A group of boys in Baraboo, WI assembled for a junior prom photo and posed with a Nazi salute. One of the boys posted the image to Twitter with the caption “We even got the black kid to throw it up.” In the midst of public outrage, it was revealed that a professional photographer not only took the image, but directed them to “wave goodbye.”
Ethics describes a system of principles that informs concepts of right and wrong, as well as individual and communal rights and responsibilities. As much as we’d like to believe that there is a common set of ethics that universally informs behavior and norms, the truth is that there is a high degree of subjectivity that can also vary by locale. Further, ethics are fluid and constantly evolving. What is ethical behavior to one person doesn’t necessarily ring true for another. What was ethically acceptable ten years ago may no longer be true.
Philosophers and academics have debated morality and ethics for millennia. Guidelines like the “Potter Box” have been created to help people inform ethical decisions. But the lack of regular and sustained discussion within the photo community and industry has largely rendered the philosophical musings moot.
For some photographers, the word “ethics” induces eye rolls. But photos can be intrusive. Images can be weaponized through misattribution and miscaptioning. In a visual world, the speed and reach of social media give photos enormous potential power. Thus the photographer bears responsibility for its creation and perhaps some responsibility for its effect.
Ethics in photography is often associated with photojournalism because of journalistic conventions, but ethics can and ought to be considered in the context of many niches of photography, as well as the processes around its creation and use. For example, wildlife photographers are more frequently talking about the ethics of game farms, baiting to attract animals, and a myriad of other human behavior that can disrupt or alter animal behavior. Ethics, it seems, is not just for the birds.
No single blog post could do justice to such a broad and important topic. But here are a few areas of photographic ethics to consider:
Ethics in Photojournalism
As with written journalism, photojournalism organizations (both media entities and trade groups) have built various ethical norms, codes, and frameworks to guide both photographers and editors in how images are created and used.
When Paul Martin Lester wrote Photojournalism: An Ethical Approach in 1991, it would have been hard to imagine all the ethical twists and turns that have resulted from digital photography, social media, and increased awareness of representation in photography.
Ethics is often reduced to a series of simplistic issues – for example, staging a scene or removing/altering elements from a photo. Although these types of breaches still occur with regular and disturbing frequency, the discussion of ethics has become broader and more complex.
Even the yellow journalism attitude of “if it bleeds, it leads” has become more nuanced. It’s one thing to publish a salaciously graphic image, but publications have had to contemplate whether to publish photos of the deceased or people (especially children) in distress. The weaponization of photography in a largely media illiterate landscape means publications have to also contemplate the provenance of images coming from citizen journalists or unknown photographers in foreign places.
Photographers have contemplated whether to push the shutter. The elimination of full-time staff positions mean that freelancers are often working as lone wolves without an editor or colleagues to provide a sounding board for ideas and images. The photojournalism contest industry has added fuel to the fire by awarding death and destruction, and tacitly encouraging some photographers to make unethical choices in pursuit of monetary awards and fame.
The huge dynamic range of modern cameras and power software has made it possible to tone images that conforms to the NPPA Code of Ethics, but appear hyper-realistic (e.g. locally enhancing shadow detail and “vibrance”). Some photojournalism looks like movie posters.
While photographers and editors can understand the implications of technological advancements like Content Aware Fill, the revolution in computational photography is unknowingly crushing ethical norms. For example, the Google Pixel smartphone automatically composites multiple images to enhance image quality. Most news organizations require labeling such an image as a “photo illustration” (an inaccurate, outdated phrase), but the photographer might not even know that the camera performed the action. The integration of AI into the photo creation process with opaque algorithms will present even more ethical problems.
The Ethics of Wildlife & Nature Photography
Instagram and geotagging has literally helped put places on the map as desirable travel destinations. For better or worse, many travelers are now motivated by “the gram” – seeking to capture their own frame of an iconic location found through a geotag.
But an influx of visitors and a community’s response to cope with it can wreak havoc on an ecosystem trying to contend with foot traffic, trash, redevelopment and even rock stacking. As Brent Knepper noted in The Outline, some photographers like Stephen Matera, have stopped geotagging photos to prevent a location from being overrun by photographers looking to replicate a shot.
In wildlife photography, the conversation of ethics largely concerns how an image was captured and whether human interaction caused the depicted animal behavior. Leading an animal with food can habituate them in ways that actually threaten their survival. Getting too close to capture a photo can stress an animal. A viral video of a bear cub was meme-ified to joke about perseverance, but the backstory was much more disturbing. Game farms breed and hold wild animals in captivity, and promote photo-tourism to monetize the menagerie.
The popularity of wildlife and nature photography have fortunately led to the consideration of ethical practices. Organizations like the North American Nature Photographers Association and publications like Outdoor Photographer provide guidance around human and wildlife interaction. Well-known photographer Melissa Groo says, “Ethical wildlife photography strives to minimize impact and disturbance on those animals.”
The Rights of Privacy & Publicity
The public’s understanding of the right of privacy (which varies by state in the US) is usually wrong. Time and time again, the public (and law enforcement) have assumed that they have some right to privacy in public spaces which has led to angry words, fights and arrests. But the courts have continuously upheld the rights of photographers.
Is it ethical to go to a playground and photograph children without consent? Is it ethical to photograph someone crying on the street if there is no news interest or a contextual understanding? Does the ethical discussion shift if the photographer offers the image for sale?
