Youth privacy versus good communications

We have had a debate at Covenant House for many years around using photographs of our youth or "clients" in our promotional materials like the annual report and other donor communications. We have used real youth and we have used models. Most recently we began using stock photography.

The first time we ever used real youth in our general information brochure, two youth that had participated changed their minds after the brochure had been printed. We reprinted the brochure at enormous cost. After that we got more stringent in our "releases" ensuring that youth signed their consent in an attempt to prevent another situation where a young person regretted their decision to be photographed.

We tried models a few times and while it made using the photos "easier", the "look" of the models was not genuine and I felt our communications materials suffered as a result. While we’ve been back and forth with the model versus real youth debate several times, the advent of affordable stock photography has provided us with good quality, relatively realistic looking youth photos. The drawback is that we no longer have the joy of working with Kent Kallberg, who has been our photographer for many years and always provided us with excellent photographs at a greatly reduced price.  Likewise, we can’t show pictures of our programs in action.

We have had a debate at Covenant House for many years around using photographs of our youth or "clients" in our promotional materials like the annual report and other donor communications. We have used real youth and we have used models. Most recently we began using stock photography.

The first time we ever used real youth in our general information brochure, two youth that had participated changed their minds after the brochure had been printed. We reprinted the brochure at enormous cost. After that we got more stringent in our "releases" ensuring that youth signed their consent in an attempt to prevent another situation where a young person regretted their decision to be photographed.

We tried models a few times and while it made using the photos "easier", the "look" of the models was not genuine and I felt our communications materials suffered as a result. While we’ve been back and forth with the model versus real youth debate several times, the advent of affordable stock photography has provided us with good quality, relatively realistic looking youth photos. The drawback is that we no longer have the joy of working with Kent Kallberg, who has been our photographer for many years and always provided us with excellent photographs at a greatly reduced price.  Likewise, we can’t show pictures of our programs in action.

This issue came to light again this morning when I read this article in the Vancouver Sun about the misappropriation of people’s photos on TheDirty.com. One of the reasons I decided to stop using real youth in our materials was because it meant we could never post them on our website and it was my fear of their photos being manipulated in some way that lead me to this (even before the creation of sites like TheDirty). We had student groups taking stills of our youth photos and imbedding them into videos which they then posted on YouTube and this brought home the reality of having no control over what would happen to our youth’s photos once they were posted on the web.

Lastly, I always had anxiety around using real youth in our materials because even though they gave their permission "freely", the bottom line is that these young people come to us in crisis: we feed and clothe them, we provide them sanctuary from the streets and exploitation. I never wanted them to feel like they "owed" us something by participating in a photo shoot.  I didn’t want to become an exploiter of the exploited.

So, I want to ask you this:   if a young person gives their permission freely and wants their photograph on our website, should we allow it?  Should we encourage their autonomy or protect them for "their own good".

What do you think?

A model, photograph by Kent Kallberg

Stock Photo