Balancing Privacy and Your Portfolio

How do I get a portfolio AND preserve my client’s privacy?

It is an important question. Our clients hire us to document a very intense and personal event in their lives, and birth photographers need to respect that parents may feel uncomfortable with some images being displayed. There are many differing opinions, but here are my thoughts:

  1. Get a signed model release from the parents for any photos you post online. I do this prenatally, and offer my clients a slideshow set to music as an incentive to share. But if they choose not to share, I don’t share. More than half the births I’ve shot are not on my web site at all, and that includes some of my best work! As much as I would love to share them, I honor the parent’s wishes.
  2. Let the parents see the photos privately before you show the world. On rare occasions, I’ve held back a photo or two even when I have a model release because of the parent’s concerns. I ask clients before labor if they are OK with one or two sneak peeks on my Facebook page, and surprisingly most have said no. I would think that would be a great way for them to share from my page to theirs, but I respect that they don’t want that. I do not have my clients approve each and every image on a regular basis, but instead ask them to trust me. That has worked well for me.
  3. Keep all birth photos in your portfolio “safe for work”. No nudity on my site. If the parents don’t care, I will take photos of the baby on mom’s chest that show mom’s breasts, and give them to the parents, but those photos don’t go on my site.
  4. Don’t identify the family. I only ever use the baby’s first name, and even some of those are pseudonyms.
  5. Because they only take the first breath once.

  6. Because I always want to have new and current work on my site, any time I give a discount (like my doula client discount, or my birth center client discount), signing the model release is one condition of the discount. I don’t ever give discounts without a model release, and I never discount for a model release alone. Write it into your contract that the discount is conditional on allowing those photos to go into your portfolio, and state that if the client does not allow portfolio use, they will be billed for full price. Having it in writing AND discussed verbally is important. Even when it is a friend or family member. ESPECIALLY when it is a friend or family member! I have this as an item they need to initial right next to it, and we talk about it when we are going over the paperwork.
  7. On rare occasions, I will ask to use a specific image when I don’t have a model release for the whole birth. The image on the right is one example of this, it is the only image from that birth that I have permission to share!

Another approach is to charge an additional privacy fee for not sharing the images. I personally have chosen not to do this, but I know it works for several other photographers.

Some photographers worry about HIPAA and privacy laws. I’ll just say it straight: HIPAA does not apply to photographers. (Doesn’t apply to doulas, either…) HIPAA applies only to very specific “covered entities” outlined in law. Since birth photography is not one of the covered entities, and since you are there by invitation of the patient, you are good.

However, some things that might be appreciated by clients who value their privacy:

  1. Ask your client if they would like you to step outside the room when the nurse is doing the initial medical history. This can take 20-30 minutes, but some of the questions that are asked are rather sensitive and clients might feel awkward answering them in front of you.
  2. When a nurse comes in to do a vaginal exam, you might want to step outside as well, or move yourself closer to mom’s head so you can’t see under the sheet. The later in labor it is, the less likely it is to bother mom, but doing that shows that you are sensitive her her privacy and any desire for modesty she might have.
  3. Don’t post ANYTHING on social media that might hint mom is having a baby. I have figured out the identity of a photographer’s client just from a “heading out to University hospital!” status she posted on FB. The world is a small place, and the internet can at times make it even smaller. The fact that mom is in labor, or that the baby has been born, is the PARENT’S news to share, not yours.
  4. Don’t post online photos that show personal details. The paperwork, the wristbands that parents wear in the hospital, etc. all can had identifying information that privacy conscious parents would prefer not to share. Take them, give them to the parents, but don’t post online anywhere.
  5. For home births, or early labor at home, don’t post exterior shots of the house. Might be a long shot, but this can be identifying information and might be upsetting for a client to have online if they are concerned.

Sample staff privacy chartingAnother concern is privacy for the staff. Over the years, I have experienced the widest range of responses when I ask about that. From one midwife who said “Why are you asking if I’m OK with photos? It’s not my birth, it’s hers! Don’t even ask me that.” to a labor and delivery nurse who took me aside in the hallway and confided in me that she was living in fear of an abusive ex-husband and asked me to please not put her in any photos at all, not even ones that were just for the parents.

I have always just verbally asked any care providers “Are you OK with photos?” and “Are you OK with them going on my web site?” and then documenting their response in my notes with the date and time. A full model release seems like overkill and many medical professionals are wary of signing anything.

Some photographers simply don’t take, or post, any images of staff at all. I prefer to include them whenever possible, as they are a part of the parent’s birth story. I’ve found the vast majority of staff are fine with incidental photos. However, many are not as comfortable with photos of medical procedures like forceps or cesarean, and some are not comfortable with any at all during delivery. I have had an OB tell me to “keep it above the waist” during delivery, but some photographers are not permitted to shoot at all during pushing until after the delivery of the placenta.

Privacy is a big concern for many of the women who are considering hiring a birth photographer, so I think it is something that needs to be in the forefront of your mind as you craft your policies and build your business.

by Andrea Lythgoe
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