Arne Svenson raised eyebrows and the ire of his TriBeCa neighbors when he launched an exhibition of images shot into their apartment and without their knowledge or consent. The New York Supreme Court ruled that his actions were legal, but whether his behavior was ethical is another matter.
Ron Galella cemented his legacy as the greatest (and most annoying) American paparazzo. Marlon Brando famously punched Galella in the face, which led to Galella subsequently wearing a football helmet. Jackie Kennedy Onassis took out a restraining order against Galella for his continual hounding of her. But the New York Post once called them “the most co-dependent celeb-pap(arazzi) relationship ever,” with Onassis allegedly saving every press clipping containing her photos.
Although celebrities still hold paparazzi in contempt, many have also created co-dependent relationships (and backroom deals). In an effort to control their appearance and monetize their appearance, some celebrities and paparazzi have resorted to staging photos to an unsuspecting public.
Almost all art is informed and inspired by preceding styles, techniques, and artists. But the practice of blatant appropriation – taking another person’s final art and making minor adjustments to call it one’s own – crosses into an ethical area that most artists find distasteful (and illegal).
Richard Prince is infamous for appropriating the photos of others for decades. A slew of copyright infringement lawsuits haven’t deterred him from continuing to appropriate from others – perhaps unsurprising given that he’s built a lucrative career around the practice.
Turkish artist Uğur Gallen creates beautiful and thought-provoking composite photos that shine a light on atrocities and imbalances in the world. The problem? He uses other photographers’ work as his source material, and offers the images for sale online. Does raising awareness justify theft? Various ethical theories (e.g. utilitarianism vs categorical imperatives) provide different answers.
At their best, photo contests celebrate achievement in various fields of photography while offering exposure and prizes to winners. But some photographers have soured on the contest culture. High entry fees, paltry prizes, lack of exposure are obvious problems, but critics have complained that contests reward pain and suffering with little regard for the subjects.
Near-constant revelations of lying, cheating, and disturbing behavior make participation in contests an ethical minefield. A lack of diversity in contest juries perpetuates the status quo, and popular contests are arguably as interested in protecting their brand as they are promoting good photography. Jurists frequently accept assignments without reading the Terms and Conditions of the contest or doing due diligence on a given organization leading to unintended support of unethical behavior.
Contest promoters have even won their own contests!
Broad and unnecessary rights grabs have given some contest promoters the ability to use any submitted image (not just winners) in perpetuity without compensation, even when the image is used for commercial purposes and not in relation to the contest.
Workplace Sexual Harassment
The incredible reporting by Kristen Chick of the Columbia Journalism Review exposed a whisper network of sexual harassment by powerful men in the industry. Of course, it’s unethical to sexually harass individuals and threaten retaliation, but it’s arguably unethical for editors to continue to hire individuals with spotty reputations and perhaps even unethical for photographers to not report infractions – in part because it subjects future victims to harassment.
Hiring & Representation
The majority of the history of photography has been dominated by white men. Digital photography has helped democratize the image makers, but investigations into gender imbalance in the editorial world have produced grim results. On the positive side, the awareness of the need for more diverse storytellers has given rise to organizations like Women Photograph, Diversify Photo, The Authority Collective and more.
The industry has also grappled with who should be taking photos of minorities or the marginalized. Lived experience informs points of view. Should a decorated middle-aged white male photograph a story about mental illness in trans teens? Photography shouldn’t be practiced to the exclusion of any group, but homogenous storytellers provide a single point-of-view, thereby obfuscating a more complete story.
Science makes photography possible. And advances in technology have helped accelerate the popularity and use of photography into a daily activity. Whereas we once had to consider the price of taking a photo, vernacular photography is seen as largely disposable because technology has effectively driven the cost of taking a picture to zero.
Computational photography and AI have already started to challenge the landscape of ethics by doing things to photos without the consumer even being aware. Many modern smartphone cameras don’t only take a photo when you depress the shutter button, they take a series of photos before and after in order to use computational photography and AI in an effort to produce the “best” photo. In addition to the aforementioned techniques employed by Google and Apple to improve image quality, AI can pick out the image with the best smile – acting as an editor trained by machine learning. It isn’t too much of a stretch to anticipate the software compositing multiple group photos to get the best smiles from everyone.
At that point, do we even have agency over the creation of a photo? The camera is, in effect, always on and the device is creating the “best” photos for us. Only humans can hold a copyright, but could a software engineer credibly claim copyright for images appearing on your phone?
Before the advent of the internet, photos were consumed through print publications. The larger publications employed editing and fact-checking staff to help ensure that a photo caption accurately described the depicted scene. The rise of the Information Age coupled with the amplification provided by social media has allowed visual content to be used without context or with intentional misattribution to devastating results.
Noted visual forensics expert Dr. Hany Farid told the New Yorker that “A lot of [manipulation] is not faking data—it’s misattribution. On Russian TV, they say, ‘Look, the Ukrainians are bombing Donetsk,’ but actually it’s footage from somewhere else. The pictures are fine. It’s the label that’s wrong.” Visuals with an inflammatory caption designed to go viral have swayed elections, and caused rioting and death. The technology platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have allowed photos, videos and memes to be tailored and targeted in a way that was previously impossible.
A nihilist might conclude that contemplation of ethics is a worthless pursuit. After all, there is no one “right” answer to a specific situation. But industry discussion, pointed criticism, and the adoption of ethical codes of conduct have led to wins within various parts of the industry.
Taking and displaying a photo has consequences. Ethics allows photographers to contemplate the act of picture taking, and gives agency over intention.