Gathering Visual Evidence

By Sajad Rasool

In Short: Learn how to identify, record and represent the images of an event by mastering the basics of visual evidence collection as a valuable research method for investigators.

The goal of gathering evidence is to accurately recreate the story of what happened, is happening or didn’t happen in each research circumstance. Gathering evidence is crucial to making a sound argument and will in turn help you strengthen your research and spur change.

Here, we focus on the process of gathering visual evidence in the form of photos and videos. This introductory guide can provide a pathway for you to think about your visual documentation as a contribution to either your citizen or journalistic documentation or investigation, or - if need be - as evidence to support a legal investigation. We are going to focus on and learn more about collecting visuals wherever and whenever we can safely do so. Keep in mind that we will not approach this resource as a comprehensive guide on photojournalism or photo-reportage but as a technique you can use to enhance your other investigation methods and evidence collection.

Know your context!

As with any technique and step in your research and investigation, you need to assess the context and the possibilities of conducting specific actions in that context.

For instance, if you are collecting evidence to support a legal case or an investigation, you need to keep in mind how and where collected evidence is admissible - or even legal to acquire - and under which circumstances in different jurisdictions. For example, something admissible in the US might not be admissible in Kenya.

Images as evidence

We have all heard the cliché “a picture is worth a thousand words,” but there is real value in using images to do evidence-based research.

Images help us learn, they grab attention, they explain tough concepts, and inspire action. In this age of information bombardment and fast consumption of media, people less frequently go through lengthy, detailed reports which are produced after extensive research efforts. Images can engage audiences more quickly, as we automatically choose the fastest means to gain knowledge and information about a subject. When we see a picture, we analyse it faster and try to make sense out of it. The possibilities of photography or other visual mediums are endless, both as a source of information and for aesthetic purposes.

Photography is a unique form of collecting information throughout an investigation. We need to keep in mind however, that the collection of information and recording of events through photos and videos is a double-edged sword. It can be objective and useful as a physical record and evidence of something that happened at a certain time. But it can also be (and is) subjective, as it shows what a photographer intended to show us when focusing her/his attention on a certain actor or action. As with any other fragment of information, with images we need to consider who made the image and for what purpose, and to apply a thorough verification process of important elements such as the who, what, where, when, and why.

Read more about evidence collection and verification in our introductory Kit section “What Makes and Investigation.”

Contexts of using images in research

We can say that visual evidence research is used for action or participatory research projects and documentation, noting that a researcher, while taking a photo or a video, plays the role of image-maker and implicitly creates a relationship with the subject being pictured.

Images and visual mediums can make it easier for us to educate ourselves and analyse the data presented in them. For example, documenting and proving a police attack on a crowd of protesters requires images of the event, which we can collect from protesters or possibly capture ourselves. We can, in many ways, document the scene of police brutality and its context by collecting images of violence. But images might be taken from different approaches and angles – from picturing bullet casings, tear gas canisters and blood stains on the street, to more graphic images of people being attacked or detained. In such a context, you might need to take/collect imagery of the identities of individuals involved, the surrounding crowd, injuries, bullet holes or nearby vehicles. This adds to the story and background details while collecting evidence.

Examples of images taken from protests

These photos taken on 3 and 4 February 2012 by Gigi Ibrahim show street riots from Port Said, Egypt. The clashes occurred during the so-called Port Said Stadium Riot.

Full image album available here.

  • Album description: “After deadly clashes at Port Said stadium resulting in 79 deaths of Ahly Ultras members, revolutionaries battle the police once again on Mohamed Mahmoud & Mansour st near Ministry of Interior.” (Gigi Ibrahim) MOI Battle on Mansour St, 3 February 2012. by Gigi Ibrahim. Image source here, Licence Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0). Protesters throwing back tear gas at police, 3 February 2012. by Gigi Ibrahim. Image source here, Licence Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0). US-Made Tear Gas, 3 February 2012. by Gigi Ibrahim. Image source here, Licence Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0). Protesters putting out fire started by police tear gas, 3 February 2012. by Gigi Ibrahim. Image source here, Licence Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0).

We are going to explore how images need to be captured and the ethical considerations behind taking photographs or video for research and investigation purposes.

Note on imagery:

“Imagery” here refers to anything visual that provides information to investigators. Examples: a video of live ammunition being used at protests, a photo of an eviction notice, a detailed map of a mass grave, etc.

