To pay or not to pay? That's the question many documentary filmmakers face during the making of their films.
Should you pay your documentary subjects?
Generally speaking, no, you should not be paying your documentary subjects. But there is some nuance.
"I never pay. That is not a good thing," says documentary director Ruth Berry.
Ruth produces blue-chip factual programming for some of the biggest networks including National Geographic, BBC, Discovery, PBS Nature, PBS NOVA, ARTE, ABC-Australia, CBC-Canada and others.
According to PBS journalistic guidelines, documentary producers should not be paying for testimony.
"(Paying your subjects) compromises the program. And if you're dealing with public broadcasters you cannot," says Ruth. "If money becomes involved, it's going to turn into something else."
So what's the harm in paying your subjects you may ask?
It's true. These individuals are taking the time to share their stories, expertise or insights which are integral to the success of the documentary project.
But here's the risk and ethical dilemma.
The concern is that financial incentives might unduly influence subjects - they essentially become an employee of the filmmaker - leading them to potentially modify their stories or present what they think the filmmaker wants to hear, rather than their honest testimony.
In addition: "The credibility of any interviewee who was paid is rightly called into question," states the PBS journalistic guidelines.
When is payment ok according to PBS guidelines? "Reimbursement of expenses incurred by interviewees, panelists and guests as a result of recording (reasonable hotel bills, travel, etc.) is permissible."
The integrity of a documentary hinges on the trust of its audience.
Viewers must believe in the authenticity of what they're seeing; any hint of manipulation can undermine the film's credibility.
Filmmakers must tread carefully to preserve the integrity of their work.
"Sometimes people will indeed ask you for money before they will participate. If they do, walk away. Find someone else. (Often that is enough to change their minds anyway)," says Michael Rosenblum in an online essay Should You Pay People To Be In Your Documentary. He continues, "Personally, I can count on one hand the number of times I have paid for someone to be in a doc or news piece (on two fingers, actually). They were both mistakes."
Beyond the ethical and perceptual issues lies the practical reality of documentary production.
Filmmaking is an expensive endeavor, and documentary budgets are often tight.
Deciding to pay subjects can have significant financial implications for a project, potentially limiting the scope of the documentary or the number of participants a filmmaker can afford to include.
In addition, a distribution deal could be lost if the broadcaster learns your subjects were paid.
For filmmakers wrestling with the decision to pay subjects, there are creative alternatives to direct financial compensation.
These can include:
These forms of compensation can offer a middle ground, allowing filmmakers to acknowledge the contribution of their subjects without the potential pitfalls of direct payments.
So, where does this leave you, the documentary filmmaker?
The answer lies in a careful, thoughtful approach to each project.
Here are a few steps to consider: