On the ethics of being a CSR photographer

Can an ethically-minded humanitarian photographer also work for big business? Are the roles of NGO photographer and corporate photographer mutually exclusive? A lot of humanitarian photographers seem to think this way. As if, in serving the non-profit / development sector, they’re working for the ‘goodies’; and as if selling their services to corporates would mean ‘selling out’ to the ‘baddies’. At the same time, they know only too well that it’s hard to pay the bills while serving NGOs alone. NGOs simply don’t have the budgets, more often than not, and the increasing competition on price from photographers new to the trade who’re willing to shoot on a pro bono basis is far too tempting for many an NGO’s Head of Communications.

So the humble humanitarian photographer tends to look for other ways to bring home the bacon. Many find wedding photography to be a good earner. Others make great money from photography tours, where they take budding amateurs to far-flung corners of the world and teach them some of the tricks of the trade. And then there are those photographers who know how to make the Internet work for them, and use it to sell eBooks on improving one’s photography, prints of their fine art work, online photography workshops, etc.

I’m in no sense keen to denigrate any of these strategies. I just hope to see as many photographers as possible able to say that they are following their passions with a minimum of compromise. As I’ve shared elsewhere on these pages (see here and here), I strongly believe that each one of us should do whatever it takes to follow our passion, refusing to accept that what gives us the most joy can be boxed into a small corner of our life for whenever we can devote our ever-diminishing time to it. It therefore makes me sad to say that so far, every humanitarian-cum-wedding photographer I’ve ever spoken to has told me s/he does it simply to ensure s/he can make ends meet between NGO assignments. I wonder how much pleasure those photographers who spend the bulk of their time developing eCommerce products derive from the endless hours on their computers, hours that I know I’d far rather be spending out in the field with the beneficiaries of life-changing projects. Again, if they find the development of those products just as enriching an experience as visual storytelling then I couldn’t be happier. But I really wonder… .

So what’s my own personal solution to this conundrum? I must admit that I know precious few photographers who’ve found they can make a decent living from serving NGOs alone. Those that do tend to make other sacrifices, such as living in countries where the cost of living is lower than it is in their countries of origin. My own solution brings me back to the question I posed in the first sentence of this piece. My answer to this question is “yes”, and I hope my Marxist-Leninist grandparents will hear me out before turning in their graves.

In addition to serving non-profits, I also work with businesses’ corporate responsibility departments in both the social and environmental domains. These folks label their work in many ways: corporate social responsibility (CSR), corporate citizenship, ethical compliance, social and environmental sustainability, responsible business, etc. I’ll just call it ‘CSR’ here for simplicity’s sake, and define it as a form of corporate self-regulation integrated into a firm’s business model with the goal of not only taking responsibility for its actions but also giving something positive back to society, the environment and other facets of the public sphere.

Open any big company’s website and you’ll find that it’ll have a section on what’s its doing to prove its worth as a ‘corporate citizen’. Needless to say, many people have a great deal of suspicion for these CSR activities, often for exactly this reason: they see it as no more than a public relations exercise. “They’re pulling the wool over our eyes, covering up the damage they’re doing by focussing our attention on the so-called ‘good’ they’re doing”, they say.

 On the ethics of being a CSR photographer

Spoof Vedanta ‘faking happiness’ campaign.

I don’t doubt that this happens. The most recent (and shocking) example I’ve seen of this is Vedanta’s ‘Creating Happiness’ campaign in India. Recently, every ad break on TV seems to have been featuring their promotional video for this, and I’ve seen it ‘liked’ and shared all over Facebook. This PR exercise has evidently gone extremely well for Vedanta! The otherwise unaware masses have come to believe that this is a loving, caring, fluffy, hug-worthy corporate citizen; yet the evidence has led many to suggest that it has a profound contempt for human rights and environmental best practice. Its alleged violations in these areas have meant high-profile court cases have been brought against it, while it has sustained powerful criticism from Survival International, Amnesty International, the British and Norwegian governments, the Church of England and others, and seen the likes of the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, the Marlborough Ethical Fund, Millfield House Foundation and PGGM ridding themselves of their Vedanta shares.

So is this company ‘Creating Happiness’ or ‘Faking Happiness’ (left)? It’s not for me to say, but the controversy is something I clearly need to be aware of as I go about my work. At this point, I think I need to make a confession. A couple of months back, a close friend mailed me to suggest I reach out to Vedanta and offer my communications services. At that time, I didn’t recall the name. So I composed an e-mail and fired it off. When the subject then came up in conversation with another friend, a look of consternation crossed his face. “Robin, I really don’t think you want to be associate with that company!”, he exclaimed. I hurriedly did my homework, somewhat past the deadline, and my stomach turned. The incident forced me to take a cold, hard look at my approach. Clearly, I could not regard CSR activities simply as something like NGO work within the corporate setup.

As a professional who’s sworn himself to contributing to making the world a better place through his photography, are corporates’ CSR departments an appropriate client group? I still say “yes”. I do not sign up to the belief that all corporates are evil, and that their CSR activities are no more than gloss to distract our attention from their dastardly deeds. To assume that all are as unscrupulous as Vedanta have been accused of being, and should therefore suffer our wrath, is to discount a great deal of positive work that’s being done. Even if the driving agenda is more about overall corporate image, we cannot deny the billions of dollars that are passing directly from the hands of businesses and their employees to worthy causes, often under the supervision of highly reputable charities, and the difference this money makes where spent wisely.

For my part, I can do several things to ensure I’m supporting only those companies that merit my assistance. For starters, I now do my research on companies’ backgrounds and ethical status. A simple Google or Wikipedia search on Vedanta is so revealing. There are also other resources, such as CSRHub, which use multiple sources to index companies’ CSR performance. Beyond this, there is also the type of work that I will do. There are multiple ways that I can assist a company with CSR communications that are eminently uncontroversial. For example, I can help them communicate to their employees, educating them about the projects they run for the benefit of society and the environment and encouraging them to donate through payroll contribution schemes; I can also help them communicate to beneficiaries to improve their understanding of projects being implemented. For those companies who are evidently outstanding corporate citizens, I am happy to help them publicise the news of the positive difference they’re making. After all, wouldn’t you rather buy the cola of a company that goes out of its way to work ethically and responsibly as compared with one that’s willing to stamp on the little people and plunder the Earth’s resources in an unsustainable manner in order to make the most profit possible from your cola? This is the kind of informative advertising that I aim to contribute to as I follow my passion while working with big business.