Visual research

Researchers, journalists, activists, artists and many others use visual means - photos, videos, drawings, paintings etc. – to represent reality. In the research domain, visual information collection is a qualitative method (alongside others like interviews or observation), complementary to quantitative methods, which are based on statistics. Used in investigation and documentation, this method is often meant to complement other investigative techniques of collecting, verifying, corroborating and representing information about a state of facts, an event, incident, etc. At times, collected visuals of an incident (photos or videos) may be the only available body of evidence or the only way in which an investigator, an activist or an artist may choose or be able to represent their findings.

With visual imagery, reality and information are usually depicted from the point of view of a photographer or a visual artist or a participating/observing citizen. Here, we will talk about photos and videos as a tool to collect evidence about the reality and issues around an event being investigated, for instance to prove an event occurred or to demonstrate abuse. We will focus specifically on how we can collect evidence in a visual format to support our investigations and other categories of evidence while we are in the field, and use visuals for information purposes. We will also look at the basics of giving captions and details to the visuals to make them an exclusive evidence gathering method.

Note on Evidence:

Broadly, evidence is any verifiable piece of information, in any format, that can provide details about something that happened or did not happen: an event, a location/space, a space in time, a context, conditions, people (characters), an issue being investigated, etc – or all the above. There are many sources and methods of collecting evidence during research like physical, imagery, testimony, technical reports, newspaper reports, etc.. Legal evidence is a special type and is defined as “information that is admissible in court” or “trial-ready evidence.” This means that a piece of information meets a set of standards for admissibility, such as an unbroken chain of custody for the evidence. Here we refer to evidence in the broader sense but we will also make reference to more specific types – such as legal evidence you may need to collect – at times.

For our purposes, visual evidence is anything that can provide information in the form of an image (still or moving) about an incident, a problem or a person being investigated. Such evidence may come from many sources, as we will soon see. We will focus on using photography to make ‘images’ and ‘video’ to capture ‘moving images’. A visual is hence the photo or video (shot) of anything we see and observe, which adds to the rest of the information we are collecting.

For instance, while researching working conditions at a factory, we would need images of employees working in those conditions, the environment in which they work, the images of smoke / steam / dust, photos of any hazardous chemical used at the factory, images of them working without a proper protective gear, images of their hands / feet, injuries, etc.

Examples of photos revealing work conditions

  • Note that images below are used only for general reference on building a set of related imagery to illustrate a situation or inform research/investigation. Image of Knit Fabric Production in a RMG factory of Bangladesh. By: Fahad Faisal. Date: 14 March 2013. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International. Image source Wikimedia Commons. Image of Hand Sanding of Denim Jeans Pants in a RMG factory in Bangladesh. By: Fahad Faisal. Date: 24 July 2013. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International. Image source Wikimedia Commons Image of workers standing knee deep without any protective clothing in tanning water as they transfer rawhides into another tank. By: Daniel Lanteigne. Licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC-ND. Image source.


Here are a few projects and books using imagery as visual evidence to support a narrative:

Another example is taking images of a paper document or screenshots of digital records, which count as corroborative evidence: information that supports or verifies already existing evidence (e.g. photos of medical records of sick workers, showing the effect of hazardous chemicals on their health).


While images and video are very powerful means of documentation and evidence, they often are not sufficient proof on their own. Visual media needs to be accompanied with context, which is the set of circumstances under which the visual media was produced. This means that they are not substitutes to other forms of investigation and if there isn’t enough supporting evidence, then they lose their power.

On the other hand, sometimes visual media captured is not your prime evidence but supports other areas of your investigation by providing confirmation or providing context for other results you have uncovered through other means of investigation.

Always use visual documentation together with other forms of investigation and documentation techniques.

From questions to images

Some images are given very careful attention. They can be highly crafted and carry a lot of information that the photographer / documenter wanted to capture and bring to her/his audience. While you collect and document evidence you always need to keep in mind the information you want to capture and the situations you might be in - some of them may be risky or dangerous.

During any research process, one always carries a set of guiding questions to find answers to. Journalists and researchers play an important role in uncovering information using their human sources, interviews, observations, data, images, etc. The research question(s) is what guides the process, making it more focused and enabling the collection of information that can be turned into relevant evidence.

