The implications of AI for authentic, ethical photography

6 min readMay 11, 2023


To create the image above, we asked an AI art generator to produce an authentic, ethical image.

The expert storytelling agency for NGOs, UN bodies and charities, Arete is built on the power of storytelling to make a positive impact on the world. Photography forms a large part of what we do, and images have a unique power to engage and move people to action. Photography is critical to raising awareness and empathy for those affected by conflict, disaster and crisis, and it is the ability of visual storytellers to capture the human experience that often drives support for those in need.

But artificial intelligence (AI) is reshaping the way we think about photography and visual storytelling at large, offering photographers some benefits, but also raising a range of ethical and practical concerns.

In this blog, we explore the implications of AI for photography in a humanitarian context, the place of the photographer in what could be a new world for visual storytellers, and the vital need for trusted professionals working in the field.

Arete consultants Fred Ooko and Brian Ongoro on assignment on behalf of UNICEF in Kenya, 2021.
Photo: Brian Ongoro / Arete

The Benefits

The emergence of AI has brought a wealth of benefits to photographers, including the automation of tasks such as image analysis, captioning, editing, and making content more widely accessible. Producing high quality content quickly is essential when working in crisis situations, and the acceleration of these processes has the potential to instigate prompt action and garner support in time to save lives.

AI-based image analysis tools can swiftly identify key features of an image, such as facial expressions, body language, and tone, providing insights into the emotional state of subjects. This allows photographers to process and categorise large quantities of images rapidly, quickly putting them to use where they will be most effective.

AI image processing technology can enhance the quality of images captured in challenging environments, such as low light or extreme weather conditions. It can adjust contrast, brightness, and saturation to create visually impactful photographs more quickly and efficiently.

Construction workers on a WFP assisted construction project of a 7km water canal in Afghanistan, 2021.
Photo: WFP / Arete

Automated captioning tools could revolutionise the workflow of field photographers as they provide supplementary information to charities, NGOs, and post-production teams. Alongside captions, AI can assist in categorising and organising vast collections of photographs to facilitate search processes. Facial recognition technology can even be utilised to locate images of specific individuals.

Lastly, AI is proving to be instrumental in making visual content more accessible to a broader audience. AI-powered tools can translate captions and descriptions into multiple languages, making it easier to engage international audiences. Auto-generated audio descriptions and other accessibility features can also be included through AI, bringing content to visually impaired people and other groups.

The Questions

Along with the positive implications of AI come a host of ethical questions. For example, AI-powered facial recognition technology could potentially put subjects at risk of harm when in the wrong hands and in particularly sensitive political climates. As with many emerging technologies, security risks are difficult to assess, and it is still very early to make a thorough judgement on the dangers this could present.

Two young boys in Yemen, 2020. Photo: Abdulwhed Al-Suma’e / War Child / Arete
Delegates lead Victor Aguayo, the Director of Nutrition and Child Development from the UNICEF New York headquarters, through the UNICEF-supported outpatient Nutrition programme centre, at an IDP camp in Somalia, 2022.
Photo: Ismail Taxta / UNICEF / Arete

Probably the most widely held concern in this debate is the potential to manipulate images, creating misleading or false representations of a crisis. Generative AI produces authentic-looking, unique, visually striking images at the touch of a button by using algorithms to create new images based on patterns and rules learned from existing ones. This is a particularly confronting topic for Arete and the charities and NGOs we work with. Arete’s philosophy and day-to-day operations are built on letting people tell their own stories — amplifying and giving a platform to real human emotion — igniting identification with an authentic common humanity.

Generative AI raises the question of authenticity. Is it right to garner support for people, in the midst of very real crises and suffering, through artificial images manufactured to create the desired effect? Our mission is to create content that inspires as much action as possible, but it’s vitally important that action is driven by real-world factors. Emotion is an important motivator, but the potential for machine learning to manipulate human behaviour is troubling and could damage trust in charities and NGOs in the longer-term.

It is also important to remember that while AI technology can automate tasks and enhance image quality, it cannot replace the human connection that is necessary for effective storytelling because it undermines authenticity. Humanitarian photography is about capturing the human experience, and AI technology cannot replace the empathy and sensitivity that comes from human interaction.

One significant concern held by photographers is the potential for AI to homogenise imagery, much in the same way that social media algorithms have contributed to the narrowing of political views. This presents the possibility of a future in which the art of photography is diminished, and could also lead to less effective storytelling in the humanitarian context. The emotive drive behind an appeal is often the uniqueness of a situation — a uniqueness which stretches from the subject themselves, to their surroundings, to the particular style conveyed by the photographer and in post-production. The best storytellers will absorb everything they can from their surroundings and channel them into capturing the essence of a situation. Being true to the story is everything.

*Polina and her sons at a former women’s shelter which takes in displaced women and children. She fled Kharkiv, Ukraine for Odesa 11 and is being supported by DEC charity Christian Aid UK and local partner Alliance for Public Health.
Photo: Maciek Musialek / DEC / Arete

At Arete, our greatest strength is our people. We’re driven by a network of experienced and talented individuals from all over the world, and the importance of having trusted photographers in the field cannot be overstated. Photographers must be committed to ethical storytelling, prioritising the well-being and dignity of those they photograph. They must also work to build relationships and establish trust within communities. This means taking the time to listen, understand, and collaborate in a way that respects people and their cultures. At Arete, we use local consultants whenever possible. This has allowed us to gain trust, produce the highest quality, true-to-life content, and work in the least disruptive, most respectful ways possible.

The implications of AI in the field of photography are huge. But in the humanitarian context, we do not believe that AI will diminish the importance of the photographer. When used to good effect, AI has the power to liberate photographers — providing more space for their talents to shine through, in turn, allowing their work to help charities and NGOs operate more effectively.

Reducing editing and processing time and producing high quality images quickly can empower photographers to focus on the creative and ethical questions presented by a particular situation, but having trusted experts at the heart of communications remains vital.

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.




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