Why Discourse on Ethical Photography Matters

Seeing is believing. This concise rhetoric goes a long way to explain the power of photography. Where a statistic can reduce an entire country to a few numbers a photograph can bypass the mind and head directly to the heart via the eyes. Emotional, heartbreaking eyewitness testimony is just another block of text compared to the medium which makes the viewer themselves an eyewitness to whatever the photographer wanted to show them.

I don’t believe there are many who would seriously argue against the fact that photography can have tremendous power for social impact. A photograph can have global reach, impact discourse, and sway opinion. The right photograph could even change the course of a country’s political future.

For example, the infamous Ed Miliband bacon sandwich photograph is a widely circulated image of former UK Labour Party leader, Ed Miliband, eating a bacon sandwich during his 2014 election campaign.

The infamous Ed Miliband bacon sandwich photograph by photographer Jeremy Selwyn. Image: Jeremy Selwyn / The Evening Standard

The photograph, which shows Miliband with his mouth open, eyes closed, and bits of bacon hanging out of the bread, quickly went viral and became the subject of widespread mockery and ridicule on social media and in the press. It was published on the front page of the UK’s most-read newspaper, The Sun, the day before the nation’s 2015 general election, which Miliband and his party lost.

Even a hobbyist photographer will try to produce powerful work, although everyone has a different standard for what that will involve. Even if all you photograph are family portraits or holiday snapshots, those have a personal value; photo albums are the classic answer to what one would save from a fire.

With this understanding, the common tendency to fault discussions about ethics in photography is quite odd. Why wouldn’t you want to understand the possible obligations that come with powerful photography? What is the mindset behind arguing against taking responsibility for what you are creating?

Even if you only make photographs casually, for fun, there is value to hearing these ideas. I recognize the reflex to push back when it feels like someone is telling you what to do, and I think the framing of genuine ethical dilemmas as proscriptive sound bites or lists of checkbox do/do not directives can feed into stubborn rejection.

The structure of a personal framework of morality begins before we even take our first steps, or speak our first words. This is why when I offer lectures, or workshops involving ethics in photography I avoid telling people what to do. What I find most useful is a set of nudges and considerations in order to guide the thought and process of someone who may have never even realized there was a possible gap in their workflow. In my experience people who haven’t considered an ethical framework for their photography are simply taking for granted something they hadn’t been confronted with to question in the first place.

Instead of treating ethics in photography as rigid, acceptable behaviors as practiced by an “in-group” (which will imply unacceptable practices from an “out-group”) I think the broad reality is quite simple, and far more personal than any “how-to” guide. No need to polarize, or divide into teams encouraging their way above all others, but answerable and actionable by every individual: What do you want to say? How do you want to say it?

What you want to say involves semiotics and the politics of visual representation. How you want to say it is about individual behavior while photographing.

Much like my thoughts on whether or not photographers are really starting conversations when they claim to be, I don’t believe many are really saying much of anything – at least not deliberately. The most straightforward idea to express in a photograph is “this is beautiful, look at this,” which tends to be the message behind a landscape, sunset, portrait, or even an automotive image.

Of course, you can also choose to say nothing and contribute instead to decorative noise, but even this is a conscious choice, not something that has happened to you but an expression of your own agency.

Photographs can contain whatever symbols the photographer has available to them in order to translate their message to the viewer. Archetypes, stereotypes, and cultural references all contribute to helping a photographer encode specific and intentional meaning. These symbols are so potent that even their accidental/incidental inclusion can have an effect on the result. If you make a photograph purely as decoration but include something that can be interpreted politically, then you’re diminishing the potential for pure decoration and d muddle the intention between aesthetic and agenda. Similarly, if you have a strong political message, but dress it up in distracting visual flair then you may reduce the impact of your ideal outcome.