The same is valid when working with images as evidence. Once you pick the right set of questions you’d like to address, you proceed to research and collect relevant images. A good set of questions in research (visual and non-visual) is:

  • specific – directly related to the subject-matter/event/incident

  • actionable – possible to plan and research for the answers

  • practical – possible to find answers (given different situations)

This means that when we talk in terms of visually-based or visually-supported research, we must be sure “what” and “how” we capture.


As mentioned earlier, for investigations / research purposes, the goal of collecting evidence is to accurately document and / or recreate a situation, an incident, an event that happened, is happening or maybe did not happen (and you want to prove it did not happen). The techniques we focus on here will allow you to learn how to record and replay the pictures of a situation or event. You may use them simply for documentation purposes, you might plan a civic art project, a publication, a package of evidence for court, etc. As such, visual evidence collection is a valuable research method in either context.

The What, Who, How in visual evidence

Social activists, human rights defenders, researchers, journalists and others are often in a position to capture events while they unfold and use this documentation as evidence in their reports, publications, advocacy campaigns or in the court of law if that’s the case. For images to count as evidence and to become trustworthy, verifiable sources of information during or after an event, you need to focus on three questions that your visuals should address as accurately as possible:

  • “What” action was committed? - “Action” here can be anything from a positive move to a crime (e.g. protesters were harmed by…, weapons were used by…, etc.)

  • “Who” committed the action? (e.g. police, army, protesters, etc.)

  • “How” did the person(s) commit the action? (e.g. if it’s an act of violence, they used batons, stones, etc.)

Capturing the “What” is somewhat instinctual.

You see something that you believe is suspicious or wrong, point the camera toward it and capture an image or record a video of it, thinking that you’ll want to address it in your research. Here are some examples of “what”:

  • spilling of toxic chemicals from a factory pipe in a body of water near a village,

  • use of force by police on protesters during a demonstration,

  • a machine used to forcibly destroy homes of people.

Capturing evidence of the “Who” and “How” is much less intuitive and therefore difficult.

“Who” and “How” includes individuals, objects or actions on both sides of the action or situation you are capturing, and the means used:

  • in the case of police force on protesters - images of the police while beating people in a demonstration; images of protesters being beaten; images of the badges and weapons used by police/soldiers; images of weapons used by protesters (as it could be that police was provoked by someone), etc.

  • in the case of a machine used to destroy houses - images of the person operating the machine; images of the machine used and registration numbers on it; pictures of the individual issuing demolition, their badge if possible; images of the people forcibly removed from houses, etc..


Investigators of the Forensic Architecture research agency at Goldsmiths University of London, UK use imagery and visual evidence collection and analysis on a regular basis, often looking at before and after event visuals corroborated by digital modeling of events, witness statements, social media crowdsourcing and other investigation methods. Screenshot from Forensic Architecture’s project documenting the killing of Muhammad Gulzar during the March 2020 clashes between refugees and armed forces at the Turkish-Greek border. Source:

BEFORE and AFTER scenes

Collecting images of pre- and post- incident helps establish and connect the data to better understand an incident.

In accordance with the protest related examples above, you could strive to capture/shoot or collect images from witnesses or participants about “how” a protest demonstration looked before police started attacking people. Whenever possible, consider asking bystanders who might have been photographing other things but might have captured context that was not in attention of participants or witnesses.

Accordingly, for an incident of house destruction, you can get or collect images of the house pre-demolition. This helps to understand the pre- and post- status of an event. In addition, you could ask the people affected to share such imagery if they have it.

This process fits for many circumstances where you need to document ongoing events: property damage, use of excessive force, environmental damage, construction sites, etc., and it needs to be adapted to the environment you are in, to the event happening, to the possible risks and restrictions you may encounter, and to the questions you are seeking to answer.

Safety First!

Assessing the safety of taking images yourself or of asking for photos from others is crucial. If what you’re documenting is sensitive then you must assess the risks you take or the risks you may bring to other people as well. For instance, while asking for images from witnesses or bystanders you might expose your activity and its purpose - some of the people you contact might have been there on behalf of potential perpetrators. Similarly, if you involve other people you automatically put them at risk - they might not realise the scale or purpose of such image collection or action.

Here are a few questions to ask:

  • Am I documenting something that has happened or that is happening now?

  • What kind of equipment will I use to take photos or video?

  • Is the location I’m in safe? Is this a situation that will provoke local authorities or can they offer protection? Is this a situation that can provoke the local community or do I have contacts that can facilitate taking a photo?

