Who’s behind the camera? And why?

by Sasha Alyson

Why don’t aid agencies like to hire local talent?

When UNICEF needed photos from Bolivia, India, Jordan, Malawi, Myanmar and Niger to illustrate their clean-water campaign, did they hire local photographers in each of those countries?

No, they engaged an Australian man living in New York.

The photographer they chose was the award-winning Ashley Gilbertson, at VII Photo Agency, who produced good work for their “#Wateris: a family affair” campaign. In my opinion, however, that’s no excuse for UNICEF hiring him rather than local photographers in each country.

But that’s how the aid industry works. Three years later, UNICEF published “Crisis in the Central African Republic” (above). Every single photo is tagged “Gilbertson VII Photo”.

It’s not just UNICEF. The five reports shown in the next frame were published (often jointly) by World Vision, Save the Children, Plan International, ChildFund, and W.H.O., as well as UNICEF. The first report is titled Progress on household drinking water, sanitation and hygiene 2000-2017; Special focus on inequalities. It was published by UNICEF and the World Health Organization. The cover photograph is by an Italian man.

Five reports from U.N. agencies and Western NGOs show life in the global South. Why don’t they use photographers who live there?

In these five reports, U.N. agencies and international NGOs tell how they help people in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. But the cover photos (and often most or all of the photos inside) were taken by Americans and Western Europeans.

If these organizations are concerned about inequalities, why don’t they make it a policy to always hire local talent in the countries they wish to help?

It seems like a no-brainer. Hiring local photographers would provide jobs where jobs are needed. It would help people in the global South to build their resumes and develop stronger skills. It would reward those who have invested in doing so. It would mean that aid money which is supposed to help these countries, would actually go into them without immediately bouncing back out. It would show respect for the local people, rather than treating them merely as a population in need of help.

Aid agencies typically hire local staff only for low- and mid-level positions. That’s an important story, but a different one. Here, I’m asking: Why do they so often pass up local talent when they need video work, graphic designers, and photographers, in favor of Westerners?

For some jobs, such as a big video project, they may argue that the skills needed are not available locally. Given the poor state of public education in most of these countries – much of which is a result of disastrous policies pushed by the U.N. – there may be some validity to this. But freezing out locals is not going to improve the situation, it simply creates greater inequality. At the very least, these agencies should insist on local involvement as much as possible. They do not.

In the case of photography, there’s no good excuse. Every country has photographers able to produce excellent work… and they’ll do it for less money than a globe-trotting Westerner. Why does the aid industry give so many assignments — especially the bigger ones with higher pay and travel opportunities and which are crucial for building up resumes — to Westerners?

Several factors are clearly at work.

First, it’s easier. Aid workers usually only stay in a country for one or two years. They socialize with other ex-pats, who often make a comfortable living by providing free-lance services to NGOs. Nurturing these connections comes naturally, and will benefit everybody’s career and social life.

Furthermore, the aid industry comes with an Us-and-Them mindset. We are the ones with answers, and we’re paid to help. They are the ones who need our help; they’ll be the subject of our photos. In this ethos, Westerners are the first people considered for any skilled job.

And there is paternalism, prejudice, racism… whatever you choose to call it. The Western aid worker is more comfortable working with other Westerners. There are cultural differences, and often language problems, if you work with local talent. Aid workers may, without even consciously thinking about it, assume that people like themselves will do a better job.

But while we might have explanations for all this, that doesn’t excuse it. It is a foundation block of karma colonialism.

Twitter comments

The tweet which announced this story has generated much lively commentary. Here are highlights.

Justus Keith, @matandaJK: True 100%. I am in Uganda, Africa and I totally know and I have experienced it as a photographer.

Mebo Philip, @MPhipex: Anyone with practical experience knows the aid agencies have a purpose and their pictures must meet their very expectations for “business” to continue. These pictures must always portray the poor countries as ridiculously helpless, they alone have to be the saviours.

Karabelo Mosia, @MosiaKarabelo: simple, we’re not as poor as they make us look!! the Australian man has a mandate to capture only the poor.

John Jude Adnan, @BENDYMAN20: Cynical me sometimes thinks this AID is similar to the Missionaries of yonder who had slave traders in tow at some point.

Joy Haines, @JoyHaines6: Excellent piece. Sadly witnessed this mindset, ‘up close & personal’ when I lived & worked in West Africa back in mid ‘80’s… 21st century hasn’t improved our western-mentality much!

