Photography, Indigenous cultures and climate action

March 2022

By Rebecca Ferderer, Traditional Knowledge Division, WIPO

It is often said that a picture is worth a thousand words. Photography is a powerful means of communication offering a new lens through which to learn about and view the world. Every day across the globe, millions of photographs capture the best ─ and the worst ─ of humanity and its impact on the natural world. For example, today, many photographers are capturing the stark reality of climate action in a drive to inspire positive change. But first and foremost, photography is a creative act and intellectual property (IP), particularly copyright, plays an important role in determining who owns a photograph and how it may be used and by whom.

Every day across the globe, millions of photographs capture the best ─ and the worst ─ of humanity and its impact on the natural world. Many photographers are capturing the stark reality of the climate crisis in a drive to inspire climate action. (Photo: Prince Loyd Besorio ©)

The moment you click the shutter on your camera, you own the rights to that newly created image and can decide how others may use it. Many photographers, however, are unfamiliar with this central tenet of copyright law. In today’s increasingly digital world, an understanding of these rights is more important than ever, given the potential for these images to reach global audiences.

“Photographers are often not aware that their works are protected by copyright from the moment they were created,” says Leonardo de Terlizzi, Senior Legal Advisor of the International Confederation of Societies of Authors and Composers (CISAC). “Recognizing these rights is truly necessary in the current digital ecosystem in which photographs have the amazing potential to reach a massive audience globally.”

The need for greater IP awareness among Indigenous peoples and local communities

While this is true for photographers everywhere, the need for a sound understanding of how copyright can safeguard the interests of photographers from Indigenous communities is even more acute. Over generations, these communities have developed a wealth of traditional knowledge and related intangible cultural heritage. It is central to their identity and their lives, and is increasingly recognized as the key to effective climate action.

When these cultural assets go unprotected and are used by others ─ without the consent of the community concerned ─ these communities and their heritage are at risk of being misrepresented or distorted, with potentially far-reaching implications. In cases where traditional knowledge is sacred or secret, it is even more important for a community to be able to protect and maintain their rights against such misuse or unwanted disclosure. From a financial perspective, the lack of protection can hit the economic prospects of these communities, possibly even preventing them from benefiting from their own cultural heritage. With a robust understanding of how they can benefit from copyright, photographers from Indigenous and local communities can leverage the power of photography to raise awareness about the struggles their communities face and the central role they can play in mitigating the effects of climate change.

Photography can be a powerful way for members of Indigenous peoples and local communities, in particular young members, to contribute to the conservation of their traditional knowledge and traditional cultural expressions.

The drive to record the world’s cultural diversity

In 2003, the adoption of the UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage sparked a race to document (record, register and digitize) the world’s vast cultural diversity. The risk of cultural loss arising from the climate crisis is fueling the urgency of this task.

Photographers from Indigenous and local communities
can leverage the power of photography to raise
awareness about the struggles their communities face
and the central role they can play in battling climate
change. (Photo: Ramona Elizabeth Servin Barboza ©)

In general, compiling and maintaining registers, lists and inventories is a practical way for these communities to maintain and preserve their intangible cultural heritage and to safeguard their rights and interests. But such documentation, which includes photography, is not always straightforward. First, because often it is undertaken by individuals (ethnologists, folklorists and anthropologists), institutions (museums and archives) and governments (ministries of culture) with no cultural ties to the Indigenous peoples or local communities represented. Second, because such initiatives sometimes exclude women and younger members of these communities whose perspectives can go unrepresented. Third, if Indigenous peoples and local communities are to document their own intangible cultural heritage, they need the technical skills to do so and a sound knowledge of IP to manage the rights that flow from that process.

Documentation of traditional knowledge and traditional cultural expressions is not an end in itself but can be part of a broader approach to preserve and protect the rights of Indigenous peoples and local communities. For example, to benefit from the existing IP system, these communities could create visual records or snapshots of their culture and other contemporary adaptations of their traditional knowledge and traditional cultural expressions. Such works would automatically qualify for copyright protection and, depending on their nature, may also qualify for trademark and/or design protection.

