Photographing for charities


If you’re working as a photographer – and perhaps especially if you’re just starting out, in the hope that you can build up a bit of a portfolio – you are often asked to take on the strangest assignments. Some of them can be a lot of fun, while others… in the immortal words of Borat: Not so much.

I’ve done a fair bit of work which involves charities, and a few years back I noticed a new trend: They will want you to sign a contract as part of the photography work. You’ll want to read it carefully, because ‘charity’ isn’t automatically synonymous with ‘good people’: Some of their contracts will try and rob you of all your rights.  


My good friend and long-time Photocritic reader David W came across the same recently:

I friend of mine volunteered to take pictures of an event… But, to do so, she had to sign a contract saying that she would: A) Give the organization full ownership of the images (copyright, etc) B) Destroy all copies of the images, not keeping any for personal use

This seemed fairly odd to me… But, then, I do not know very much about what is to be expected when doing photography on a somewhat professional level.

Would you mind telling me a bit about what is to be expected in a professional contract?

To be fair, there are no real ‘rules’ for what a charity can and can’t ask you to sign, and as a photographer, the only rebuttal you have is to walk away from the job. I recently had a similar situation as well, where I was asked to sign what I was assured was a ‘standard contract’. The contract was drawn up for a major charity*, and demanded that I send them a DVD with all my photographs, and hand over all copyright to the charity.

In a way, I can understand that they want to do this: Having a stock library they can use for future promotional material is great. In addition to that, well, it is a charity, and as it is a charity I support, I would have been happy to give them a permanent licence to use the photos. But signing over my copyright? That’s less of a good idea.

So – what can you do?

The sad truth is that you don’t have a lot of things you can do if and when this happens to you.

You can choose not to sign the contract, and explain why you aren’t signing it. This might mean you don’t get a photo pass for the event, and if you’re covering the event for a magazine, you could run the risk of returning without images. You’d better have a damn good working relationship with your photo editor if you even consider doing this, because you could potentially put them in a lot of trouble.

You can choose not to sign the contract, and just hand it back. Hope nobody notices, and just go take the photos you wanted. It means that they have no legal power over you, but this is quite unlikely to work.

You can choose to swallow your pride (and breach what at least should be your principles), sign the contract, take the photos, and send them your images.

Of course, you could also try to sign the contract, take the photos, use the ones you need for the purpose you need them for, and then ‘lose’ the DVD where you stored the photos in the mail. If you’re particularly bastard-like here, you could just send them an empty envelope by recorded delivery, torn open, and claim that the DVD got lost in the mail, and that you’ve destroyed all other copies — as instructed.

Personally, I don’t think any of these are particularly good solutions. The thing is – I don’t think there are many organisations that do this who understand what they are doing, and why trying to steal your copyright is morally wrong. Which is ironic, because charities, especially, ought to be finely tuned-in to issues like this. The best solution, then, is to contact the people responsible for PR. Tell them that you are unhappy with the contract, because it is too restrictive on your use (at least, you’ll want portfolio use, but you should also be able to use the photos commercially if appropriate). You could offer them a counter proposal which would be to offer them a permanent licence to use the photos for PR and press use. This means that they can use it to promote events etc, but if they use it for marketing purposes (such as trying to get people to donate money), they’d have to come to you for an extended licence. At this point, you could choose to expand the licence for this use, or ask them for money.

My personal take on all of this is that, well, you give a little and you take a little: By being a little bit lenient with the charities when it comes to money, you’re helping them along. In the same way, you could expect them to do the same. Just make sure that you don’t sign away anything, or that you get tied to terms you are unhappy with: if it appears you run a risk of this happening, you should just walk away.

*) I do support this charity, and I believe that they just took dodgy advice from a law firm, and as such, I don’t think it’s in anybody’s interest to divulge their name in this article. Let’s just leave it at this: It’s an UK national charity which you will definitely have heard of, if you live in the UK.

You may also enjoy How much should I charge for a photo and Be careful what you sign.

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