Five do’s and don’ts for ethical documentation

This spring, we sat down with journalist Ala Qandil and photographer Anne Paq to talk about their latest project, Obliterated Families. Their multimedia web documentary tells the stories of 10 families in Gaza devastated by the 2014 Israeli offensive. Our interview occurred as Anne and Ala were undertaking a tour in the United States with the support of AFSC to uplift their work on Obliterated Families and AFSC’s Gaza Unlocked campaign.

Covering Gaza is a difficult beat for any journalist, but as Ala and Anne discussed in our interview, to report ethically it is critical to maintain respect for the humanity of the people whose lives you are documenting. In this post, they share their tips for journalists covering violent conflict anywhere in the world.

1. DO secure consent before taking photographs.

Ala explained that one of the most important guidelines for documenting conflict is to ask people’s permission:

"For me, what makes partnership with Anne so great is that she always remembers to ask people for their permission to photograph them, and for their names, so people are never anonymous. In the context of military offensive, it's always chaotic and there's always a lot of rush—but she still tries to make sure that she gets at least the basic information of the people who she photographs. When she does not have the time to go and actually ask people if it's OK to take their photo, she still makes sure people are comfortable with it—whether it's through a head nod, or just using her empathy, judging the context. I think this is absolutely crucial when we're talking about not dehumanizing people. It's about greeting people, acknowledgment of each other: the photographer and the photographed."

For Ala, this shows basic respect for individuals, while also helping to change how journalists cover the Middle East:

"When you have photos in the media of white people, they always have names. If you have photos of brown people, they're so often just illustrations to some grander story or some trend, or a theme. Anne never falls into this trap. And I think being respectful and learning the boundaries of the people you work with, and whose stories you collect, for me this is basic in changing the approach to journalism in the Middle East, and that requires a lot of effort."

This leads to her second tip for covering conflict: 

2. DON’T orientalize people when covering conflicts in the Middle East.

Ala sees this as one of the most important points to be aware of when reporting:

"It's very tempting to put people in one-dimensional categories: either one that fits a general stereotype, or one of the “exceptional” character that defies the stereotype. In both of those cases, the reference point is the stereotype itself and therefore the lens through which we look at the people whose stories we are supposed to narrate is a narrow one, with an exotic, orientalist filter. I don't claim that we, as journalists coming from outside, can rid ourselves of this orientalist lens altogether. But I think there are ways to limit its effect.

I try to handle it by limiting the preconceived notions about people I meet. I don't assume they are religious or secular, progressive or patriarchal, honest or hiding something. I try not to preconceive the story we are supposed to tell. It's the other way around (which does make the job much more difficult): We meet people, talk to them, spend time together, observe and listen, and only then see how to tell the most accurate story in a most interesting manner, without passing a judgment.

To escape the simplicity of stereotypes, we try to show the people in all their complexity. If we only focused on one dimension in our work, we would just have these repetitive stories about victims. But of course people are always so much more than just victims. Yes, the family is a victim of the Israeli bombings and of really tragic circumstances of the siege and occupation, but people are also resisters, and they're organizers, they struggle to find joy in their lives. And they can be sometimes very generous and kind, open, and sweet, and at other times silly, bored, lazy, mean.  

For us, when we were trying to build the stories of those families, it was really important not to fetishize anyone as this pure victim or not to romanticize anything – the struggle, their victimhood, even their resistance, to just show it as it is: people, being good and bad, and the brave struggle with trauma and the also ugly part of it, which sometimes means outbursts of anger, or slapping your little sister when you're a little traumatized boy, abusing the people closest to you, trying to assert control over those who are weaker. I don't judge, I try to understand the context that leads people to act the way they do.

The story becomes more engaging when the viewer or reader can relate to a person who is not perfect, who has all kinds of vices and that is also struggling and trying to cope.

Presenting a person in a more complex light is easier for the western journalists when dealing with people from their own cultural background. Specifically in the context of Palestine and Israel, reporters often paint personal portraits of the Israelis, because it's easier to pick up on certain things, it's easier to communicate. Often these personal traits are neglected when it comes to Arabs, and in this case people of Gaza."

Anne Paq in Gaza, summer 2014, covering the results of the Israeli bombings on the civilian population. Photo: Eduardo Soteras

Her third tip for journalists in conflict zones reinforces something she mentioned earlier:

3. DON’T fall into the “exceptional person” trap.

Ala felt this was one of the key ways to ensure that reporters don't orientalize their subjects in the Middle East:

"Exceptional stories tend to orientalize the rest of the population. So for example, from Gaza, we always have the story of the first woman doing something, or the only woman doing whatever profession—a fisherman, IT engineer, you name it. The very exceptional characters that exceed Western expectations are really only there to cast the rest of the society as this backward background. They don't really prove a point.  

I think it's much more interesting, important, maybe more ethical, maybe also more educational for the public to find stories that can be of course exceptional but are not subjected to our Western expectations of what we would like to see, but rather are rooted in the society that is being described."

4. DO spend time with people.

Anne recommended spending time with people as a matter of ethics, even if it meant interviewing fewer people:

"You need to spend time with the families, but at the same time try to respect also their privacy, especially when you visit them and they are still in shock. We devoted a lot of time to this project, and that was the only way also to do it in a way that is interesting but also ethical, that we don't rush and see the family for five minutes and try to suck all the information out of them and then leave. We really spent some time just wandering around and having small chats also to make them comfortable, so that they also get to know a bit about us before opening up.  But it required us to spend some time and also to just say, 'If you don't have so much time, then you're better maybe to concentrate on a few people so that you can do it in a right way.'"

5. DO collaborate with grassroots organizations. 

Anne also recommended working with local stakeholders to facilitate their work as a way to give the families an understanding of where they were coming from, and to allow contact to be maintained after the interview:

"We were working closely with Al Mezan Human Rights Center because they have field workers in all the different areas of the Gaza Strip, so they are very well known and respected in the communities, so that way we didn't come out of nowhere to these families. We were introduced by someone, and that was an important thing in the work, to facilitate our work, and so that the families had a way to reach us after the interview if they wanted to, for example, add something or ask us maybe not to publish something.  I think it's important that people have a way to get back to you if they say something they are not comfortable with.

The advantage of working with local organizations is also that they can provide you with more information about the families, the places where they live, and the context. It proves also very important for us to doublecheck the facts. Having also a local partner can also be very valuable in case you feel there is maybe something the family does not want to tell you directly. Maybe the family will be more at ease sharing their concerns with the local partner, or explain something that you might have missed in the communication."

Interested in learning more? Check out the Obliterated Families project and more resources at AFSC's Gaza Unlocked campaign.