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Regarding Photographs: On the Ethics of Photography I

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In the ongoing spirit of applying my new(?) model of thinking about photographs to old questions, let’s take a pass through “ethics” to see if anything interesting shows up.

I am no philosopher, nor an ethicist, so I use “ethics” here broadly, and colloquially. I don’t mean to restrict myself to cases in which someone loses an eye, nor to get too far into the weeds. Nor do I intend, really, to offer answers here. I have struggled with these questions for a long time, and am convinced that there are no pat answers, only ways of thinking.

There are many threads to the contemporary discussion of photo-ethics, so I will begin by attempting to clear a little underbrush, specifically around the use of unethical (or judged unethical) methods to make photographs. This is, more often than not, the starting point of photo-ethics discussions. If you are up to something wicked to make the photos, that is naturally a point of concern.

My contention is that the problem here is that you are up to something wicked, not that you are taking photos. The wickedness taints the photos through meaning: when we perceive the wicked methods used to make the picture, when we are transported to the scene of the photo and observe your bad behavior, this influences the meaning we make of the picture.

This is not to endorse bad behavior! Certainly not. Only to set it into a separate bucket, a bucket outside the scope of this essay.

Ethical considerations around photographs can be divided into two general areas: those concerned merely with the existence of a photograph; and those issues which arise from the meaning of the photograph, from the ways the photo touches us, touches the world.

Concerns based in the mere existence of the photograph include issues around consent to be photographed, and the related issue usually named “extraction.” Extraction is the notion that the photographer is getting compensated out of proportion to the subject’s compensation. I’m setting these issues aside for now, as they deserve a separate look. Let us concern ourselves with ethical considerations based on the ways the photographs touch the world, the ways they produce meaning.

Take a moment to observe that most photos that are shot never touch the world. Nobody sees them. Of course, at the moment of taking, we don’t know which ones will be seen, published, and which ones will not. For photographers the question becomes one of potential outcomes, rather than definite ones. We can think of ethical concerns as risks, rather than as hard black-white distinctions.

There are, it seems to me, two essential aspects here: the pure, abstract, idea of truth versus non-truth; and the more concrete idea of actual harm done.
Truth.

There is value in telling the truth, always. Of course a photograph can powerfully suggest untruthful meanings merely by (say) careful choice of camera angles, but mostly photographs don’t. Mostly they are, as themselves, more neutral. In the previous essay, I noted that the way we interact with photographs by building real-ish stories around them seems to inevitably produce readings of photos that exceed the limits of the frame. We over-read photographs, by their very nature. The photo is more neutral than our reading of it.

The very act of publishing a photograph invites these stories, invites these over-readings.

The fact that a photograph is so often over-read, and can be misread; and that the photo can be miscaptioned, or otherwise misrepresented; shows that any truth we might have tried to tell can potentially be lost. Even if we did well, a photo can be stolen and re-captioned, to say nothing of merely overread or misread.

The truth, or untruth, of a photograph arises largely out of the ways it is used. This must be understood.

Harm.

Obviously a photograph of me in front of a street sign with the Space Needle in the distant background alerts my enemies to my location. If they hunt me down and murder me, this photograph has resulted in harm to me, notably by being truthful. This is a rare case, but this kind of thing does happen from time to time.

A photograph need not tell the truth in this sense, to harm in this way. A photograph of me smiling and talking to a lissome blonde half my age might cause my wife to over-read the photograph and start an unpleasant conversation with me.

But more broadly, more subtly, photographs can harm without this sort of straightforward quasi-factual knowledge being gleaned.

A photo might make the subject feel bad because they feel they look stupid in it, or if they think their nose looks too big in it. They make meaning from the picture, they tell a story around it, in which they look stupid, or ugly. The emotional harm could be slight, or not, but it is harm nevertheless.

A photo might promote an unhealthy political or cultural agenda, an unhealthy status quo, or an unhealthy call for change. What constitutes unhealthy is subject to opinion, but let us set that aside and suppose that you and I, at least, might agree that some agenda or another is a bad idea.

A photo of a guy in a KKK outfit, humorously captioned “This guy’s ideas on both race and haberdashery: terrible.” could re-appear at a camp for White Supremacists captioned “The South will rise again!”

The meaning of the photo with the second caption arguably promotes an agenda that includes racism. There is an argument here around whether such a photo actually advances the agenda or merely reflects the current state of affairs, but either way, you and I might agree that we’re uncomfortable with the message.

The common thread here, though, is that it’s the message. The message is fluid. It depends on context, it depends on who’s doing the viewing, it depends on when, and where. The photograph considered by itself is surprisingly mute. This must be understood.

As photographers, therefore, we need to think not in black and white terms about whether a photograph is virtuous or evil, but what kind of risks it is subject to. What kinds of ways could it be read, what kinds of meanings could it be induced to carry, and how do we feel about those?

Most photos you take probably will never be seen by anyone. But some might. Most photos you take probably won’t ever end up promoting fascism, or eugenics, or whatever your favorite flavor of Terrible Ideas is. But some might.

These are the ideas we should be keeping in mind as we take photographs.

What kinds of ways might this photograph be read, or misread? What kinds of Terrible Ideas might it be found able to promote, what kinds of stereotypes might it be capable of supporting, what kinds of negative or untrue ideas might it be made to project?

Have a care for how your photograph is used. Fight for proper uses, and struggle against improper ones. Struggle against misreadings, against misuse.

You are creating an object which will probably be forever benign, but which has the capacity to lie or to harm. It probably won’t, but it might. You’re creating an object with many possible meanings here, have a care.

I wish I had more to offer here than “have a care” but I think that’s all there really is.


The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.


This is the ninth in a series of essays on photographs, on the ways we as viewers construct meaning from them, and on what it all means.


About the author: Andrew Molitor writes software by day and takes pictures by night. Molitor is based in Norfolk, Virginia, and does his best to obsess over gear, specs, or sharpness. You can find more of his writing on his blog.

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