Adj Marshall

Posts Tagged ‘Ethics’

The Ethics of Photography

In Art, Communication, History on January 21, 2011 at 11:57 am

My Mother at Age 4 Procured from Aunt Joan's Collection

Life for a photographer can not be a matter of indifference, it is important to see what is invisible to others.

-Robert Frank

In the fall of 2008 at a family gathering, my great aunt Joan, simply known as aunt Joan amongst us older grandchildren, was downsizing her collection of photos to clear some of the clutter from her now smaller living space. As we began to scour through the books and boxes of photos she had come to collect in her 70+ years I became fascinated by the concept of historical reconstruction through photography. If each photo tells a story then a collection of photos tells a lifetime of stories. When we cease to exist our likeness is carried on through the visual representation of our image in the photographs left behind.

In my mind I began to gauge my life’s story as told through photography. In doing this I realized that this story although true would be quite fractured and unrepresentative of my real existence. My own early childhood photo collection was marred by a housefire that destroyed everything we owned except a small book of photos my mother was able to save.  The VCR would be the next element to influence my own photographic story, followed by a lack of funding to put toward developing photos that were taken. At one point while in high school my mother developed a roll of film that had sitting in her draw for years to find pictures of me getting on the school bus for my first day of head start. Often times our lives, represented through these images, or lack there of, come together to construct what is termed our life’s story.

Looking At Photographs

This past week I started in Introductory Class to Photography at RISD. One of the suggested readings for the class is a book titled Looking at Photographs: 100 Pictures from the Collection of The Museum of Modern Art. John Szarkowski the books author uses the Modern Art Museum’s Photographic collection to tell the story of photography since its creation in 1839. ” When Daguerre announced his great invention to the public in the summer of 1839, he explained how it worked but not really what it was for.” The purpose of photography to this day is still a topic that is is debated quite heavily amongst academics and individuals alike.

In its early days photography was almost exclusively a means to visually record information. People’s portraits, and landscapes were most common and the photographer served only as an extension of the equipment. Szarkowski states Photography as an [artistic] medium has received little serious study.” and  Photographs, “although often admired have seldom been seriously collected.”

For me the purpose of photography, beyond recording ones on life story, is to bring light to the social ills of our time and to use photographs for the betterment of humanity. William Henry Jackson was one of the first people to photograph  the Yellowstone area under the US geological Survey in 1870. “It has been said that Jackson’s pictures were instrumental in persuading congress to set aside the Yellowstone area as a preserve” becoming  the nations country’s first national park in 1872. Mr. Jacksons story is one what in which photography has been influential in bettering the world around us.

As a photographer concerned with brining light to today’s social ills, I am often confronted by the ethics of photography, especially when it concerns the photographing of individuals. I have had the opportunity to travel far and wide from Cape Verde, to East Timor and Ecuador to Tanzania. Here I have taken photographs of individuals with whom I have little to no connection in attempts to convey the basic element of child creativity and resourcefulness in the face of poverty. As I begin the local portion of my project which will draw comparisons between childhood poverty in Providence and that of the “developing world” I am again faced with the question of ethics. What is my responsibility as a photographer to the people I photograph?

In my research for this article I came across the following guidelines or code of ethics written by Chitrabani, a Christian communication center in Calcutta, India. While I do not agree with all the guidelines I find them to be most sincere their attempts to balance the needs of the individual with the need to bring to light the social ill that person will come to represent.

My photographic life story will be filled with images of not only my life but that of countless others who I have photographed.

The highlighted guidelines I find particularly interesting.

What to Photograph

  • What you shoot and how you shoot is determined by why you photograph and whom you photograph for.
  • When photographing people do not treat them as if they were things.
  • Do not take people’s pictures or give images to the imageless.
  • Never depict people as useless or inadequate. It is their helplessness which has to be shown.
  • Do not invade anybody’s privacy except when it is necessary for depicting certain social situations.
  • Yet, boldly reach into personal life, bearing in mind that the photographs you take are your brothers’ and sisters.

How to Photograph

  • Never photograph for art’s sake, just try to make the best possible picture.
  • There is no need to prettify people and objects; they have their beauty, and a good photograph exudes beauty.
  • Sensationalism diverts attention from the essential.
  • Shun extra long lenses. A short lens draws you near your subject.
  • Try to establish a rapport with the person you photograph.

Social Concern

  • Let not your photographs drift away from context.
  • Earn the right to see what you wish to show.
  • Your social concern is to document life with empathy.
  • Be true to the image people want to have of themselves, but at the same time do show what you believe is their real image. The dignity of the poor, in particular, demands that their situation be known.
  • A documentary coverage can never be total. Complete a biased image by another biased image.
  • Be an iconoclast – a destroyer of established images.

Your Public

  • Photos should not be used to exploit the persons portrayed.
  • Refrain from showing a photograph if undesirable manipulation cannot be averted.
  • Your photos have no place in art shows.
  • Lending your photographs for “illustrating” articles that have hardly anything to do with the persons photographed is like lending your voice to somebody else’s speech.
  • Destroy the myth that photographs are duplicates of reality.
  • Ethical documentary photography is not your sole responsibility. But your photographs encourage certain responses in the viewer.