags (photo by Margaux Bellott on Unsplash)
How to document human rights movements without jeopardising activists’ safety and agency
Empowering individuals to share their stories on their own terms promotes ensures that they are not exploited for the sake of a cause. But how can every part be safe in the process?
To mitigate risks and protect the security of everyone – including LGBTI people and those working to advance their human rights – those who take, share, or publish images need to exercise caution and ethical considerations. Respecting the dignity and agency of the subjects is paramount. Consent should be actively sought, and the potential risks and benefits of participation should be thoroughly explained.
It is essential for activists and their supporters to adopt security measures - including using secure communication channels, being mindful of location settings on devices, and seeking consent from individuals before capturing or sharing their photos. People featured in visual materials should be clearly made aware of, and understand, where and how these pieces of media will be used, and who will have the right to use them. All of this can help reduce the risks associated with documenting activism and the lived realities of LGBTI people.
An intersectional perspective is equally crucial in photo and video documentation. The LGBTI community is diverse - with experiences shaped by ethnicity, economic status, religion, and other factors. Representing this diversity is essential to avoid perpetuating stereotypes and to foster a comprehensive understanding of the challenges faced by different individuals within the community.
A crucial ally: the Digital Enquirer Kit
The Digital Enquirer Kit is an e-learning course about media literacy, verification, and how to navigate the internet safely – with crucial information on ensuring that images are taken, analysed and used in ethical and safe ways.
Developed by Tactical Tech and implemented by the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ), the Digital Enquirer Kit tackles identifying and responding to misinformation, verifying online information, and collecting, documenting and sharing research processes and findings with care.
The kit encourages everyone to think of safety as essential to documentation. As it happens for activism at large, much of the ethical image production revolves around the “Do No Harm” concept of prioritising the comfort and well-being of the persons conducting the project as well as that of their sources and contacts.
“You should always refer back to the ‘do no harm principle’ when you embark on an inquiry, document information, or share information with others”, the Digital Enquirer Kit points out. “The ‘Do no harm’ principle assumes that all your behaviours and actions have consequences of some sort, be they positive or negative. (…) When in doubt, choose behaviours that minimise risks for you and others and help you stay safe.”
When documenting LGBTI activism and lived realities, some rules always apply:
Security is a collective effort
Staying safe is not a one-person responsibility: by protecting devices and accounts, you also ensure that the people who have trusted you with their opinions, contact information, and work details also remain safe. The same applies when you ensure that your work is distributed through safe channels only after having obtained the consent of the people involved.
Informed consent is key
Before you share a photo or video portraying a person, make sure to check in with them first: be transparent, and clearly explain how, where and by whom the content will be used, and outline the consequences deriving from it to be disseminated, potentially also outside your spheres of control. If they say no, accept it and find a different solution. Until you hear back from them with a clear “yes”, don't use that information. Erase a photo or video's metadata before sharing it. Always ensure that the people portrayed is aware of the potential consequences of those images being disseminated.
Online harm also goes offline
A person’s online identity reveals a lot about their offline life, and images may contain a lot of sensitive information. For example, someone could figure out their whereabouts after recognising a well-known street or landmark in a photo, and the risk may come physically close to them as a result.
The photo composition shows two hands tossing a camera in the air, crossed by a rainbow halo.
The text reads "Take part in the ILGA World LGBTI photo and video contest". The ILGA World logo sits at the bottom right of the image
Share your ethical photos and videos with us
In conclusion, photo and video documentation are indispensable tools for advancing LGBTI human rights worldwide. However, this documentation cannot do without being sourced ethically and considering the security risks of the people portrayed. The ethical collection of visual materials ensures that the voices and experiences of the LGBTI community are heard and respected, without compromising their dignity or safety. By capturing their stories with sensitivity and empowering them to participate, we can create a more inclusive and just world for all.
With the support of GIZ, ILGA World has launched a contest to collect ethical photo and video materials to highlight the beautiful diversity of the global effort to advance the human rights of LGBTI people worldwide.
The initiative calls on photographers and video makers around the world to bring to life the power of LGBTI human rights through their images — illustrating self- and community-affirmation, euphoria, despair, hope, human rights advances or setbacks in ways small and large. Are you ready to participate? Follow this link to take part in our LGBTI photo and video contest!