  • Am I putting anyone else at risk and if so, (how) can I mitigate that risk for them?

Many people are uncomfortable when there is a camera, depending on the country and the culture of the place you are documenting, people can either welcome or grow wary of a camera.

Please also consider whether you are putting the subjects of your photographs at risk by publishing or sharing the photographs of them later. For instance, if someone is photographed at a protest, could this put them at risk? Are you violating the privacy of children by photographing them in certain conditions?

In each situation you must assess the danger associated with taking a photograph, your allies as you enter a territory and precautions you must take. A point and shoot camera may not be provocative to authorities and community members, but sometimes offering to take photos of community members with a professional camera and creating a human connection through personable conversations help with making the space friendlier to take photos.

Note that having good connections with the community helps mitigate many of the risks involved with documentation out in the field.

Please refer to “Away From the Screen, Out In the Field” and “Interviews: the Human Element of Your Investigation” for safety procedures.

Essential practices for capturing visual evidence

This introduction to practices of visual evidence collection will help ensure that your visuals can be verifiable, and can be used to address your questions and suspicions or to prove who were the perpetrators, should that be an intended result of your investigation process.

We will focus here on methods used primarily by researchers, eyewitnesses and activists who gather evidence in situations where they can record events as they happen or in their close aftermath. These methods can also help independent researchers and eyewitneses to share the gathered visuals with trusted others such as investigators, NGOs or lawyers.

Tips: Knowing your role and assessing your situation.

Who you are in that context. - You need to first determine your role(s) in a situation where you are documenting evidence. Are you an intentional documentarian or an accidental one who just happened to witness something?

Know your rights. - You need to make sure what is legal to be documented / photographed / filmed and what is not; where it’s legal to do so and where not. Read the laws and ask a trusted someone who has practical experience as this varies a lot from country to country and place to place.

Assess the security. - If it is unsafe or highly risky to document, for example, a human rights violation happening, don’t put yourself and the ones you are photographing/filming at risk. If it is safe, follow the instructions mentioned in this guide in the section “What, Who, How”, above.

If you happen to be an accidental documentarian, or think you may have to perform your work unexpectedly or in haste during a (friendly or unfriendly) situation, please consider preemptively learning basic practices of filming, storing and protecting your evidence discussed in this guide. You can start with our introductory article “Safety First!” in this Kit, and advance to more in-depth techniques and skills based on your needs and context.

Note from “The Handbook of Human Rights Investigations” by Dermot Groome (2011):

  • “Investigation has sometimes been likened to assembling a jigsaw puzzle and each piece of evidence to an individual piece of the puzzle. However, unlike the puzzle assembler, the investigator cannot look on the cover of the box to see what the completed puzzle will look like. The investigator must carefully collect the “pieces” of the puzzle from a variety of sources and then assemble them with logic and common sense in order to see that entire picture. Although a partial picture may develop as more and more pieces are added, it is not until the final piece is placed that the investigator can clearly see the entire truth.” (Book cover and outline; and an article detailing the process described in the book.)

As you address the collection and use of visual media as evidence during your documentation and investigation, keep in mind that the tips and advice we include in this guide refer mainly to the use of images to support research and to present information that helps you and other people to learn or understand things better.


Wherever possible, take/shoot the images yourselves – as that counts as first-hand information. Where this is not possible, collect relevant images from other sources – which counts as second (or third)-hand information. Read about evidence collection and verification steps when sourcing first-hand and second-hand information in the “What Makes an Investigation” section of this Kit.

To document what you see, make sure to take as many photos as possible from as many different angles as you can. Sometimes something that is not immediately apparent while at the scene can be uncovered by scrutinizing the photos you take. The act of going through the photos or videos you took is a process that can point you in different directions and give you more information than what you initially had.

Always charge your cameras or devices and if possible bring along extra batteries, storage and charging equipment. You can never be too sure how long you will be out and what you will need to document, whether it is images, videos or perhaps even testimonies.


Crime scene (or forensic) photography became an important element for investigations in the 19th century, when detailed photographs of violent crime scenes and images of forged documents taken by photographers with a passion for details were first presented and allowed as courtroom evidence. That’s when photography as a forensic investigative tool was born and soon became an essential tool for crime scene analysis.

An image plays multiple roles when used to support research:

  • it adds information,

  • it helps attract/keep attention,

  • it adds an aesthetic value,

  • it has its legal value.

