Ethics in Photography

Recently in Montreal, I was about to shoot a picture of a homeless man sleeping, and my friend jumped in front of the camera.

“You can’t do that!” she said.

“Why not?”

“It’s an invasion of that person’s privacy.”  she replied.

What commenced was a long drawn out conversation about privacy and ethics in photography.

As a photographer I have this ethical dilemna.  While I believe as a photographer I am a witness – I want to photograph the good and bad of humanity, and awhile ago I wrote a piece for Brave New Traveler exploring the ethical dilemna that war photographers go through.

Often times I write to get to the bottom of how I think and feel.

So while I was contemplating my friend’s problem with me taking pictures of a homeless man, I came across a strip club.  No one had problems of me taking pictures of a strip club.  Snap!  I wondered why there was such a large amount photographic content concerning women in compromising positions.  Snap! Snap! 

But this is standard fare.  Women are used as commodities to sell things – as Vered so succinctly pointed out in her blog.

And how far will we go to sell things?

Then I had to go back and reexamine my thinking about the post featuring Annie Leibovitz, and her photograph of Giselle Bundchen and Lebron James.  Okay, I reasoned.  Giselle and Lebron are okay with it, so therefore…it’s okay.  But is it okay?

Often people in denial, those that lead the unexamined life, think things are okay.  Child molesters think that what what they do is okay.

In advertising there is such a thing called subliminal seduction.  The seduction part of this type of photography is that it plays on our fears, our desires, and our unconcious feelings toward stereotypes.  We buy into it because it’s unconscious.  Because it’s below the surface – like our attitudes towards women and the fact that Pamela Anderson can suck on a cherry in the most provocative of ways while the headline beside her screams Getting Intimate With John McCain.  Yes, that’s right. In the same color as the cherry.

I believe photography in its highest form is there to tell a story.  It is there to tell the truth.  Because if you can show people the up front and center truth, as photographers did during the Vietnam War, maybe people will get angry.  Maybe things can change and wars can end.

And while I’m taking a photograph of a homeless man, showing the reality of his life, advertisers are marketing the newest sexy thing to my eight-year-old daughter.  And believe me, sexual marketing is aimed at younger and younger age groups these days.  What was once aimed at your average sixteen year old is now aimed at the average six year old.

So I have to ask you, is it wrong for photographers to to document human despair and suffering?  Or is it wrong for advertisers to play on peoples’ fear and ignorance in order to make a lot of money?

Or do I have it all wrong?  Have I framed the debate the wrong way?

It’s up to you.  You decide.  What is your lens of perception?

Photocredit: © Ellen Wilson

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16 thoughts on “Ethics in Photography”

  1. Good questions.

    I think that taking that photo of a homeless man is legal, but unethical.

    Using sex to sell is legal, but unethical.

    Is “unethical” something we should try to avoid? Usually yes, but sometimes, the value of the photograph is so high, that it’s worth it. As is the case when documenting war or victims of a terrorist attack.

    In the case of selling sex to make money, there’s simply no excuse.

    Vered’s last blog post..So, Another Guest Post

  2. If someone came into your living room while you were quietly watching TV, and snapped photos and posted them on the internet, THAT would be an invasion of your privacy

    But if you walked out in the street or a shopping mall, and some reporter ended up taking some photos, and your picture ended up in the paper…well, you were out in public…isn’t that fair game?

    Are we going to get to a point where we need signed affidavits from each person we photograph in public, to get their permission to print each photo?

    I find it interesting that people will object to a homeless man’s photo being taken, but it’s okay for him to lie there on the street, in his own misery.

    And what if he’s one of those aggressive panhandlers, harassing the public? What about OUR invasion of privacy?

    Interesting discussion….

    Anyway, that’s my two cents.

    Friar’s last blog post..Only in Splat Creek Ontario (*)…

  3. Ellen, great discussion. I am not sure about the legalities. They seem murky but I would assume that if non-public photos were taken it would be illegal, selling them for profit would also be an invasion of privacy and unethical. Taking the photo of the homeless man in a public place would not have been an invasion of privacy. Using the image in a demeaning or exploitative manner would be unethical and egregious. There is a book The Sexualization of Girls that delves into how marketers have aimed adult messages at little girls in their efforts to create cradle to grave consumers. Legal yes, unethical absolutely! I

  4. Hi Ellen,

    Interesting question. I don’t have an answer.

    The same issue (privacy) came up on my blog yesterday, but with a different twist. The post was about a new statistical program (Woopra) that tracks visitors (like all others). It’s live. (like some others), but many who commented said that by a blogger having it installed on their website, it’s an invasion of privacy of the visitor.

    Like you, I’m asking the same question. Do I have it wrong? Should I not use statistical programs to track visitors on MY blog? What about Google? They do it all the time. Each keystroke we make is recorded. Are they invading our privacy when we “google” for free?

    Maybe we’ll both get an answer. 🙂

    Barbara Swafford’s last blog post..FEFF – Feeling The Joy

  5. These are great questions… Questions that, I think, any photographer wrestles with. I would have to disagree with a previous commenter, however. Simply taking the photo of the homeless man is not, in and of itself, unethical. I think it more lies in your intent. Do you plan to publish the photos for a local homeless shelter in order to raise awareness? Are you planning to publish the photos in the newspaper to try and draw attention to the homeless problem? Or are you simply going to publish the photo and try to profit from it in some way? These are questions that each photographer must answer for him or herself. I’ve wrestled with this plenty of times and there’s never an easy answer.

    As to the privacy question, there is no reasonable expectation of privacy while you are in a public space. Period. And that’s the way it should stay. If you are in public, anyone can take a photo of you and put it online. Having said that, if your photo is used for commercial purposes, such as to market a product, etc., then your consent is required. But taking a photo of someone in public and publishing it as news, on your Flickr account, or in any other non-commercial way is completely and totally legal.

    Shawn’s last blog post..Last day for JPG Issue 18!

  6. I too am a photographer and I wrestle with this. Would I take his picture? I think I would fell too awkward to be obvious about it, but if I could zoom in on him I would. Eeeewww, that sounds really bad! But my thought process is that I wouldn’t want to make him uncomfortable. Photography is a hobby for me, so I am not selling them. I would be taking his picture if I saw a story in the frame. The whole ethics/legalities of actually selling the picture is too much for my little head. All this being said, my absolute favourite shot taken by my daughter is from Prague of an old man in wool driving cap, tweed coat, a lap rug, a wooden money box and concertina at this feet.

    Urban Panther’s last blog post..So, you want to online date

  7. @Vered – I understand where you’re coming from from a privacy stand point. If I were to sell the picture to a stock photo agency (most of them) require model releases. Incidentally, they also require property releases. So I cannot take a picture of someone’s barn and release it for commercial gain purposes without their consent.

    @Friar – Interesting viewpoint. I have seen some aggresive panhandlers in Montreal. They swear at you in French. You get the gist of that in any language. If you have ever watched DaVinci’s Inquest there is a show where Dominic DaVinci has a panhandler try to wash his car window and winds up tearing off the wiper blade.

    @ Karen – Thanks for the book mention. I will have to pick that up. It sounds very interesting. I would not use a photo of anyone in an exploitative manner, it’s against my morals. I think doing an expose on the homeless would be interesting. I would like to hear peoples’ different stories on how they became homeless. I don’t think it’s as clear cut as we think.

    @Friar – Absolutely. If you’re in Quebec, it’s French first! I don’t have a problem with that. I’m just happy everyone is bilingual, otherwise it’s really difficult to communicate. I’m not forced to learn French like the Quebecois people are forced to learn English.

    @Writer Dad – I like how photography and writing fit together. I think they compliment eachother very well. That’s one of the reasons I like photojournalism.

    @Barbara- That’s a good point. Businesses and advertisers are always watching us to predict our “buying behavior.” Why shouldn’t we do the same? After all, many blogs are run for business purposes. I get a kick out of how the ads change on my blog after certain words appear in the comment section.

    Google analytics is enough for me right now. It starts to get like Big Brother is watching, after awhile. I know there are plugins that show who is at your site at the moment.

    @Shawn – You sum it all up perfectly. These are issues that you have to deal with all the time as a photographer and it isn’t easy. I think of the war photographer, Kevin Carter, who took the photo of a little girl who was starving and being stalked by a vulture. He won a Pulitzer for that picture but he committed suicide because he couldn’t deal with all the pain.

    And then I think of people surviving airplane crashes and taking pictures and making lots of money from it. They are capitalizing on other’s pain. Is that right to do? I have a hard time with that.

  8. Urban Panther,

    I feel the same way about taking photos as you do. I don’t want people to feel uncomfortable. Because if people do get uncomfortable, a. I feel like I’m infringing on their privacy and b. it ruins the shot. It’s a lose lose situation for everyone.

