The use of images of children in the media

Skip to: the use of children's images by NGOs

Child protection

The use of images of children and young people has become a matter of particular concern in recent years. There is a suggestion that such images may be used inappropriately, or in order to gain access to the children and young people pictured. The issue has been further complicated with the advancement of internet technology, meaning images and information are much easier to obtain and distribute.

However, publicity may also have its benefits:

  • Media provide powerful tools in the campaign to give children the right to express their opinions and to make a difference in decisions that affect them.
  • Publicity for children can empower them and affirm their worth as human beings with opinions that are worth hearing.
  • Photos and articles can raise awareness of children’s needs generally, or help raise funds for a good cause.

Do these benefits outweigh the risks? Can the risks be minimised by keeping the children’s identity private, for example by using false names, and not revealing any details that might identify them?

Free and informed consent is necessary

Young children cannot give consent to the use of their photographs without assistance from a parent or caregiver. Obtaining a child’s consent is not enough to justify putting a child at risk.

Parents or guardians must give free and informed permission for the publishing of any such material after the risks and benefits have been explained to them.

Rewards should not be offered as an incentive to consent where the consent could indeed be compromising of the child.

As adults we need to protect children who might technically ‘give consent’ but in fact lack the maturity to understand the long-term consequences of negative publicity.

We may decide (if possible with the child’s assent) to use false names, blur images, and so on.

Even if permission is given, the organisers of an event should reserve the right to refuse to share information, stories, and pictures if they consider this refusal to be in the best interests of the child.

Everybody takes pictures:

The cell phone camera is ubiquitous and photo-taking is a possibility for many. It is more difficult to control the taking of photos, and any Code of Conduct for groups of children needs to include the wise and respectful use of photos.

Guidelines for Code of Conduct on photos:

  • Always ask permission
  • If a photo might in any way hurt anyone or put them at risk – delete it
  • All pictures used formally and publicly should have formal consent granted.

[Source: Children’s Rights Centre & Childline South Africa]

The use of images of children by NGOs

Child protection issues should always be at the forefront of any decision to publicise an image of a child. Nonetheless, there has also been increasing reflection in recent years on the ethical challenges posed by the use of images of children by NGOs. For example, while pictures of starving, emaciated and diseased African children have been frequently used to help raise funds for international NGOs, questions have been raised about whether such pictures paint a fair and balanced picture of life in other countries, and whether they help to promote the rights of children in the long run.

Indeed, many have asked if some NGO depictions of global horrors have promoted emotion at the expense of understanding – a phenomenon sometimes called “aid pornography”. This issue was addressed in a conference on representations of children in the media, which CRIN reported on here

For example, photographer Ariadne Van de Ven has lamented the one dimensional approach to complex social conditions in majority world countries: “The conditions they live in are historically, politically and socially very complex, but we Westerners run the risk of behaving like bundles of shocked sensibility that only see ‘POVERTY’ and thereby reduce individuals to nothing more than their economic status.”

On the other hand, scholars have also criticised the use of the “picture of the smiling African girl” - part of a new ‘NGO code’ that aims to avoid depictions of suffering or repeating stereotypical discourse. Karen Wells, of the University of London, says that representations of suffering can “mobilise the desire to do something,” although they also “need to be political, rather than just appealing to sentiments. Sentiments may result in crying, deploring, giving money, but it may not result in political mobilisation.”

Such dilemmas may create tensions between NGOs' media and fundraising objectives, and the ethical responsibilities of their programmatic areas.

Code of Conduct

The following Code of Conduct on Images and Messages was devloped by CONCORD, the European NGO Confederation for Relief and Development working in the areas of emergency relief, long term development and development education:

The purpose of this Code of Conduct is to provide a framework on which organisations can draw when designing and implementing their public communications strategy. The Code offers a set of guiding principles that can assist practitioners in their efforts to communicate their organisation’s programmes and values in a coherent and balanced way.

Images and messages should seek to represent a complete picture of both internal and external assistance and the partnership that often results between local and international NGOs.

The values of human dignity, respect and truthfulness as outlined in the Code, must underlie all communications. The signatories to this Code are committed to these principles, and will translate them into internal policies and procedures. They are also committed to working constructively with others whose work involves communicating on issues of global poverty, to explore ways of reflecting these principles in other fields of communications.

By signing and promoting this Code, NGOs will continue to keep the development agenda very much in the public eye and to look beyond the sound bite or single image to reflect the values espoused in this Code.

Code of Conduct on Images and Messages

a.Guiding Principles

Choices of images and messages will be made based on the paramount principles of:

  • Respect for the dignity of the people concerned;
  • Belief in the equality of all people;
  • Acceptance of the need to promote fairness, solidarity and justice.

Accordingly in all our communications and where practical and reasonable within the need to reflect reality, we strive to:

  • Choose images and related messages based on values of respect equality, solidarity and justice;
  • Truthfully represent any image or depicted situation both in its immediate and in its wider context so as to improve public understanding of the realities and complexities of development;
  • Avoid images and messages that potentially stereotype, sensationalise or discriminate against people, situations or places;
  • Use images, messages and case studies with the full understanding, participation and permission (or subjects’ parents/guardian) of the subjects;
  • Ensure those whose situation is being represented have the opportunity to communicate their stories themselves;
  • Establish and record whether the subjects wish to be named or identifiable and always act accordingly;
  • Conform to the highest standards in relation to human rights and protection of the vulnerable people.
  • Conform to the highest standards in relation to children's rights according to the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC); as children are the subjects most frequently portrayed.

b. Declaration of Commitment

As signatories to this Code, we confirm that our commitment to best practice in communications affects the entirety of our organisation.

By signing the Code, we commit to putting in place meaningful mechanisms to ensure that the Code’s principles are implemented throughout all activities of our organisation.

Our responsibilities as a signatory to this Code lead us to be accountable in our public communications as follows:

1.We will make the existence of the Code known to the public and all our partners and will provide a feedback mechanism whereby anyone can comment on the fulfilment of the Code and where any member of the public will have a ‘right to challenge’ our application of the Code.

2.We will communicate our commitment to best practice in the communication of images and messages in all our public policy statements by placing the following statement on our relevant public communications (annual reports, website, policy statements, governance documents, leaflets and communication materials etc):

“ has signed the code of conduct on images and messages ( please send your feedback to

3.We commit to assess our public communications on an annual basis according to the guiding principles.

4.We will include reference to adherence to the Code in the guiding principles of our organisation and ensure that the top management take the responsibility of implementing and adhering to the code

5.We will ensure that all relevant suppliers, contractors and media will adhere to the Code when working with our organisation.

6.We commit to training our staff on the use of images and messages.

7.We agree to meet on an annual basis and share our experience of using and implementing the Code with other signatory organisations



    Please note that these reports are hosted by CRIN as a resource for Child Rights campaigners, researchers and other interested parties. Unless otherwise stated, they are not the work of CRIN and their inclusion in our database does not necessarily signify endorsement or agreement with their content by CRIN.