Ethics considerations

The evidence you collect in visual format is of utmost importance and may be valuable information not only to you as investigators, but to many others such as advocacy organizations, journalists, lawyers and human rights defenders. Hence, you need to follow principles of ethical and safe documentation and investigation practices.

When taking a visual, at least three stakeholders are involved:

  1. the photographer/visual researcher,

  2. the people who are photographed/filmed,

  3. the viewers or the audience.

Quality of images

With the latest high-end DSLR (digital single-lens reflex) cameras and smartphones, taking many shots and selecting the best ones later has become handy. For example, if a researcher is looking at the issue of polluted water due to factory waste, photographs depicting the water and surrounding conditions on a riverside are much more powerful evidence than written documentation alone. Revealing the problem in its context strengthens the value of the information and can be used for information, advocacy or legal purposes.

Examples of images revealing pollution and environmental damage: Photo of polluted river - Alzette pollution event on the 18.02.2020 in Grund Luxembourg. By Paul Braun. Source Wikimedia Commons. Licensed under Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication Photo of contaminated stream - Stream stained turqouise-blue as it emerges from the spoilings or tailings piles of copper ore at Jerome, Arizona. By Andrew Dunn. Source Wikimedia Commons. Licenced under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0. Photo of contaminated water in Binh thanh district, Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam: “This location is only 3 miles from South-East Asia’s highest building.” By Anh Vy. Source

Here are some important elements you need to know about and handle when working with the visual medium (video and photo).


When you take a photograph or a video, you capture light. In the absence of light, image-making is not possible without advanced equipment (infra-red and so on). Hence, light is the fundamental element that all images need because it illuminates the scene or subject; whether it is natural or artificial light.


In order to tell a captivating story, you need to capture a scene when every part of the picture is in interaction with the other elements. Waiting for that moment is the key to composing better images with maximum information/story.


This is the basic unit of a video. It refers to a single, constant piece of footage captured by a camera. Basically, a shot begins when you press record and ends when you press pause. Make sure that each shot is not less than 15 to 20 seconds. When shooting an action, like a bicycle passing on a street, you should capture the full action and then press stop - meaning, you should let the bicycle exit the frame irrespective of how long the shot takes. It’s always better to have enough footage to cut from rather than not have enough.


The relationship between different characters, objects, and free space within a frame is very important in order to tell a good story through images. Composition of a shot also depends on the light, shadows, head space/head room, look space/nose room and the angle at which it is taken (see more about these elements below.)

Key features of an image for a good composition


Throughout this section, you find references to a set of useful community reporting and visual documentation materials from Video Volunteers, where the author of this guide has been involved. Video Volunteers works with citizen groups to empower India’s poorest communities to expose the wrongs they witness, using photography and video to collect and share evidence.

In addition, you can find valuable resources about how to document events with video and how to work with communities in this sense by reading the guides and tips provided by, and organisation that “helps people use video and technology to protect and defend human rights.”

The Rule of Thirds The Rule of Thirds. Image source: Video Volunteers manual “Field Guide for Community Correspondents”

The Rule of Thirds is a method through which we understand and learn to take balanced shots or frame. To do that we divide the photo in 9 parts by drawing grids vertically and horizontally – for beginners, this can be practiced on taken photographs or can be an imaginary process if you are more advanced. The grids and intersections are references through which we understand the composition and effect of the shot. The Rule of Thirds. Image source: Video Volunteers manual “Field Guide for Community Correspondents”

The general rule is illustrated in the above picture: a line cutting across the eye-line of the person, intersections meeting at his body at the right side of the grid and him looking at somebody to the opposite side where there is empty space to be looked at. This makes for a balanced composition.


The Rule of Thirds is not a must for all kinds of imagery used in investigations. Sometimes you just want to capture as much information as possible while documenting ongoing events or conducting background research for your investigation. Not every set of images you take will need the quality and composition of a photo-reportage. In most cases, being able to use the images as proof matters more that (and doesn’t depend on) any photographic rules. Therefore, when documenting an ongoing event or photographing / filming for documentation purposes, simply take as many images as possible making sure you don’t lose any of the key actions, actors, interactions, places, etc.

There will be situations when you will need to forget about the photographic rules in order to make the best out of a situation where being quick to capture visual evidence is key to your research. So, an even more important rule at time is to capture things as they are, from as many angles as you can, and do not adjust objects for a better composition.