This is not a perfect solution, but for some members of Indigenous peoples and local communities, this can be a source of income. As such, it is vital that initiatives to empower and support Indigenous peoples and local communities help these communities better understand how they can use the existing IP system to safeguard their interests.

In its current form, the IP system does not allow for the protection of “underlying” or “pre-existing” traditional knowledge. International negotiators at WIPO have been grappling with IP issues relating to genetic resources, traditional knowledge and folklore for many years (read more about International negotiations on Indigenous knowledge at WIPO). The largely oral transmission of these traditional forms of creativity and innovation, and the fact that this knowledge is held collectively, add additional layers to this complex IP debate.

Creating a visual archive of cultural heritage

Photography can be a powerful way for members of Indigenous peoples and local communities, in particular young members, to contribute to the conservation of their traditional knowledge and traditional cultural expressions.

“We are at a crucial moment in history where we have access to technology that can help us create a visual archive that represents who we are without intermediaries,” says Eli Farinango, a Kichwa artist and visual storyteller born in Quito, Ecuador and raised in Turtle Island, Canada.

“It is important to empower ourselves to visually represent those stories with nuance and care as the visuals we create will nurture future generations,” Ms. Farinango says. She uses her art to reclaim her ancestral memory and create a space for knowledge sharing with those she photographs.

“Being an Indigenous photographer means learning to intentionally use photography to visualize the joy, the struggles and the history of our communities from our own perspectives. [It] means to always remember that my work is done with consent, in reciprocity and with respect to those who choose to share their stories with me,” Ms. Farinango explains.

With the rise of social media and the ease of posting and sharing images online, raising the awareness among members of Indigenous peoples and local communities about how copyright can be used to protect their photographs is more important than ever.

Bringing Indigenous and local community storytellers into the frame

When it comes to photography, Danielle Da Silva, Founder and Executive Director of Photographers Without Borders, believes that Indigenous storytellers have been missing from the picture for quite a while. “It is important that Indigenous voices are amplified and that means every institution has to be intentionally building capacity for that to happen,” she says.

This view is particularly relevant given the role that Indigenous peoples are playing in the fight against climate change.

While accounting for less than 5 percent of the global population, Indigenous peoples have been responsible for the protection of over 80 percent of the world’s biodiversity for thousands of years. “We are at a crossroads where we are finally acknowledging the damage of the climate crisis we find ourselves in and have crucial choices to make about the path forward,” Ms. Da Silva says.

In general, documenting intangible cultural heritage, including with photography, is a practical way for Indigenous and local communities to maintain and preserve it and to safeguard their rights and interests. But such documentation, is not always straightforward. (Photo: Joanderson Gomes de Almeida ©)

Recognizing the importance of this call, in 2021, WIPO launched a Photography Prize, targeting young members of Indigenous peoples and local communities and inviting them to capture images of climate change and climate action (read more about the WIPO Photography Prize).

Climate change has an impact on Indigenous peoples and local communities everywhere and is a particular concern for young members of these communities. Although critical to the ongoing fight, Indigenous peoples and local communities are often those hardest hit by the effects of climate change, explains Jeremiah Kipainoi, an award-winning multimedia journalist from Kenya. Born and raised in the Maasai community, Mr. Kipainoi is known for his ability to capture powerful stories among Indigenous communities in Kenya.

“The theme [of the WIPO Photography Prize] stands out in these times of prolonged and intense droughts, population pressure and economic strife in my nomadic community,” says Mr. Kipainoi. “It is therefore important to tell the stories of the impact of climate change from their firsthand experiences,” he adds. Whether picking up a camera to document one’s culture or giving a voice to those directly affected by such global challenges, Indigenous peoples and local communities are in a unique position to use their creativity – and the rights created in so doing – to shine a light on the gravity of the on-going crisis.