If you’re going to say something, why leave it to chance? Why not commit to the full intention to say what you want and to stand behind the meaning of that image? Sharing a photograph is propagating your vision to your audience, amplifying your way of seeing things. Why not nullify personal ignorance as an excuse for someone else “misinterpreting”? Why not really own your perspective, and stand by decisions you’ve made deliberately?

Everyone has an opinion and things in life they agree or disagree with. Photographs containing the honest view of the photographer have a potential for real depth, they really represent a real held view by that individual, which means a discussion on that photograph doesn’t end as soon as the photographer says it is open for interpretation.

This discourse does not happen in isolation, and visual representation from an individual photographer becomes part of a larger pool of individual expressions. These direct contributions to culture can become part of a feedback loop around a topic, informing and re-informing, and reinforcing discourse. If I am making a portrait for one of my projects my decisions are not limited to what I need specifically for that project, but also include “how am I seeing this person?” and maybe “how ought this person be seen?” With the understanding of my role as a messenger in many cases, what these decisions ultimately equate to are: “how do I want you to see this person?”

A photographer who does not go through this thought process may simply gravitate towards imagery they recognize from the result of someone else’s workflow. This kind of photography is a cultural echo, amplifying prior judgments, and disconnecting the photographer from their work.

How you go about physically photographing is dependent on more factors than any ethical dogma or doctrine can ever proscribe. Location, law, culture, context, mood, story, and even weather conditions can determine a course of action that wouldn’t be suitable if one of those considerations were changed.

Discussions on cultural/legal specifics like the idea of privacy are reductive and miss the larger issues of respect – whether or not an action is contextually moral or legal may not mean they are any more or less respectful than that same action done illegally. An illegal photograph could be the most moral decision to make depending on the intended outcome – for example, imagery that violates “ag-gag” laws but which reveals something deeply in the public interest.

These factors do not necessarily carry across to the final photograph; a contextless image does not indicate a photographer’s moral stance or workflow as much as a viewer may believe it to. A picturesque landscape photograph does not reveal whether or not the photographer left any litter by their tripod. A smiling subject does not automatically imply happy circumstances, just as tears do not mean that the photographer was crossing a boundary in recording them.

Unless testimony is shared with/after the publication of a photograph, then all we have to determine method is whatever story or myth the photographer decides to spin. Anything else is speculation, projection, and assumption. Some photographers cultivate their myth in such a way as to affect the perception of everything they produce from that point onwards.

This is something to be aware of when presenting work out of the context of its creation. A set of symbols encoded in one photograph in one context may be perceived in a very different way than intended if those symbols have a different meaning in a different context. There are genuine cultural differences in the way emotion is expressed, or dignity manifests. The belief that our understanding of humanity is “correct” is just one interpretation, and centering our own experience in this way leaves us ignorant to an idea that photography is so effective in accomplishing: that just because something appears “other” doesn’t mean that it is “other”.

Again, awareness of the possibility of being perceived in a certain way can guide decision-making, if only to make an unconscious decision conscious. If someone asks me about the way I go about documenting in certain situations I am able to answer not only with a description of my behavior but my rationale behind it, my decision-making model. This is something I think is worth cultivating as opposed to checking boxes, where you can explain what you did, but defer to whoever wrote the doctrine to explain why.

Discourse around ethics brings things from the unconscious to the conscious; even when encountering ideas you adamantly disagree with it’s the discourse itself that has value. Confronting ideas in this way changes the framework of your method, even if nothing changes in your actions, from something done to you to something you actively choose to do. Most importantly it makes you responsible for what you create, whereas previously you could defer that responsibility to whatever dogma you previously may have followed. If you ask a photographer “what did you mean by this” and they have no answer to offer then that image may simply be meaningless. If they can answer with an explanation, then even if it isn’t a response you like or agree with, then at least it is a step towards real discourse and discussion and not just an argument about personal preference or perspective.

About the author: Simon King is a London-based photographer and photojournalist, currently working on a number of long-term documentary and street photography projects. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can follow his work through his documentary collective, The New Exit Photography Group, and on Instagram.