Model Releases & NGOs

So this week I’ve gotten two questions from two different people on how nonprofits should be handling model releases. The NGO community is suddenly and knee-jerkingly (I know… that’s not a real word…) requiring them of photographers but many haven’t figured out how to do it in the best way. So it’s left up to the photographer to figure it out.

I decided to post my response for all of you and encourage you to chime in with your comments. The more we dialogue, the more we can help each other. Cheers!- Jamie

Hi Jamie:

I am curious about what you are seeing in terms of NGOs requiring model releases these days. Many of the groups I have been working with don’t require them but now that I’m working for a big international NGO , they require every single person to have one, which puts quite a damper on the photographing.

Thanks, M.
Hi M.,

So good to hear from you and with a good question. Here are a few thoughts on this early Wed. morning for you.

Many more nonprofits are requiring releases and it’s just good sense for you to do so as well. You never know when you might need them or when an angry subject might come after the NGO and they pass the buck to you.

It’s honestly a nightmare to get 500 releases at a pop so I make plans with the ngos ahead of time in a few ways.

First, when I worked for one NGO, they hired a release “agent” to come with me. She literally followed me around everywhere and I said, “Her, her, him, her, that child and that guy in the background.” She made a photo copy of the releases and gave them to me when we were done and this was a huge help! We were both protected and I could keep being creative while she helped with the releases.

Second, I carried a clip board in my bag with me with a model release in small type at the top and a numbered list below. (Take a paper, add the model release below, then number 1-20, let’s say, with a line across to sign and date). Then I hired someone to come with me and translate to the subjects and they signed the release on a numbered line. This helped to save on paper in my bag and the subjects could so see all the people before them who signed, so they felt less intimidated.

It sounds like a pain but it can save your butt if you go to sell the images later. I’ve hired fixers to do this, taxi drivers or sometimes just looked around asked if anyone spoke English if I ran into a snafu. There have been times when I’ve asked a local child looking to bone up on English to help me translate a release. It’s an easy way for the local population to feel like they are not getting swindled and they can see you’re paying someone locally to help. And, it will help you make sure you have the correct spelling of the person’s name, their age and a telephone number!

Finally, I encourage every nonprofit we work with at Momenta, and all the ones I’ve worked for personally in the past, to add a model release to their new client forms when the patient/client arrives at the NGO. Schools in the US do that so the know which children cannot be photographed for the newspaper. This is an easy way for the NGO to assist your work and protect themselves.

I would also include a blanket release to and from the organization when you hand over the deliverables. If you don’t have it in your contract already, you need to get that clause in there. It should basically say: I give you a license to use the work for your organization (based on your usual terms) and you cannot hold me responsible for how you use them; you release me to use images of your staff / clients and I am the copyright holder. That’s the basic gist of what you should say.

If you already work for this NGO and they suddenly say, “Go get model releases so we are protected now,” don’t feel badly asking them to sign an agreement of terms about who owns the images and how you can use them. Even if it wasn’t in your initial contract, you should have something saying you can use them for your portfolio, promotions, advertising for your business and stock if you choose. If they are asking you to change how you work in the field for them, then you should be able to turn around and say, “Okay, let’s solidify who owns these images, how we are all using them and who is responsible for them.”

If you look at the article here, it helps go over basic ideas behind model releases. (I don’t agree for paying for photographs as one part suggested unless that person is a paid model and it’s a corporate thing. However, the rest of the logic is sound.)

If you want to see terms on how to establish copyright, I suggest John Harrington’s book Best Business Practices for Photographers. It’s the Bible for freelancers.

good luck!


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