Head and Nose room Image source: Video Volunteers manual “Field Guide for Community Correspondents”

Head Room refers to the empty space above the head of the person or the object in focus. Image source: Video Volunteers manual “Field Guide for Community Correspondents”

Five basic shot types in photography and videography

Every visual is documented in a size. There are 5 such basic types of visual sizes which hold aesthetic and informational value in visual documentation.

1. Extreme long shot or establishing shot

This shot provides a sense of the place or setting where a shot is documented. It establishes the overview of an event. Image source: Video Volunteers manual “Field Guide for Community Correspondents”

In this establishing shot:

  • Point 1 - the protesters are an important Who,

  • Point 2 - building shows Where and Why,

  • Point 3 - the police are another important Who in this story,

  • Point 4 - the establishing shot tells us the What; this story is about a protest at an Important Building in a Capital city area.

2. Long shot

A Long shot highlights the characters in the space and shows the full body of the person. Characters can be usually seen head to toe or even wider. The long shot incorporates all elements that are relevant to a scene or event. Image source: Video Volunteers manual “Field Guide for Community Correspondents”

In this long shot:

  • Point 1 - building shows Where and Why,

  • Point 2, 4 - the protesters are an important Who,

  • Point 3 - the banner highlights What the protesters want and Why they protest.

3. Medium or mid shot

A medium shot portrays characters above the waist up to head. Image source: Video Volunteers manual “Field Guide for Community Correspondents”

In this medium shot:

  • Point 1 - the banner highlights What the protesters want and Why they protest,

  • Point 2 - building shows Where and Why,

  • Points 3, 4 - these protesters are an important Who in this story.

4. Close up shot

Close up shots are used to show intimate details or emotions. Image source: Video Volunteers manual “Field Guide for Community Correspondents”

In this close shot:

  • Points 1, 3 - building shows Where,

  • Point 2, 4 - a protester, who speaks to the camera, explains Why she is there.

Close up shot is not just a shot taken of anyone’s face but it usually intends to highlight some important information for the story/research.

5. Extreme close-up

This is used in order to capture important or impactful minute details of a scene or action. Image source: Video Volunteers manual “Field Guide for Community Correspondents”

This extreme close-up shows an action.

Another graphic to understand the shot sequence: Image source: Video Volunteers manual “Field Guide for Community Correspondents”

In order to have a complete set of visual evidence, it’s best to try and collect, wherever possible, all of these types of shots of the situation or context you are documenting.

Managing visual evidence

Below are some essential considerations and key terms to keep in mind when collecting and using images as evidence.

Establish location

Each place where you will photograph or film is called a location. Try to take a photo of a sign board mentioning the name of the place. If possible, keep the location/GPS of your camera or smartphone turned on – it will help establish the geographic coordinates. Your smartphone will store the geolocation of the image in metadata which is useful later on in the process of verifying the information you gather throughout your investigation. This is also a valuable piece of evidence you would need to provide if using the information in court or – it helps to prove where the image was taken, when and in what conditions (what device etc.).

Safety First! - Keeping your location data safe.

Data security needs to be taken into account – you may not want to give your apps, your operating system and your mobile service provider access to your location over the course of your investigation.

If you are trying to keep your data, communications and whereabouts secret while conducting your research, the Location or GPS features on your camera or smartphone (and any other devices you carry) can be more of a curse than a blessing. Only use the functions if necessary while recording your imagery, or under what you consider to be very safe conditions. Your safety – and that of your data, your sources and your collaborators – should always be a priority. In many cases, and especially when not recording any visual material you plan to use, it is wiser to disable Location features from your mobile phone and other devices with location tracking functions. Most smartphones allow you to do so under “Location Settings.”

As a good practice when researching sensitive topics, or if you suspect that you might be under surveillance, avoid sharing or storing any location data without using encryption.

There are accessible methods and tools you can use to obfuscate location data when you need to. Here are a few apps we recommend from the Guardian Project:

  • LocationPrivacy - privacy filters for shared location links.

  • ObscuraCam - privacy camera app to blur faces and remove camera and location metadata.

  • ProofMode - helps turn your photos and videos into secure, signed visual evidence.

Preserve and safeguard metadata

Metadata is information that describes the properties of a file, be it a photo, a video, a document, a sound recording, a map, etc. For example the contents of an image are the visible elements in it, while the date when (date and time) the image was taken, the location and device information constitute its metadata. Ensure date and time of your device is set up accurately before taking visuals you plan to use as evidence.

