Expanding the Field of View: Photography, Perception & Intent

Arete
5 min readAug 14, 2023

How does an audience perceive a story?

At Arete, our expertise lies in creating narratives for charities, UN bodies, and foundations, through photography, videography, and journalism. Our work presents new perspectives and expands understanding around particular events or situations, and challenges more ingrained beliefs around social, cultural and religious issues.

Some humanitarian content can perpetuate stereotypes or caricature cultural and societal norms. This is not only ethically questionable, but often has less impact. The results are sterile, generic narratives that blend into the background — dehumanising subjects and contributing to compassion fatigue.

Arete gives its clients access to a talented and culturally sensitive network of content gatherers all over the world. Whenever possible, we find local creatives to work on our clients’ projects. This helps us deliver results at speed; and allows us to access challenging regions. More importantly, it ensures that our content is culturally sensitive. Local teams understand the feelings and subtle nuances at play within communities. Approaching people with sensitivity means that subjects are more trusting, less guarded, and their authentic experiences then shine through in the story telling. By reflecting the local culture with more authenticity, we create powerful narratives that resonate with audiences.

Clients enlist our help to collect high-quality content that helps them achieve their goals through telling the stories of those they support and situations they aim to change for the common good. In doing this, we strive for authenticity in the voices we seek out to tell their stories. At the same time we also ensure that our client’s objectives are being met.

A coffee farmer (L) and single mother raising six children pose for a photo in a backyard coffee farm in Ethiopia. The Costa Foundation supports coffee-growing communities across the world.
Photo: Solan Kolli / Costa Foundation / Arete

Staying True to The Story

Integrity in gathering stories is one of our three company values. We will never manipulate a situation or a narrative to falsely influence audience perception. However, as storytellers, we aim to influence people and move them to action. Our campaigns are wide-ranging, but their overarching goals frequently revolve around gaining support for fundraising campaigns or directing attention to specific facets of an issue to raise awareness.

Sometimes a conflict arises between a photographer’s interests, artistic vision, or perception, and the client’s expectations. For example, if a photographer conducts their work and the content focuses on too many positive aspects of a story, when the client’s objective is to present the dire need for more support. Or vice versa — a photographer arrives on location and presents the suffering they see — contradicting a client’s objective of representing progress through positive impact stories.

Children wade in floodwater in Pakistan.
Photo: Insiya Syed / DEC / Arete

In these situations, a balance needs to be found. Our approach is to collect a wide range of high-quality content that represents a situation in its true light. With a large amount of content, we can be selective about the final product, emphasising the elements that need to be communicated and using the expertise of our post-production team to provide the desired representation.

Giving Form to The Vision

The most effective campaigns have clarity of vision. The earlier the vision is established the better, and the best way to achieve this is through an open and honest briefing process between the client, Arete’s production team, and our local content gatherers.

Our briefing process is collaborative — an exercise which raises key questions, dispels grey areas, and fleshes out ideas. These can sometimes be deep journeys of discovery for our clients about their wider identity as organisations, but their central function is to create clear expectations of the work ahead and the desired outcome. The process is moderated and led by Arete, leveraging three decades of experience working on a broad spectrum of projects. Once the client has shared their goals, we highlight potential considerations, addressing practical obstacles and technical aspects to best prepare our local teams to make the vision a reality.

Primary school-age girls play after participating in a workshop by the Women’s Justice Initiative entitled “Delaying Early Marriage and Unions” in Guatemala.
Photo: James Rodriguez / Girls Not Brides / Arete

Of course, we can never be absolutely sure what our local consultants will be able to capture when they arrive on location. Our roster of photographers represents some of the best talent from around the world, and a brief is not intended to shackle their creativity. With a quality brief, clients can fully harness their talent, empowering photographers to lend the full weight of their skill to the vision, representing the situation through the unique lens of the organisation.

A member of the Marie Stopes team in Bolivia. Marie Stopes International (MSI) offers sexual and reproductive health services.
Photo: Wara Vargas / MSI Reproductive Choices / Arete

Creative choices are not just about what we capture, but also how we capture it. For example, framing, composition, use of space, light, and movement, can accentuate different emotional aspects, highlight themes, and offer different perspectives. This attention to detail continues in post-production. Our job is to absorb our clients’ mission, vision, and values, ensuring that we represent them authentically at every stage of the creative journey.

Construction workers building a 7km water canal assisted by the WFP in Afghanistan. The WFP continues to support vulnerable communities and IDPs in Afghanistan.
Photo: Andrew Quilty / WFP / Arete

Working Together to Make a Difference

Ultimately, our photographers, clients, and production team share the same goal — to make a difference. By harnessing the power of storytelling, we strive to create impactful narratives that broaden understanding and spark meaningful change.

Providing new perspectives, we challenge and influence perceptions — striking the balance between capturing reality and creating a coherent narrative that matches our clients’ goals, effectively inspiring empathy and action. Together, we strive to make the world more compassionate, just, and understanding, one photograph at a time.

Our award-winning journalists, photographers and content providers are eager to help you make a difference.

Contact us to find out how we can tailor our expertise to meet your needs.

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Arete

Arete is the expert storytelling and training agency for NGOs, UN bodies and foundations.