Sunday, January 5, 2014

Ethical Photography. Simply Sensible

“There is such a thing? Ethical photography is probably some plot to restrict my right to photograph anything, anywhere, in my own neighbourhood or around the world. Yeah, I got my rights!”
That, believe it or not, is the fossilized belief system of many photographers today who resist any restrictions on their snapshots. We see them in the park, on safari, in the markets of third world countries, lining up great shots, sticking their cameras into people's faces or grabbing their images from afar with telephoto lens. It is as though they think themselves armoured and invisible behind their cameras. They certainly seem to consider the people around them as just another photo-trophy. How dare they!

Remember when smoking in public was viewed in the same way? How often did we have smoke blown into our faces and our food in a restaurant or at the family dinner table? There seemed to be a right to do that and non-smokers were the sissies. Times changed though and one of the most effective anti-smoking campaigns focused not on the obvious health risks, but on how disgusting that habit really was.

The camera itself has no morality. Because we can photograph anything at all, we do. Pornography, for example, is a multimillion dollar industry and pictures of children being used for these purposes are common enough. Most of us would draw the line at this kind of unethical behaviour, but exactly how far down the field do we place the goal posts for the average photographer?

One of the most obvious ways to deal with this dilemma is to ask permission first ( not second). Yes, that informal pose may be lost, but this is not wildlife photography is it? We may be asked to pay for our photo, but if so we can also get signed permission and that would place our interaction with our subject on a more equal footing. Snapping people's images wholesale is an unequal interaction. The image of the 'ugly North American', cameras draped around his or her neck, photographing 'local colour' is one of disrespect and that is how many people receive it. There are of course legal considerations as well which vary from country to country, but I wonder if, like warnings of the health risks of smoking, these alone will not convince people that are already hooked by the habit to adjust their behaviour. Perhaps in the end we have to say that this photo habit, once considered okay, is not any longer. Like a wide range of humour focused on sex, religion or ethnicity is no longer acceptable and marks the perpetrator as a dinosaur from another era.

So when we wander with our camera we need to be aware that taking someone's photo is really a delicate transaction. And this is not a blanket ban after all, we can obtain permission by asking first, (and probably thereby getting a positive response) and then ideally, getting a model release. We can take people photos where the person is part of a crowd, or purposely on display, say in a parade. It is really just those captures of identifiable individuals that we need to avoid. Not so difficult to adjust to really if we would just get off our unfortunate belief that anything goes.

We live in an time where privacy is perceived to be important because it is increasingly under threat. A photo of someone can end up very quickly on a photo club or social media site and who know how it will be used after that. Think of the stories of 'primitive' peoples who felt that the camera had captured their souls; is that really so different from how we feel today, somehow soiled and abused, when our image is snatched from us?

Photography is about taking images and, as Susan Sontag says in her book 'On Photography', using the camera not for art, but as “ mainly a social rite, a defence against anxiety and a tool of power”. Powerful words, and, like a photograph, oh so true to life.

No comments: