On ‘Exploitation’ in Photography

I recently wrote about the importance of discourse on the ethics around photography, where I offered my perspective on why rules and doctrines around decision making can diminish your ability to stand behind your work, justify your decisions, and really take responsibility and ownership over your vision.

My conclusion was that the discourse itself on these topics matters because it will bring them to the foreground of consciousness so that even if you make a decision others condemn, you do so deliberately rather than unconsciously.

Within discourse about ethics in photography, there are many areas of discussion, and the diversity of language use means that these discussions often become about semantics, the words we use to serve the discussion, rather than about the actual merits of the issue being discussed – point, counterpoint towards mutual understanding and possible perspective change towards the stronger argument.

What is Exploitation in Photography?

The problem of exploitation in photography is a topic I see trending particularly toward dogmatic and cyclical patterns. Exploitation in photography is broadly the photographers’ “unfair” use of depictions they include in their photographs (people, places, events, etc) for their selfish benefit or at least a benefit that does not reach their subjects.

This view of exploitation in photography positions the subject of a work as visual material, i.e. a resource, and the photographer as the gatherer of these materials. These roles imply a power imbalance; however introducing balance can be as simple as a friendly conversation or as complex as decades of research, development, and investment of time, finance, and effort.

Exploitation in photography is not always as morally straightforward as in other areas, as with the exploitative situations of corporations siphoning water from a reservoir, or deforestation. Some photographs are straight-up literal crimes, but those aren’t where discussions on exploitation usually take place – nor should they be, just the same as when a photograph may lead to visceral harm.

It is most frequently in photographs made via questionable practices, or ones communicating uncomfortable or unorthodox ideas, or which communicate a message that the subject may not actually represent. As I’ve written about before, there’s a difference between sharing a joke and ridicule, but when there is a power imbalance even a good-natured and respectful observation can be perceived as exploitative.

Creation Versus Presentation

My perception is that there is more of a shaky ethical standard around the way work is presented than in the way it’s mostly made. Contextualizing images, formatting them for clarity, working with clear intent and an understanding of what you want to say, how you want to say it, and what needs to happen to serve that agenda are not difficult to achieve, but the path of least resistance is to publish work in the form of tiny social media squares, which have as much chance of making a lasting impact as the latest meme, soon to be replaced by the next trend.

A photograph taken with the best practice and intention can still end up with an exploitative outcome if other aspects, like presentation, do not do justice. A perfectly ethical and powerful photo essay may cross a boundary if it only exists to be shared on social media for clout.

Perception of the viewer can often matter more than the photographers’ intent, and it is far easier to find a photographic practice disrespectful if the viewers’ relationship with photographs, in general, is that they are disposable. If the viewer is taking in hundreds or even thousands of images a day on social media then it is not a stretch to understand why they may view photography as ephemeral vapor, entirely disposable.

If one’s relationship with images is that they are disposable then the act of photography is the act of creating something disposable – and it is understandably disrespectful to produce something disposable to represent something deeply significant. Any photograph with any amount of impact at all can be interpreted as controversial in some way.

By some measures, all photography can be considered exploitation, or even appropriation, as there is always something being used or taken advantage of for the benefit of the photographer, even if it’s just their taking advantage of good light on a bright day. Much of street, documentary, landscape, and wildlife photography is a form of “found art” where the photographer discovers and utilizes what’s out in the world rather than setting up a constructed vision in a studio.

I think the balance of questionability/wrongdoing is more towards the agenda of what a photograph will be used for, or what a photographer want’s to say with it, rather than there being some kind of inherent wrong in working with “found” conditions. For example, as earlier, photographing a socially righteous collection of images with no plan beyond social media means you will come across as disingenuous, even if the images themselves and the way they were made are admirable.

There is the additional dilemma of dual use of photographs – I have made photographs that work well as powerful cores to wider projects, but which I have also used as advertisements for my workshops, or to accompany unrelated articles as an illustration to a point rather than in their intended original context. There are photographs I would not use in advertisements, but even the ones I do use I pay attention to in order to avoid diluting, as described above. With my articles, because I view them as a more academic endeavor, I allow more leeway but can always offer an explanation for why I chose to use a certain image to fulfill a certain purpose. It is rarely arbitrary.

A photograph can punch up, down, or sideways, or not punch at all. Photography can be a tool or a weapon; a balm or an empty decoration – background, insignificant, docile. It’s down to the photographer to follow through on their intent with integrity.

Standards and Consequences

What is overlooked in this discourse is that discussion in these terms encourages a battle between binary choices: is this photograph/photographer exploitative? Yes/no, and here’s why…etc.

Imagine, let’s say, that there was an infallible objective measure to determine the exploitative content present in a photograph or a photographer’s behavior so that we could weigh up any image or circumstance around an image and definitively agree that this photograph is or is not exploitative.

What’s next?

What does it actually mean after we agree a photograph is exploitative? What are the actual consequences of that? I don’t mean in terms of harm to the subject, I mean in terms of the image itself. Does any possible value vanish? What is the follow-through in the aftermath of deciding that a photograph is exploitative?

Isn’t that the more valuable outcome to examine? Not whether or not a specific image or behavior is exploitative, but what it should mean if it is?

I ask this sincerely because I don’t know that there are satisfying answers that match up an ideal theoretical framework with the sheer diversity of photographic practices. When someone breaks the law there is a clear step-by-step process that holds them accountable for their illegal action. When someone desecrates a social taboo then that can be analyzed within the parameters of that society.

When someone breaks cultural convention in their attitude, mannerisms, or behavior, or if they produce an example of documentary or art which contains something shocking, unconventional, “ugly”, or horrific, then it is not as easy or objective to assess the nature of this violation.

I think it can be easy to forget that photographers engaging in discourse about photography are different from non-photographers engaging in discourse.

There is not a homogenous photography culture; there isn’t even a homogenous English-Londoner-photography culture. I would say there are as many schools of thought as there are those who work with photography. Everyone has their conscious and unconscious methods for making an image, and everyone has their conscious and unconscious paths to viewing and deconstructing one.

In the wider context of non-homogenous cultures and lifestyles who can act as the arbiter of morality? In online discourse especially, where there are no borders outside of language and web-domain, photographs are shared and observed in all kinds of directions. Similarly, in countries where many cultures co-exist standards change on a case-by-case, culture-by-culture, image-by-image basis.

Expressions of some concepts are not universal, even within the same culture you can find different manifestations and interpretations of peace, dignity, or family. Documenting one expression of a concept in one context does not mean that it will be understood as such in another.

The Issue is Deeply Complex

With all of this in mind, the task of determining “wrongdoing” becomes deeply complex, requiring highly specific nuance to untangle. Even if you determine that a particular work made in a particular way in a particular context by a particular photographer is explicitly exploitative, and want for the lesson to be “don’t do it like this” there are so many variables still unaccounted for so as to undermine the applicability of that lesson.

After all, how can someone working in a different culture, using different methods, but obtaining similar results to the ones that discourse was centered around, take on such a specific lesson? What happens when this practitioner’s work finds its way back to that original community that determined its unacceptability by their standards?

Such a takeaway also does not apply retrospectively; even if everyone agrees to never make such an image in the future, what is to be done about those existing images? Maybe it’s simple to erase images that explicitly contain exploitative themes, but what about images that were made with exploitative methods but which are not evident in the imagery itself? Are some photographs simply poisoned fruit from a poisoned tree?

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.

Image credits: Photographs by Simon King.