Vita Fugit, @FugitVita: It’s how the Aid game works. If you’ve worked in overseas aid/development and you haven’t noticed this then you’ve either failed to open your eyes or you’ve chosen to look the other way.

Alimatu Dimonekene, @TheAlima: I see this also in the fight to end violence against women and girls. Every conference and summit I’ve attended has a face of a child from Africa, Asia or Latin America. Yet in making decisions around funding and expertise you hardly see these same faces.

Taremwa karakire, @TaremwaD: I relate to this story. I was once part of a USAID project in Uganda where they always hired photographers all the way from USA to come and document the project.

Mana, @Jun1orm: A local photographer will do his best to make his community show the best it has to offer while a foreign one will do exactly what they want.

iNk, @nwaoma007: The Australian man knows that his brief is to tell a specific facet of the story which promotes the narrative UNICEF wants to disseminate.

Sunflower, @TalelovesSuga: This is why I don’t like it when a white person points a camera at me… You can find yourself on a UNICEF poster.

Ruby, @Oghenerume9: I had always known this in my heart but it was confirmed when I was working for one NGO and actually saw with my eyes that it was all fraud. Life has been worse for the poor in developing countries since more and more NGO’s came around

O&B, @The44Families: This is business people. You really believe UNICEF and Co want equality and self-sufficiency in Africa, Asia, and Latin America? Say they succeed in their purported goals, what then will be the reason(s) to keep them around? They need the needy to be relevant

david pearce, @davidpe11188501: A local head of UNRWA [United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East] told me that the children learn to cry on command for foreign visitors, esp photographers. Otherwise, the children look and act quite normal. They need crying children to sell their product.
[Sasha adds: In her book The Crisis Caravan, Dutch journalist Linda Polman records many stories of the quest for heart-rending photos. Of a camp for amputees in Sierra Leone, she writes: “Like pit bulls in a kindergarten, journalists from all over the world pounced on the story of the amputees…. ‘It’s never been so easy to collect money as it is with the pictures of these poor devils,’ said an INGO staff member in Freetown.”]

Faye Pixie, @PixieFaye: The Us and Them thing is so true. Even if some of these organizations are trying to be benign, they’re still being colonialists about our countries. Photography is inherently biased as you choose what you want to photograph to “spread awareness”.

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35 thoughts on “Who’s behind the camera? And why?

  1. You are true about that karma colonialism. I also wanted to ask myself the same question why it’s always done like that.

      • Well, how sure do we need to be? I’m not 100% sure I won’t get hit by a truck tonight. I’m going to make plans for the weekend anyway. Even in the rare cases where someone might be doing it free, (a) they’re getting to build their resume with a high-profile job that poorer people couldn’t get and (b) other issues of how the country is depicted, still apply.

      • Who do you think would pay for a story like this?
        Well the writer has spoken for those locals in the film and photography industry.

        NGOs are drinking wine as they preach water. In filming they had rather use a cameraman’s budget rather than a professional producer’s budget because it will be cheaper for them.

        The cameraman is but the whole crew “ONE MAN CREW” for their productions.

        This means Producer, lightman,editor and sound man roles are ignored.


        With this kind of practice shall we ever resolve the unemployment issue that NGOs are always fighting for?

        The other growing worse scenario is management of the social media.They seek a graphic designer, a video editor, a photographer, video man and content developer in one human being. These are 5 jobs 4 of which are lost because of a budget choice.

        Governments need to Act.

      • Doesnt really matter whether he was paid or not. Having his name there is exposure enough, which may be even more important than the pay he would have received. especially for creative works

  2. These realities stare Africa and the development agencies in the face.

    I have often wondered what percentage of the money on the so called development of Africa actually stay in Africa and with Africans as against the percentage that bounces back out to its source?

    • Many others have wondered too. It’s difficult to get facts, but a few have done so. Mark Schuller, in Killing with Kindness: Haiti, International Aid, and NGOs (Rutgers University Press) writes that “fully 93 percent of USAID funds in Haiti came back to the United States.” And here’s Nobel Laureate Angus Deaton, in The Great Escape: “By some estimates, 70 percent of aid from the United States never reaches the recipient countries, at least not in cash.”

  3. I hear that some UNICEF projects expenditures in bureocracy, trips, and VIP lifes for internarional personell consume 90% of “AID”. Maybe it is not true, but UNICEF never shows the details; only show the total budget.

  4. I just found this article on twitter and although it tries to point out the grey areas of development aid, I do not feel like this article is balanced, you cannot use a one size fits all approach to analyse the activities of all aid agencies including charities.

    I see what you are trying to do with this article, you cannot say aid is evil without taking about the corrupt system of leadership in developing countries. In my opinion, leaders have not shown responsibility with what they have and to their people. Nobody forced them to receive aid from donor agencies. The donor gets to choose how their money is spent and on what.

    So, instead of people wasting their time bashing aid agencies, I think it high time we start demanding accountability from local leaders who have left their responsibilities for other agencies to shoulder. It goes hand-in-hand, accountability should be demanded from both sides – development aid agencies and the states in need of development assistance.


    • Thank you for thoughtfully contributing. I agree with much of that you say. Yes, many countries — richer and poorer — have corrupt leadership. I write as a USA citizen and taxpayer, though living abroad, and feel my responsibility is to protest my country, and taxes, going to support this corruption. That will make it less difficult for people in each country to reduce or end the corruption. It won’t be easy, but it will be up to them. Nobody else is going to do it for them. We in the West must stop contributing to it.

  5. With all due respect, there is much more to the story. See this quote from UNICEF’s head of photography:
    “ Sometimes for budget reasons I’m not sending a photographer from, say, Europe to cover a story in Latin America or West Africa. I’ll look for someone who is based in Latin America or West Africa. I might be actively looking for photographers there through Blink, through contacts on the ground or my own networks. Sometimes we like the outside eye, but sometimes the local eye is useful.

    PDN: How is a local photographer useful?
    CN: We have different perspectives as photographers and everything in our past influences how we view the world. This is reflected in the coverage. With a photographer who isn’t the nationality of the country they’re working in, we can get more of a global picture sometimes, or help in disseminating the work in the market in which they’re located. There are a lot of local, national photographers whose work is of international quality. They often have a deep connection to the fibers of society, and a greater understanding sometimes not only about the repercussions of the news, but the little asides, the little unspoken things going on.

    Language is also a factor often. It’s about the relationship that photographers have with their subjects. You can see in the coverage the connection that photographers have with their subjects, whether they speak the same language or not. I think that goes to the photographer’s experience, their motivation, their commitment to the issues they’re covering.”

    • Thank you, glad to have another perspective. But I don’t think it helps UNICEF’s case when they say that “for budget reasons” they sometimes hire a local photographer rather than a European. And as others have pointed out, what this policy refers to as “the outside eye” may in reality mean, “somebody who can make the whole place look helpless if we weren’t here.”

  6. They really didn’t do their research well AT ALL. There is NO validity that people leaving in the continent can’t handle a measly DSLR camera. See names like Tayo Aina, Clarence Shot It, Me (Though, I major in YouTube videos and vlogs 😅)

    But what UNICEF does is hire foreign talents and go into the slums of Africa to keep pushing the narrative that Africa is a dying continent.

    If they take their time, they would know and tell the stories of the other Africans who have helped and are still helping, Africans who create job opportunities, Africans who let strangers into their homes and accept them as theirs.

    Africa is NOT a dying continent. If you come, you would see it for yourself.
    When you meet people, please don’t be flabbergasted by our “good” English (your ancestors forced that on us).
    Talk to us and you would see that we are just as human as you are.

    And honestlyyy, if you really want to help Africa? Our problem isn’t clean water, or food. Our truest battle is the power that governs us. They care more about the money in their pockets than the citizens themselves.

    And I can vouch that WE have what it takes to build our continent (P.S. There are MANYYY developed countries in Africa).

    Until we get a leader that would favour its citizens, I’m afraid UNICEF and other Western/European organisations would keep coming to the slums of Africa for “pity-media” story headlines.

  7. Not only NGO been watching this foreign news tv channels, when they are doing a story about Africa, the pictures and videos are always irrelevant to the news. Our emerging modern superhighways or posh estates never and will never be covered, they’re always busy covering the slums or a malnourished child etc.

  8. Unfortunately that’s the way life and the world is. When it comes to venture capital and grants for the NGOs in the developing world, priority is always given to those headed or lead by a non locals. Those managed and headed by foreigners are prioritised and easily considered for funding hence leaving the truly experienced and expert locals without options.