    I have to ask myself how I would feel if I was in this person’s shoes. I would not be upset someone took my picture in a public place because of the issues that were spoken of above as far as using the photo for news. But if you do use someone’s photo without a release in a slanderous way, you could be held liable for defamation of character. I don’t think this applies to news agency photographers, though. I think they are protected from that.

  9. One of the functions of art is to capture the culture, the reality that we live in. So, I think that artists (including writers and photographers) often have to cross lines so that they can tell the stories that need to be told. There’s a certain amount of common sense and good judgment that needs to be present. For example, I don’t think it would be appropriate to photograph a couple having a fight on the street, and I think the paparazzi have way overstepped the boundaries of decency. It’s an interesting dilemma to ponder.

    Melissa Donovan’s last blog post..The Benefits of Journaling

  10. @Ellen

    French first.

    Actually, I DO have a problem with it.

    Not with the French itself (I’m fluently bilingual). But with the xenophobic way in which it’s enforced by the Quebec government and some of its Citizens.

    What tourists don’t hear about is the anti-English, anti-Immigrant harassment taking place. It’s in the Montreal daily news, constantly.

    These are not just isolated incidents…I won’t go into details here. But this is part of daily living in Quebec. It’s been going on for 30 years, it’s what the elected government chooses to enforce.

    I grew up in Montreal, and worked there for a few years in the late 90s’. Great city, but sometimes you get SO TIRED of all the bullshit. People end up leaving.

    I know I did. So did 700,000 Anglophones.

    That being said, Montreal is still a pretty cool city….despite the language politics. I really enjoy visiting it.

    Friar’s last blog post..Only in Splat Creek Ontario (*)…

  11. @ Melissa – If I started taking pictures on the street of a couple fighting they might stop fighting! Ha! Seriously, though, there are a lot of layers to this problem that you don’t encounter until you are up front and center. Like Shawn said, if you are in a public place you can’t expect to NOT be photographed. It is the public domain. That’s what societal niceties are for. That’s why we should all get along. That’s why people want to keep their business hidden. We should expose all of society to the light.

    @Friar- The problem with the French in Quebec is that they are on an island. And they know it. They are stuck. No one is going to learn French unless they have to. And a language is all part of the culture. Obviously. They are fighting as hard as they can to preserve their little enclave. Their little piece of power.

    In a way it’s the same problem the British have with us Americans. They love us and hate us equally. We have their language. Sort of. But we don’t pay allegiance to their queen or their way of life. The only thing we have in common is the language. Sort of. Personally, I think they are pissed none of their revolutions have worked out. And now their stuck with the monarchy. Sort of.

  12. I had a look at some legal sites (and bearing in mind that I’m not a lawyer), it seems to me it depends on the purpose. If it is for commercial use you’re supposed to get the person’s permission in most parts of Canada.

    But – if it is considered newsworthy, you don’t need permission!

    So to take a picture of the man to sell is one thing, but if you were writing a news article about the homeless, you don’t have to ask him.


    I don’t think it is wrong at all. Sure, we could say “we all have the right to privacy” and I agree, but I mean, if someone takes a picture of me at the mall or takes a picture of my house, I don’t really care. Go nuts.

    (that’s why I keep the blinds closed)

    Google took a bloody picture of my house. They (indirectly) make money by letting people see it on Google Earth. You can see my car in the driveway! And they didn’t ask for my permission either. Bastards.



    Brett Legree’s last blog fridays – burn the boats, revisited.

  13. @Brett

    I see a clash-action suit. Everyone who’s house in on Google Earth gets 5 bucks.


    Speaking of lack of privacy, what about the security cameras in public places (not as many over here, but Big Brother is watching everyone in the UK)

    Because of a small minority of criminals, everyone else gets spied on.

    But it also makes things safer for the public (supposedly).

    I’m on the fence with that one. I’m not sure what to think.

    Friar’s last blog post..Only in Splat Creek Ontario (*)…

  14. @Brett – That’s a good point. Isn’t everyone’s house on Google Earth now? There a lot of privacy issues that aren’t addressed.

    It sounds like the laws in Canada are similar to what we have in the US.

    @Friar – I really don’t know the extent of how the Brits are being spied on by big brother. I do know that it is a small island with a lot of people and it feels like everyone is mashed together.

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