Metadata is precious for your documentation and investigations because, if accurate and unaltered, it constitutes most valuable evidence of things that happened in a specific place and time. Check some of our Exposing the Invisible guides and articles discussing what metadata can reveal as well as the challenges it poses.

Safety First!

Image metadata can reveal more than you want it to. It may be possible for someone to use it to locate other photos on the internet that you or someone else took with the same camera, or figure out where you live if any of the photographs were taken in your home. While you may wish to preserve location information as part of your evidence, you should also be cautious about where and how you share the images.

Metadata is vulnerable to manipulation, and for that matter it needs to be thoroughly safeguarded and verified. It is important to know that there are tools, which enable you to both preserve and secure the metadata of your videois and photos as well as to check an image’s metadata, delete or modify all or some of it (for instance, time and date, author, GPS coordinates etc.). Here are a few such tools.

To safely capture, preserve and share metadata of your images:

  • eyeWitness – recording app to capture verifiable photo and video documenting abuses.

  • Save – app designed to help you store and share mobile media while ensuring your identity remains protected. Free, open-source, and available for iOS and Android.

To view, verify or edit image metadata:

  • Fotoforensics – online image analysis tool, for metadata checks and information ob whether an image has been altered (watch out when uploading images for checks – do not do so if using sensitive material or trying to stay digitally undetected.)

  • Jeffrey’s Image Metadata Viewer – online image metadata viewer // NOTE: the tool is offline as of January 2023 - (watch out when uploading images for checks – do not do so if using sensitive material or trying to stay digitally undetected.)

  • Phil Harvey’s Exiftool – metadata viewer and editor available for download and use on your own computer. Apart from reading metadata, this tool allows you to read, write and change metadata from photos and videos. It is safer to use when dealing with sensitive material, as opposed to uploading your images online for metadata viewing.

  • Reveal Image Verification Assistant – an alpha-stage tool (under development at the moment of our publication) for image verification on the web.

Safeguard your data and devices

Whenever you have captured data, you have to think of safeguarding this data. This usually means two things:

  1. Protect the data from damage or loss

  2. Protect the data from falling into the wrong hands

The first part means that you need to back up your data as quickly as possible so that you can recover a copy in case of damage or loss. Backup can be performed on a cloud, external hard drives or you can send copies of your data to others in your team to safeguard.


When sending data through instant messaging apps such as Signal, Wire, Telegram, etc., your metadata may be altered or stripped. If you want to retain the metadata, upload to a cloud or send via email.

The other aspect of safeguarding your data is making sure that third parties do not get a hold of it, in case it reveals something about your investigation, violates people’s privacy if captured by malicious actors or puts you at risk from entities you are investigating. That is why it is important in cases like these to safeguard the data itself by encrypting it or making it inaccessible even if stolen or captured.

You can encrypt your data by having it on an encrypted drive on your computer, making sure that the computer’s drive has full disk encryption. You must also travel with your device powered down. You may also use encryption software like Veracrypt or Cryptomator to encrypt a part of your storage device.


When choosing a cloud service, you may also want to make sure you choose a cloud service that does not compromise your data. Ideally you may choose a zero-knowledge cloud like SpiderOak.

Alternatively you can document photos using safer applications such as CameraV and Save by Open Archive.

Use image captioning effectively

Once you have your needed final images/visuals, you will want to gather the information related to each visual. You can collect this information from various sources such as your subject, eyewitness, or the source to put every bit of information in a proper order, describing things correctly.

Captioning depends on the format we chose to present or document our work. Sometimes all the visuals might need a single caption, which can then get complemented by additional textual explanations if your imagery is integrated into an article or a story of some sort.

What to consider:

  • keep the captions simple and direct,

  • identify people and places first,

  • include date and time (optional) when the visual was taken,

  • captions should add new information, not only describe the image,

  • the caption should add context to the image, not just duplicate what one already sees.

  • use present tense while explaining the moment in the frame,

  • be brief.

