‘Why are people from developing countries rarely compensated for the use of their portraits the way people in the west are,’ photo agency director Bas van Beek asked himself after receiving a claim from an Indian model. He then started World Portraits.

The archetypical happy African Child, a Bolivian farmer in the field, or the deep wrinkled face of an aging Indian woman. Bas van Beek, CEO of Dutch photo agency Hollandse Hoogte, locked eyes with dozens of these anonymous faces, not thinking much about it. Until one day, a claim came in from an Indian man whose image was used in a bank’s advertising campaign without his permission.

It opened Van Beek’s eyes. Seeing an opportunity to right a wrong, he built the concept of fair photography: to let people from developing countries share in the profits of publication of their faces. He founded World Portraits, the platform that distributes photography developed under this ethos.

Finger printing

But as often is the case, doing the right thing is not the easy route. Photographers who pledge to work ‘fairly’ are obliged to keep an extensive administration of personal contact details, model release forms and payment details in cultures where official identification, postal addresses and bank accounts are often non-existent.

‘Over the years, we’ve sometimes had to resort to finger printing models to make sure the money goes to the right person,’ Van Beek tells over a cup of coffee at World Portrait’s The Hague office.

In one case locating a Peruvian woman, whose portrait by Dutch photographer Robin Utrecht had been used in an advertising campaign, required the help of local embassy workers and newspaper reporters. They eventually found Mariela Huanca who had relocated from the slums of Lima to a small village outside the city. She received $2,000 for her portrait, the equivalent of an average six-month salary in Peru. The money came at the right time. Ms. Huanca had just lost her entire source of income due to a new law banning people from selling corn cakes on the streets of the capital.

Reluctant clients

Another, unexpected hurdle for Van Beek comes from his clients. ‘Though there is a whole world of media, government organizations, NGO’s and social entrepreneurs who use these kind of images and are enthusiastic about our cause, it has not really taken off in the way that we expected. Fair photography, like other fairly produced goods, takes more effort and therefore is a bit more expensive. But clients are not yet putting their money where their heart is.’

Also, the initiative has faced some backlash from the traditional development aid world: the financial compensation is considered too low by some, and too high by others. They are either afraid that people will spend the money unwisely, or that model demand might trigger a beauty industry, both factors that potentially could disrupt local communities.

Van Beek: ‘Of course we hope that people spend the money they receive wisely, but we are not going to enforce some outside moral standard. I would find it odd if someone from the other end of the world would come and tell me how to spend my paycheck. Let’s treat people in these countries just like we treat each other here: ask permission to publish someone’s photo, and give him a share in the profits.’

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