Ethics in photography

Discussion in 'Philosophy' started by john meehan, Nov 22, 2003.

  1. While ethical discussions are fraught with philosophical difficulty
    surrounding appropriate definitions of “ethics”
    (utilitarianism/rights/morals/relativism/ Kantian imperatives, etc)
    we nonetheless have some sort of understanding of what the word means.

    In considering the role of ethics in photography, it seems (to me at
    least) that it can be reduced to two related dimensions. These are:

    1. The responsibilities of the photographer operating in a given
    social and historical context.

    This takes different forms. For example, the photojournalist’s
    dilemma when confronted with an ethically challenging (to them)
    subject : shoot or intervene? Alternatively, there is the role
    photographers play in deliberately challenging particular ethical
    positions or social mores by photographing controversial subject
    matter as a challenge to their wider society (Mapplethorpe, Jacob
    Riis, etc).

    2. The role of the social and historical context in legitimising or
    discounting particular imagery.

    There are many examples where the legitimacy of particular types of
    images changes as a consequence of prevailing ethical preferences.
    Edward Weston’s image of his son Neil naked. Joel Meyerwitz’s nude of
    a young girl in Cape Light. August Sander’s project to catalogue
    social types might be deemed inappropriate now.

    Naturally, these are two sides of the same coin. Photography is
    conditioned by, and has a role in questioning, prevailing ethical

    Are there other ethical dimensions to photography?
  2. Speaking for myself (and may be more about hobbies in general),
    I sometimes wonder if I don't spend too much money on photography (not the things I do professionally, but otherwise). As with many things in life, this is related to the questions of capitalism, global social problems, the role of economics in Western thinking, etc.
    I try to be satisfied with the great gear I have got, but nevertheless it feels a bit weird to spend thousands of euros on photography, while many children cannot go to school or visit a doctor.
  3. Wim

    Having just spent a small fortune on a new system, I can sympathise (I am suffering post-purchase guilt - a little).

    However, aren't you referring to the ethics of the "consumer society" rather than ethics in the medium of photography?
  4. david_henderson


    A couple of brief points.

    First, does the ethical challenge occur when deciding to make
    the photograph, or afterwards, when considering how to use it?

    Second, there is a question of access. Photographers often are
    faced with the prospect of missing or compromising an
    opportunity if they adhere strictly to explicit or implicit
    instructions. This might take the form of taking a few steps onto
    someone's private property; deciding to sneak a few shots in
    circumstances where you just know it's not allowed (for example
    the mall or in many monuments/museums); or even when
    deciding to adhere or not to a "stay on marked path" or "keep off
    the grass" sign. Assuming for a moment that there's no
    question of damage, I guess this is an ethical dilemma and
    wonder whether it fits either of your two categories?
  5. John,
    You are absolutely right.<br /> When I watch the pace in which people get digital cameras (speaking about Joe Average here) or how people here at discuss about 'wouldn't a 600 4.0 make me a better photographer' or when I think by myself wouldn't those Schneiders be better than the old Zeisses I have...than I know that photography is in the middle of consumer society.
    I get quite disgusted by the way we abuse our planet - and photography helps me get aware of that (esp. the way we destroy nature by our greed for more economic growth). Ahh, it is all so confusing :-(
  6. I passed up making a great shot yesterday for "ethical" reasons.
    I father a browsing in a bookstore while carring his infant son with one arm. The look on the child's face, coupled with the way he was being carried (his father was holding him up with one arm by the crotch) made for a memorable image. But the following ethical issues presented themselves: 1. I was on private property (inside the bookstore) 2: Parents sometimes object to having their small children photographed
    3: The pose was certainly not a flattering one, i.e. not how a parent would choose to be depicted holding their child. So I just let the moment go, rather than incur the possible hostility of the parties involved.
  7. David: I guess the circumstances you outline would be in the first category. Whether or not a photographer has the right to disregard the "rules" (however dumb) others are expected to abide by in the interests of getting a shot would (IMHO) depend on how I felt about the importance of recording the moment. Purely for beauty sake or for other less selfish reasons (a crime being commited for example)?

    Bill: I agree 100% that a photographers desire for images shouldn't override some other person's right to privacy. I am sure there are exceptions though.
  8. There is an additional dimension to ethics, not included in the original list: truthfulness or honesty.

