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Thoughts on a Framework for Photo Ethics

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Ethics in photography is a topic that just keeps popping up. Whether it’s the latest dish on Magnum, or an argument about photographing the homeless, some days it seems you can’t turn around without stumbling across another disagreement.

Throughout it all, opinions are expressed, but everyone seems to be simply feeling their way through it, from their own point of view, based on their own experiences.

Let’s try to build a slightly firmer base.

I’m going to divide “photography” (as an act) up into a couple of chunks, because I think this division is useful:

1. The situation. This is the context in which you’re shooting photos. There’s a subject, there’s a camera, there are some interactions, and so on. Maybe it’s a riot, maybe it’s a quiet studio; maybe it’s a concert, a city street, or your kitchen.

2. The uses. These are the ways in which the photo is published, how it appears, where it is seen. Is the photo in a gallery, or a newspaper? What text and other photos are nearby? And so on.

3. The photograph itself.

In order to get any sense of the ethics we need to have some theory of how a photo works, what a photo does. You can’t reason about the ethics of medical research or a punch in the face without some notion of how those things work, what results they can produce. Without knowing what a thing does, we are, really, helpless to develop any theory of ethics around it.

Therefore I propose this model of how a photograph works: a photograph brings the subject and viewer together in a real-ish way. The viewer imagines themself (a little) to be there with the subject of the photo, in the photo, there is a sense of presence. The viewer imaginatively “fills in” a world, a world they imagine to be real, to “fit” the picture into. We see a flower and we imagine the garden: a real garden. We see the cop pepper-spray the protester, and we imagine the riot: a real riot.

Because the photograph brings viewer and subject together in this visceral, real, way, we may have some duties to the subject, to the viewer, or to both. You might think of it as a little like introducing one friend to another.

What duties? This is largely personal, although generally our choices are shaped by the society we keep. If you are photographing a villain, perhaps you feel no duty to him. If you’re photographing an ER doctor, you might reasonably feel a duty to present her positively, perhaps even heroically. If you are photographing someone’s library or their hamburger, you might feel some duty to make it look large, or small, or delicious.

The duties to the viewer are murkier because in the end, we don’t really know who they are. We might intend the photo to appear in the newspaper, and so certain journalistic duties accrue to us; if the photo then appears in an art gallery, the duty to the viewer is rather different. The viewer and our duty to them have changed.

If you’re been paying attention, it might have occurred to you that perhaps the use modulates all these duties. It certainly does! One use (news) implies one set of duties to both viewer and subject, another (art gallery) another set. Photos get new uses all the time, so this end is really difficult.

Let us return to the beginning, the situation in which you are shooting photos. If you’re a set decorator, director, lighting technician, makeup artist, etc., you’re also involved here. You also have duties to the subject and viewer.

What are the intended uses for these photos? Are there other likely uses? While we cannot foresee every possible scenario, we can at least be aware of what’s likely. The photographers who photographed Allison Stokke in 2007 should have been aware that these photos might become more than minor sports-news images. Stokke was not the first pretty girl to be photographed in sports, but in the first place she’s very striking, and in the second place any pretty girl’s pictures can achieve that same kind of fame. It’s the kind of thing photographers ought to know.

Apart from the issues around uses of the photo, is anything ethically sketchy going on in the situation, anything that you have responsibility for? Did you start this war? Should you be helping the victim? Is the director bullying the model?

The situation and the uses interact. Are you staging the scene, for a photo that might turn up as “news” later? You have a duty to those viewers of “news” whether you like it or not. Your photo, by its very functioning, is going to bring them together with a false/staged subject in a way that feels true but is not. What are you going to do about that?

It is tempting to argue that a photo is subjective, that if someone sees an ethical failing in it, then that’s their fault. This is to ignore the fact that photos do function, they do show, they are made to be read. If you refuse to take any responsibility for the ways photos can be read then what, exactly, are you doing with that camera? Are you not attempting to communicate something?

Your duties start here before you press the shutter.

You need to consider both the nuts and bolts of the situation, and the potential uses of the photo(s) you’re involved in. You need to keep in mind the way the photo functions, its nature. While you cannot foresee every possible use of the photo, you should consider the ones that are reasonable, that are likely, and consider what duties to subject and viewer thereby fall on you.

If you’re a journalist photographing a protest, you might consider your subjects to be sources and thus deserving of anonymity. If you’re a police photographer photographing the same thing, you may have a different duty to your subjects. If you’re a police photographer disguised as a press photographer, you’ve created a sketchy ethical situation and should re-evaluate your life choices.

If you’re photographing a flower in your backyard, perhaps your only duty to subject is to not show yourself to be a lousy gardener. Your only duty to your Instagram viewers might be to make a pretty picture.

After the shot is made, a new world opens up. The photographer, the editor, the picture editor, the publisher are all involved now. You, collectively, have some limited control over the use of the photo.

You, collectively, still have a set of duties to subject and viewer. You control, to a degree, the ways this photo is seen; you control, to a degree, the way the photo might be “read,” what meaning a viewer might make of it.

You control, in a limited way, how viewer and subject will be brought together into the real-seeming presence that the photo creates.

You wouldn’t just wing it if you were introducing your current best crush to your parents, and you shouldn’t just wing it here. Think about what duties you have to subject and viewer, and try your best to perform those duties well.

The photograph connects the situation to the use. It connects the subject to the viewer in a realistic albeit imaginative way. You do not control everything about this, but nor are you helpless (whatever role you play.) This intimate, forceful, real-seeming, connection of subject to viewer carries with it obligations, duties that fall on your shoulders.

You get to decide what those duties are, but you cannot shrug them off. You’re trying to communicate here, right? You’re trying to make that connection between subject and viewer, you’re doing it on purpose because that is literally what photographers do. It comes with duties, with burdens.

Do your best.


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


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.


Image credits: Header photo by nito103 / Depositphotos

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