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Consent Form and Model Releases

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Still trying to understand the need of those two, including how am I actually getting them to be signed, and do i really need them?

Last week, I found an email about a photo competition in one of mailing list I subscribes to. It’s a photo competition by World Health Organization, with AIDS theme. I read it on the 14th of October, and the deadline was on the 15th.  So it was just a last minute decision to enter. The prize wasnt that big, only 100 to 300 USD, but since the winning photos will get the chance to be competed in the regional level, and WHO is quite a good name to have your work attached to, so i gave it a shot and send some of the AIDS in Papua pix.

Few days back, the organizer called me and said, I havent attached the consent form required for entering the photo competition, and said she’ll send me an email of the form, later. Well, she never did. And I never even have one single consent form signed by any subject I’ve photographed. Is it really a bad thing?

In order to complete my documentary on any topics, I’ve always made a personal approach. Just have a look at the AIDS in Papua series, for example. How can I get to do any of the photos if I haven’t made any attempt to get to know them? I didnt just come to the hospice, shoot bang bang bang and say bhubbye.. It took me a while, more than a week, just to blend in with them and have their trust to pick up my camera and shoot. Although, I must admit, in that Surya Kasih Hospice, the patients have gone through a lot, including the phase of denials, and somehow have made my shooting went much easier.

They have come to acceptance about their condition, having a deadly virus inside them that is killing them slowly. But they dont give up just like that. I still got shivers just to remember all the conversations I have with them. I dont think I could be as strong, yet accepting being vulnerable at the same time. They opened up to me, and let me shoot them, let me hear the stories and tell it to the world, so more people can learn from their experience.

And to honor that, since I also believe that the story that matters, not the person who has the HIV, I made frames that are not showing their faces at all. It’s a promise I made to Brother Agus who runs the place, and it’s a promise I tend to keep. Even if I have frames who did showing their faces, they are not for published. They are mine as a reminder of amazing people who have bravely share their stories, and let me in to their life – willingly.

So it must have been really weird, for anyone whom you tried to understand to, and being closed to, also tried to have them being comfortable with you, to signed any form while you shoot them, no? It’s like having a couple signed a prenuptual agreement, just before they’re getting married. Does the paper showing that you trust them, or actually NOT?

I have to admit, I have my share of stupidity, where I violate a trust from my subject. But it was merely a misunderstanding, which I totally regret until now.

Years back, when I just starting out, I get to know a young woman, who has HIV and lives in a rehab center. The “foster parents” of the rehab center told us – there were 3 photographers who shoot there- that the people in rehab, including the young woman, were okay with them being shot and have their stories published. I decided to get to know them better and allowed to stay at the rehab to shoot the daily of that young woman with HIV for a couple of days. My other 2 colleagues didnt seem to keen on doing the story. So it gave me more room to get to know them – the HIV positives in the rehab.

When I shoot the young woman, I must have been too overwhelmed and just do the photo story without thinking ahead. I did tell her specifically, that the story is going to be published in my paper, for the World AIDS day. But she must have somewhat assumed it was the story about the rehab center, and not her in particular. And I never thought it was a problem, since she was comfortable enough to be shot for a tv program purposes, which recorded while I was there.

When I got back to my office after a few days with her in the rehab, I edited some of the photos – who happens to showing her faces in almost every frame I took – and hand it out to the editor. But the editor thought the “moment” for World AIDS Day was over by the time I finished the story. And promised me a space to display the photos for Rethinking AIDS Day in April.

By April, I was told to contact the subject again to ask permission, just to make sure. I never get a hold of her on the phone, because she wasn’t allowed to have a cell phone in the rehab. So I contacted the “foster parents” and asked if its okay. She said, the girl was no longer in the rehab and the only person who can contact her, is out of the country for some time, and she didnt have the number. It was a mess, really.. But she told me that it should not be a problem, because people do need to know the story. And by publishing it, we both expect to have more people understand about HIV/AIDS and what it can do to you.

So it did. It was published.

A week later, I received a call from the girl in the story, asking me; Why did you publish it? I didnt remember to give you the permission to publish it! You said it was just to illustrate about the HIV patients!

I was shocked.

After she calmed down, I understand the real reason she called was that the story can potentially ruin her life and the life of her loved ones. She has a son, who has a future she needs to think of. And I wasnt making it easy for her, by showing her face as an HIV patient all over the photo display. Knowing that, crushed my heart, and I couldnt do anything but apologize and cursed myself at the same time.

The damage has been done. And my stupidity is causing that damage. And there’s nothing we can do.

This is probably when a consent form will be helpful. But even so, if she did sign it back when I shoot her activities, and yet regret the decision after wards because none of us really thought about the consequences… will that piece of paper can make me feel better for the damage I made? I dont think so.

I believe, every photographer has a full responsibility to what they are shooting. The responsibility to the subject, to the story itself, and to the community. We are responsible to make sure the subject know their rights. That it was okay for us to shoot them. But for the purposes of investigative reporting, for example, we have the responsible to share the photos to the community.. to the world.. To let them know what is happening in certain part of the world, even if in most cases, the subject wont like it much. And of course, we are responsible to the story itself. To tell only the truth through our photos. Despite the following various interpretations by those who see the images. Because interpretations are not the responsibility of the “messenger”, as long as we have given the true fact in our photos and any information that comes with it.

This is no longer about the photo competition. I really dont care. I’ll have other chance. Besides, the story hasnt finished yet. I have a big plans in how i can deliver the message through my photos about AIDS in Papua, to get the attention of more people to understand about the situation, and how they can help. I want my stories to make a difference. Not just a participant for any photo competitions. They have to play a bigger role. I hope they are.

But this consent form and model releases still puzzle me. I am still trying to understand the need of those two, including how am I actually getting them to be signed, and do i really need them?

I’ve googled them up actually, and found most articles showing that requirements of model releases, are for the commercial purposes. To make sure, the subject is okay that you are using the photos for commercials, such as stock photos. To read more, you can check here : or here ; or even download the example of model releases here :

I think the consent form is sort of similar. But I cant really picture myself carrying a stack of forms to be signed, everytime I go out and documenting stories in life.

I would be a total hypocrite to say I never shoot for the money. Or expecting to have my work published somewhere and receive payments, or even winning some photo competitions. Because money is always good. It support my next stories, of course!

But it’s not everything.

Most of the stories I made, were driven by my way of thinking, that the stories are worth to be told. To know our lives from any angle to achieve more understanding. Even if the stories merely come from my perspective only.

Written by nickmatulhuda

October 22, 2011 at 2:06 pm

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