Photographing people in medical settings: how and why to do it

Health worker Sarah Engino prepares to immunise a boy with the measles and rubella vaccine in Shambarai village, Tanzania (Photo: Karel Prinsloo /Gavi)

Arete translates as knowledge. An area where knowledge is key is photography — particularly when it comes to photographing people in medical settings, such as hospitals and clinics. Without the right set of skills and knowledge more harm than good can be done by photojournalists.

We work with some of the world’s biggest non-governmental organisations and charities, gathering stories on their behalf. It is therefore of the utmost importance that every piece of information our journalists and photographers gather has the patient’s wellbeing in mind and adheres to an ethical code.

Following on from our previous blog by Arete photojournalist Karel Prinsloo, we discuss some of the key points in photographing people with medical issues.

The well-known saying ‘a picture speaks a thousand words’ still holds true when it comes to photojournalism. It is no secret that the world’s NGOs and charities must fund-raise in order to provide free support to people in critical and life threatening situations. This is where original photographs come to the fore; there is no medium that tells a story better than a still image.

It is key that how and why these photos are being taken is communicated to everyone involved, and consent is given before any photography takes place.


Asking for consent from the patient, the patient’s next of kin, or the director of the medical facility should always be the first port of call for any photojournalist. Who consent is obtained from will be dependent on the situation of each patient. If the patient is unconscious, or devoid of mental capacity, then consent can be sought from the appropriate guardian — be it the person in charge of the medical facility or their next of kin.

An integral part of the process of asking for consent is explaining how and why these photos are being taken, how they will be used and by which organisation or charity.

A young girl holds her newborn baby at the Mbambamu Health Centre Kwango, Democratic Republic of Congo (Photo: Kate HoltJhpiego)

Observe, don’t interfere

A photojournalist in this situation is ultimately there as an observer. Being mindful and aware are two of the most important attributes a professional can have when photographing people in medical settings.

It is always best to observe from a distance and to not get in the way of medical staff in an emergency. Be aware of the impact you are having by simply being present with your camera, always aim to avoid causing harm or distress.

Mombenga Mona Julie has her blood pressure taken before receiving the family planning injection at Boo Nsuba Health Centre Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo (Photo: Kate HoltJhpiego)


Aiming to preserve the dignity of the patients should always be a high priority. From a technical perspective this means using equipment such as a long range lens, so as to avoid getting too close to a patient and invading their personal space. From a human perspective this means being conscious of how your actions or intentions are impacting upon the person, and those giving them care.

Before starting to take any photographs it is important to spend time with the patient, talking about anything other than their medical condition so you can gain their trust. When it comes to taking the photographs don’t focus only on the visibly affected areas of the body.

If required there are also various techniques that can be employed to preserve the anonymity of the patient too — such as not capturing the patient’s face in full, the eyes, or any identifying tattoos or hospital tags.

Cervical cancer patient Tabu Kitmonga Kiparu (46) in her hospital bed at the Ocean Road Cancer Institute in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania (Photo: Karel PrinslooGavi)

Using the photos

Employing a code of practice and ethics is just as important when choosing which photos to use as it is when taking them.

An example of this can be seen in the New York Times reporting of the terrorist attack on the Nairobi hotel-office complex in January of 2019.

The decision was made to publish photos of a number of the victims who died. The ensuing backlash from the people of Kenya and elsewhere in the world showed how unethical a decision this was.

Ultimately, here at Arete each of our photojournalists operate in accordance with their own code of ethics — some of which we have explained in more detail above. Only photos that fall in line with those ethics will be presented to the client. Although which of those photos are used, or not, always remains the client’s decision.

Mombenga Mona Julie receives counselling about different family planning methods from Tshezanga Jane at Boo Nsuba Health Centre in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo (Photo: Kate HoltJhpiego)

At Arete we source and manage local experts in photography, video, digital and written content from around the world to help tell stories that make a difference. To discuss photographing people in medical settings in more detail, or how to tell a story of your own, you can get in touch here.

Photographing people in a medical setting: how and why to do it was originally published in Arete Stories on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.