About the WIPO Photography Prize for Indigenous Peoples and Local Community Youth 2021-2022

In celebration of International Youth Day in 2021, WIPO’s Traditional Knowledge Division launched a Photography Prize for Indigenous Peoples and Local Community Youth 2021-2022 around the theme of Climate Change and Climate Action: Mother Earth through Our Lenses. The prize showcases and celebrates the creativity of young members of Indigenous peoples and local communities. It also seeks to raise awareness among these communities of how copyright can be used to protect their photographs.

Climate change has a serious impact on Indigenous peoples and local communities the world over and is of particular concern to young people. Aimed at young people – up to 30 years of age – WIPO invited participants to submit original photographs using any kind of device, including mobile phones. Participants were also requested to provide a statement about how their photographs express their feelings about the globally significant topics of climate change and climate action.

WIPO appointed a four-judge panel of internationally recognized photographers from Indigenous peoples and local communities to evaluate the submissions and select the winners.

Winners will receive a variety of awards, including photography equipment and related software licenses, as well as photography-related training and mentoring opportunities through WIPO’s partners.

All entrants to the Photography Prize will be invited to join a virtual training on photography and copyright organized by WIPO, in cooperation with the International Confederation of Societies of Authors and Composers (CISAC). The interactive session will offer practical guidance on how copyright and its management can be useful to photographers.

Winners of the Photography Prize will be announced on International Mother Earth Day on April 22, 2022.


The WIPO Photography Prize was designed in consultation with an Advisory Board of members from Indigenous peoples and local communities, international organizations, governments and individuals working on climate change, biodiversity, photography, IP, media and entrepreneurship. WIPO is deeply grateful for their advice and support.

Indigenous and local knowledge is often the key to finding solutions to the climate crisis. As noted by Alexey Tsykarev, member of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (2020-2022), the WIPO Photography Prize is important because it “facilitates the sharing of Indigenous views on climate change […] and positions Indigenous youth as emerging leaders in the mitigation of the consequences of climate change.” Noting that the competition is “not only about arts and awareness, he says it is “about making [Indigenous and local] communities stronger and more thoughtful at a time when their role at the climate negotiation table is growing.”

Driving climate action with the storytelling power of photography

“Indigenous peoples are some of the most vulnerable, so it is very important to advocate and amplify their voices to understand the urgency of the situation we are in and how we need to change,” says Nayla Azmi, a Batak photographer, storyteller and conservationist based in Sumatra, Indonesia.

Having worked in the field for more than a decade, Ms. Azmi is passionate about conservation and the empowerment of women and other marginalized communities. She is a strong advocate for the need to recognize the traditional knowledge related to climate change mitigation and adaptation. This knowledge passes from one generation to another and is a form of community resilience. It supports conservation efforts by, and from the perspective of, Indigenous peoples and local communities. It also serves as a way to reclaim their identities and remind themselves (and others) of their role in protecting their lands. “I use my photos and storytelling as my power to drive change for the planet we live on,” says Ms. Azmi, encouraging others to do the same.

Traditional Knowledge Division

Part of WIPO’s work concerns the protection of traditional knowledge and traditional cultural expressions, for the benefit of Indigenous peoples and local communities and developing nations. This work also covers genetic resources and data. WIPO works directly with Indigenous peoples, local communities and governments to help them protect and promote Indigenous and local community innovation and creativity for their economic, cultural and social development. The WIPO Photography Prize falls within the scope of this work.

The WIPO Magazine is intended to help broaden public understanding of intellectual property and of WIPO’s work, and is not an official document of WIPO. The designations employed and the presentation of material throughout this publication do not imply the expression of any opinion whatsoever on the part of WIPO concerning the legal status of any country, territory or area or of its authorities, or concerning the delimitation of its frontiers or boundaries. This publication is not intended to reflect the views of the Member States or the WIPO Secretariat. The mention of specific companies or products of manufacturers does not imply that they are endorsed or recommended by WIPO in preference to others of a similar nature that are not mentioned.