    Truth, of course, is a slippery beast, and whether you are doing photojournalism or fine art photography affects which rules you may apply. But the honesty of your intent adds an interesting dimension to photographic ethics -- far more interesting, in my view, than the ongoing discussions of privacy, etc.

    Any photographer with a brain will tell you that photographs are not objective records, but on the other hand the audience (or a substantial portion of the audience) believes that they are. The advent of digital manipulation has shaken that belief, as most people now realize that what was once called "trick photography" can be done by anyone with a PC.

    Still, it's not only digital manipulation that brings up the question of honesty. Everyone knows that it's possible to shoot a "straight" picture that misrepresents a situation, because the photo represents only 1/125 s of that situation, viewed from a particular angle and with particular emphasis.

    Alternatively, consider the nature photographer who takes pride in photographing what was "seen at the scene" (Foundview), yet takes pains to choose angles that exclude any trace of human influence on the landscape. Consider the great volume of photos of national parks, and the small number of those photos dedicated to showing the human impact on those areas. Is this honest? If not, is it ethical?

    (That example, of course, is an application of Johns questions re the roles photographers play in challenging ethical or social norms, vice the way the social context influences photographers.)
  9. Bill highlighted an instance that illustrates another broad category: the photographers relationship, on an individual level, with their subject.

    Are the shots exploitative? Invasive? Do they impinge on the subject's expectation of privacy or take advantage of a subject's vulnerability?
  10. Andrew

    In thinking about how photographers challenge established ethical norms, I missed that they also reinforce them.

    As you suggest, there is a code of beautification operating among most landscape photographers (one of my favourite codes by the way).

    I guess ethical codes exist in areas such as fashion, advertising, corporate sectors (for example).

    (Please don't interpret this post as in any way a criticism of anyone earning their livelihood in these fields. I take my hat off to all of you - I have seen at close hand how hard it can be.)
  11. And, of course, either challenging or reinforcing ethical norms may be a very good thing, depending on what those ethical norms are.

    The notion that a "beautifying" tendancy in landscape may not depict the damage being done is also a double-edged sword. The beautified landscapes may also help us appreciate the beauty, inspiring them to preserve it. And I would say the act of taking a camera out into a wilderness to find that beauty almost always aids the cause.
  12. Sam, that's the standard nature photographer's response. Although there's a certain validity to that point of view, I don't believe that most nature photographers are motivated by some utilitarian desire to inspire us to protect nature.

    Consider the differences between North American nature photography and, say, British nature photography, and you will see expressions of our differing views of our relationship to the landscape. The North American nature photographer is primarily concerned with reiterating the wilderness myth -- he/she is a prisoner of norms that demand misrepresentation of the landscape as wilderness.

    (Just where do you plan to find wilderness these days? Answer carefully!)

    This sort of thing is not limited to nature photography, of course, but nature photography gives us very clear examples.
  13. <<that's the standard nature photographer's response. Although there's a certain validity to that point of view, I don't believe that most nature photographers are motivated by some utilitarian desire to inspire us to protect nature. >>

    First, thanks for the complement - I truly do feel elevated to be referred to as a nature photographer.

    I do think that most nature photographers around here do have a sincere love of and desire to appreciate nature. They tend to be a rather "green" lot. That having been said, I think there are some important points in here that I haven't really thought about before, and I will start looking for the compelling shot that doesn't eliminate the human element. I'd be interested in more insight on the idea that there are British nature photographers who may be focused in this way.

    Wilderness is hard to come by - the closest I get on any kind of a regular basis is up in the Laurentians in Canada. But there is very little left that you can say is true wilderness.
  14. Hi Sam,
    You might take a look at two articles of mine:
    What is landscape? some thoughts for the photographer
    A stunning sky approaches in landscape photography
  15. Thanks for those links, Wim. Those are a couple of interesting articles.

    Sam, I should clarify that I wouldn't say that nature photographers are motivated by something other than an appreciation of nature -- just that the specific style and approach they use is probably driven less by a considered philosophy than by the conventions of the genre they work in.

    A similar accusation can be made about other genres.
  16. Going back to the guy in the bookstore:

    I don't see that there is any expectation of privacy in a bookstore. If the store has a rule against photographing, that would be a practical hurdle, but the subject's expectation of privacy while standing in public is nil. He could not undress and then claim expectation of privacy when the police charge him with indecent exposure, nor could he claim it as a defense against the cameras in the store. In the restroom, yes; in the aisle, no.

    Re the hesitation to record the unflattering pose: I suspect that is what caught your eye. The parent absorbed in the book, the disinterested child slung haphazardly over an arm... A portfolio of photographs of sensible people standing in consevative poses with attentive children held in orderly bundles would tell me more about the photographer's guilt complex than about his ethics or vision of the world.

    Re photographing other peoples' kids: I balance the horror of a world of photographs with all the kids blurred out against the horror of being confronted by a parent who saw my camera and concluded I was a predator. Truth is the kid has clothes on, the kid is in public, and I know in my heart that I am not a predator. Their paranoia (if they take it that way) does not make me a predator. Kids are an important part of the world and it is fine to photograph them in their natural environments, as long as you are not a predator.

    The world is disorderly.
  17. If one were witnessing child abuse in public, even at the hands of the child's parent, then one could claim that in recording what one saw via photography, one was not simply indulging one's Voyeuristic
    proclivities but performing a public service. And if the parent or the manager of the bookstore objects to one taking photographs, one could state one was doing so to provide evidence to the police or to another government agency of what one had witnessed. I've noticed that when TV stations run exposes on situations that allegedly put children in jeopardy, the stations may conceal or disguise the identities of the children that appear in the shots, unless the parents have explicitly given permission for the children to be interviewed. And while we (the "" community ) are not TV journalists, we do expect to publish on the "web" any shots that we do get that we think are of artistic or journalistic value.
  18. Obviously, I don't have a brain because I think photography is as close to truth as possible (assuming absence of intentional manipulations). Now we can argue if subconscious decisions affecting what get in the viewfinder are manipulations but that's not the point. The point is if I should take a resposibility for what happens to the photograph once it is out for grabs and interpretations at large. Or how do I apply Kantian imperatives to Chinese or Hindu users? Why even try to do photography?
  19. Maria

    Isn't dismissing Kant out of hand, because he wasn't a Hindu or Chinese, precisely the kind of thinking you think you are highlighting with that comment? You ignore the other more culturally oriented approaches to ethics I mentioned.
  20. John, I was actually responding to Andrew Somerset's comment. I'm not dismissing Kant at all. But there might be a new dimension to ethic as we know it. The universal access to information and cross cultural exchange possible today creates a new sort of problems -- my believe of what's right and what's wrong seems, all of a sudden, very provincial. We don't leave in separate ethical worlds on the internet; we seem to be sharing same world but what ethics should we apply to it I am no longer know. In this situation, am I responsible for any and all meanings my photograph will take on, once it is released. This problem was just brought up on one of my photos and it bugs me a lot.
  21. Maria

    My apologies for misunderstanding your intent. I agree that our overlapping realities in "the sea of anarchy" throw up interesting questions about ethics, but i guess that is another debate.

    I am more interested in what happened with your photograph though? Can we see the image too?
  22. HERE.
    is a discussion that touches on issues of my responsibility as a photographer. Culturally, I am from the Western hemisphere with Eastern European twist to it and honestly I was terrified and refuted the possibility of this shot being interpreted as exploitative.
  23. Not good at linking either. Here's the photo in question
  24. Well, I don't know if you have a brain or not, but I don't think you can argue that a photo is entirely objective. While it may be true that the film will faithfully record whatever is imaged through the lens, the photographer still must decide what goes in the frame and when to release the shutter. If the photo is an objective record, then it is as much a record of your bias and assumption as anything else.

    Re being responsible for all interpretations of your work, why bother? That can only result in the blandest work imaginable. What you produce will belong to your historical and social context, and if people outside that context have difficulty with it then that's their problem. You cannot be all things to all people.
  25. Here goes a really cheap shot and I stick to it -- there are no axioms in life and you won't find them in photography. The trick is to get as close as possible. And that's my understanding of objectivity in photography. As to the responsibility issue, I know you are right and I couldn't move on if I wanted to think this way but the whole thing disturbs me deeply (it's all Kant's fault). Yes, Kant would say it's ok because in my heart I know the truth but as I said, Kantian universe is no more universal. Now, I should do some reading. Thank you all for an interesing thread.

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