What to avoid:

  • do not make assumptions,

  • do not be vague,

  • avoid overusing verbs in a caption,

  • do not merely repeat the story headline in a caption (if using the images as part of a story),

  • do not just restate the obvious elements that are captured in the image (e.g.: this is a lake with trees around). Locals of Chilewadi village of Maharashtra (India) working on water harvesting structures during a Shramdhaan (volunteering initiative) organized by Pani Foundation on 10 May 2019. Photograph: Sajad Rasool

Stay alert, feel the flow of the space

Before grabbing your gadget to capture images in the field, assess the situation, learn the characters around you, see how things work. Let those around you get used to you while you make your work plan.

Use professional and balanced judgment, which is also common sense and depends on ethics rather than on you being and experienced photographer or interviewer or else. In case you are not able to get the proper consent before documentation, you need to make an informed assessment of how to proceed in such a situation and consider any potential risks involved to the people around you, your sources, yourself, your work.

Most importantly:

  • “People tend to think that the image, in itself, is an evidence or that the image, in itself, is almost never an evidence. It has to be validated, legitimised, interpreted, read and delivered by an expert who is providing words.” - Diane Dafour, quoted in “The Photograph as Evidence”, by Jon Nicholls, (archived publication link here.)

Real life example:

While shooting an interview with the father of a boy, who was killed during a police action at protest demonstration, I was seen conducting interview by the police personnel, I was told to stop shooting and accompany them to the police station. Without arguing with them, I followed their instructions, stopped interviewing, and followed them to the police station. I was asked a few questions like what I am doing and why I was interviewing this man. Later I was let go. By assessing the scenario, I had no choice but to ‘cooperate’ with police, however I kept my camera on recording mode and shot the whole event. We accordingly need to assess as what is feasible from a security point of view and what is not. (Sajad Rasool)

Published August 2020 / Updated on November 2021


Articles and Guides

Tools and Databases

  • Amnesty International You Tube Data Viewer - tool to extract hidden data from videos hosted on YouTube in order to verify them and track down original content.

  • CameraV - android app allowing to film with increased metadata saving features to be used in your investigations or in a court of law as strong evidence.

  • eyeWitness - recording app to capture verifiable photo and video documenting abuses.

  • Fotoforensics - online image analysis tool, for metadata checks and information ob whether an image has been altered (watch out when uploading images for checks – do not do so if using sensitive material or trying to stay digitally undetected.)

  • Google Image Search - for searching by image.

  • InVid - plug-in that helps to debunk fake photos and videos and to analize metadata.

  • Jeffrey’s Image Metadata Viewer - online image metadata viewer (watch out when uploading images for checks – do not do so if using sensitive material or trying to stay digitally undetected.)

  • Phil Harvey’s Exiftool - metadata viewer and editor available for download and use on your own computer. Apart from reading metadata, this tool allows you to read, write and change metadata from photos and videos. It is safer to use when dealing with sensitive material, as opposed to uploading your images online for metadata viewing.

  • Reveal Image Verification Assistant - an alpha-stage tool (under development at the moment of our publication) for image verification on the web.

  • Save - app designed to help you store and share mobile media while ensuring your identity remains protected. Free, open-source, and available for iOS and Android.

  • TinEye - for reverse image search.



Angle - In this context, it marks the specific location at which the photo/video camera is placed to take a shot.


Evidence - Information, in any format, that is material to the question, problem, person or process you are investigating.


Encryption - A way of using clever mathematics to encode a message or information so that it can only be decoded and read by someone who has a particular password or an encryption key.


Footage - Part of a raw video recording that has not been edited yet.


Geolocation - finding the real world location of an object, such as the place that a photograph was taken.


Global Positioning System (GPS) - a US system of navigational satellites that allow users to determine their position on earth.


Headroom - the space above the head of a character or subject. It refers to the space/distance between top of the subjects head and the top of the frame.


Metadata - information that describes properties of a file, be it image, document, sound recording, map etc. For example the contents of an image are the visible elements in it, while the date the image was taken, the location and device it was taken on, are called metadata.


Nose/lead room - the space in front of a moving or stationary subject. A nose room is an important aspect of a shot because it gives the viewers a sense of distance or direction to where the subject is facing.


Participatory research - An approach to research in communities that emphasizes participation and action. It seeks to understand the world by trying to change it, collaboratively and following reflection (source: Wikipedia).


Rule of Thirds - a method through which we understand and learn to take balanced shots or frame. To do that we divide the photo in 9 parts by drawing grids vertically and horizontally – for beginners, this can be practiced on taken photographs or can be an imaginary process if you are more advanced. The grids and intersections are references through which we understand the composition and effect of the shot.