  9. I have a Son who graduated London Film School with a Masters degree In film production but cannot get jobs as advertised by all UN agencies. It is sad.
    Dr. George Josiah

  10. Well said Sasha
    Unfortunately not only in that Industry, mostly this is the game. If they only think on having great photos, locals can elevate great realistic situations than them.
    Your article is so pure and hot, it’s money for them but they keep us frozen initially poor and poorly but making sure we don’t get anything from them.
    But also it’s a kind of racism, that don’t hire them , but give ours.

  11. It takes a lot of spirit to see beyond the veil of deception so thick that it can be confused to lift life . Sasha, i appreciate the efforts on this and it has opened my eyes to many thoughts i have. Everywhere is covered with a thick veil of deception. Africa is the laboratory.

  12. Blames should also be given to our Leaders in Africa, they failed to capacitate their people. Honesty, Africa is still under slavery.Unless we put Africa first all of these setbacks will stop.

    • Agreed, there are many causes. Thanks for responding. As an American taxpayer and voter, I feel we in the West should stop our governments from giving money and other support to these governments — which then have no accountability to their own populations.

  13. Interesting perspective.
    Often, even getting on those job boards as an African isn’t easy, from personal experience. But of what use would it be if multinational development agencies like UNICEF are already biased in their award of jobs and contracts? They simply go to Blink and pick a Western photographer.

  14. Great work, Sasha.

    As an African, I’ve also found it hard to even register on international job boards. I suspect that the algorithms lock us out. I know of folks who even apply for jobs online but the moment they select an African country of residence, they’re locked out of the process.

  15. I’m a West African to be precise a Liberian studying plant and soil science, one of the biggest problem Africa is facing with is leadership structure as a science student I believe that population doesn’t matter what matter is efficiency.
    We have all necessary resources that can develop Africa but before developing Africa our minds need to be transform

  16. Western and all foreign aid agencies have not worked and will not ever work on the African soil.
    AFRICA will only realize themselves if foreigners stop poking their noses in its affairs.

  17. I do not feel that Western governments should discontinue aid solely based on African countries not taking care of their people. Just because a certain government is unjust, immoral, self serving does not mean its people are compliant and or even agree with the standing president/government. Citizens should never be punished for what their government officials do. I can only imagine the atrocities that would happen if governments began to think this way: bombs would be dropped on civilian cities, adults and children would be murdered and/or forced to live in the freezing forests because of what their (most worst in history dictators), anyone of a certain religion/race would be restricted be it travel, shot at, families being forcefully seperated only to be throw in cages and forever lost. Could you imagine these horrors? Could you imagine living in a country that would do these things? These Citizens need to be helped BECAUSE their government have dropped the ball on them. The citizens and governments that can, should pick up the ball. To say: we do NOT agree with this, we care about our citizens and the worlds citizens. We WILL be better than you because we have more love than you.

  18. It is also happening here in Nigeria, instead of using the local photographers who actually know the real deal about what they really want, they hire other professional photographers from the US or UK that don’t know how the country runs…. I feel UNICEF just wants beautiful picture not real raw pictures and it is only the local photographers living here can really bring them out. Because it is what they see and pass through on a daily basis.

  19. Your very right. those people are not for good but to rather create a very wide gap of inequality, get pride of it and to create best resumes for their people not those that they claim that they are helping to.

  20. Am Jeffrey peter from Nigeria, in my own opinion, first , let me thank the writer for this insight, I pray your intentions for writing is for love, peace and unity. God bless you.secondly, Everybody has said something we can learn from, the did had been done and I say is time we move on, Africa must wake up.

  21. Hello Sasha.. thanks for the insight in my opinion the western photographer could be hired as a supervisor..to supervise the local photographer in all activities so as to get the quality they need..it will help the local photographer to understand what is really needed to get quality photo

    • Thanks for commenting. But you are assuming that there are not already fully qualified local photographers in these areas. Are you sufficiently familiar with them, to make that assumption?

    • Rarely does this happen btw, you find local photographers bidding for the same jobs that the foreign agencies apply for.

      Most local NGOs that are Pan-African work with local talent though.

  22. Thank you very much for sharing with us, and that was not easy. This is just true. You are just being completely honest and truthful. Thank you for being honest!

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