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Snap-happy volunteers need to be savvy in their social media use

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Asking yourself some questions is the key to striking a healthy balance in taking and sharing photos, writes Donal Brady


Does this impress or impact? Is this helpful to me or others… or anyone?

Once you post a picture on social media, other people are within their rights to decide what it is. These other people may be informed, uninformed or ill-informed on the subject of the picture but unfortunately their diverse opinions all hold equal weight. Who are these other people? Just friends… followers, scrollers, trolls and creepers. Taggers, bloggers, screenshooters, and re-tweeters. Spammers, scammers and brand ambassadors. All viewing your picture, all forming their own opinions and all writing their own narrative – in their heads or otherwise.

This article is encouraging you to think about what you photograph and post on social media. It will give special attention to doing so as a volunteer where I believe we need to take extra care. A snap-happy volunteer can cause irreparable damage to their organisation’s reputation. Finally, as I detest the term social media, I’ll refer to it as FITS. (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat) and help you to strike that balance between abstaining from social media entirely and contributing to ‘poverty porn’.

I spent nine months working on the Greek island of Samos. The organisation I worked with, Samos Volunteers, are committed to providing psychosocial support for men, women and children living inside and outside of the refugee camp. On my return home, people knew where I had been through my FITS but they were probably less aware of how carefully thought-out my pictures were. That’s because I helped to draft, implement and police our organisation’s FITS policy.

Our FITS policy was clear.

  1. It is illegal to take photographs inside the refugee camp. If you do so you will be arrested by Greek police and compromise our access to the camp, hindering our mission. So don’t do that.
  2. If you are taking pictures of an activity to send to your donors, then photograph participants from an angle that they cannot be identified from. Many asylum seekers and refugees do not want people to know where they are so they may be reluctant to have their picture shared or circulated online.
  3. Do not take pictures of kids’ faces. (Yes, I concede that they are adorable and may love their selfies). Unfortunately, those brown eyes can emote different feelings in different internet users and those range of feelings are so broad that it is just plain dangerous.

“But what if I ask them if I could take a picture and they say it is okay?”

That’s a fair question. I’ll spare you the legal definitions but instead encourage you to check out Wikipedia’s page on ‘Informed Consent’. As a volunteer, the people that you are helping are very appreciative of what you are doing for them. They want to thank you in ways more than just saying the two magic words. They may agree to have their picture taken because you’ve asked them for something and they’ve said yes to show you their gratitude. A favour for a favour. So while their spoken answer may be “yes, of course”, their true, non-verbal response may be a “no thank you.”

Have I frozen you in fear? Knowing this you may be very reluctant to take any pictures of your voluntary work in future. But don’t plant your flag on either side of the spectrum. As mentioned above, it is about striking a healthy balance. Implementing or adhering to a black and white “No Social Media” ban is not the answer. Nor is posting incessant, personal pictures of ‘Poverty Porn’.

We need to recognise that FITS are excellent platforms to raise awareness of your cause and generate those much-needed donations. That said, we use social media to impact not to impress. Ask yourself, does this picture really help those I am here to help? Apart from ‘likes’ and complimentary comments, what am I really achieving from this post? Could another picture without a human subject be equally impactful? A photo of a soaking wet sleeping bag can tell a tale just as well as a picture of its occupant.

I feel that asking and answering these questions before you take pictures of your voluntary work will help you to do what is best for you, your organisation and most importantly those that you are there to help. Happy volunteering and happy savvy snapping!


Donal has a BA in New Media and English from University of Limerick and has recently returned to Ireland from Samos, Greece where he worked as Education Coordinator of Samos Volunteers (www.samosvounteers.org) Like to get in touch? donalpbrady@gmail.com


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