From celebrity snaps to photojournalism and street photography, the ethics inherent to the medium have widely been debated for as long as the practice itself. Public photography is, of course, fraught with ethical conflict. What about the rights of privacy for the individual? What of permission? And what of the photographer’s position of moral and social duty?
Photographers have found themselves under attack from all sides in recent years, including a series of clashes with authorities relating to the right to take pictures in public.
Photographers are facing enormous ethical questions posed by the allegations aired during the ongoing Leveson inquiry. Here, Max Houghton, course leader in MA Photojournalism at the University of Westminster and a writer on photography offers her personal views on the challenges ahead.
“For a number of years I was relentlessly pursued by 10 to 15 men, almost daily… Spat at, verbally abused… I would often find myself, at the age of 21, at midnight, running down a dark street on my own with 10 men chasing me. And the fact they had cameras in their hands made that legal.”
Such was actor Sienna Miller’s shaming testimony to The Leveson Inquiry into the culture, practice and ethics of the press, which has shown news photographers in an unflattering light.
Professional bodies such as the British Press Photographers’ Association (BPPA) have been quick to counteract this tarnishing, insisting – accurately – that such behaviour does not typify the approach of the majority of news photographers. Yet in order for any meaningful change in these appalling practices to occur, those of us who work in and with photography are charged with taking this criticism seriously.
The photographers who come to the University of Westminster to study on the course I run, MA Photojournalism, do not, for the most part, want to photograph celebrities. But many of them are interested in photographing in developing countries. Some of them even want to change the world (thank goodness). While the subjects of photographs are as varied as people on this earth – that is indeed what they are – the considerations that apply to taking and using their image are the same.
Many factors come into a play at the moment of squeezing the shutter. Does the photographer have the consent of the person he is photographing? If the person is not capable of giving their consent (if they do not speak the same language, or are injured for example, or even dead), is it appropriate to continue photographing?
If the person in the photograph is in obvious distress or danger, should the photographer put down the camera? Are there circumstances in which the photographer should provide help or assistance? If the photograph is taken, after all these considerations, who will see it? How will its future dissemination affect the people in the photograph?
In her now infamous opening line to The Journalist and the Murderer, Janet Malcolm wrote: ‘Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on, knows that what he does is morally indefensible.’
The author expands on this in an interview with The Paris Review, saying that journalism is not a ‘helping’ profession, except for in the way that its exponents help themselves to ‘what our subjects don’t realize they are letting us take’. Ouch. How to argue with her position?
The most serious and considered practitioners are always careful to refer to the practice of making not taking photographs, but is this in fact a case of weasel words? And does knowing and understanding that photography is always a transaction make the act any more palatable? At what point does voyeurism – all photography is surely this – tip into scopophilia, a love of looking?
Photography of public marches and the police handling of them could be out of bounds. Street photography might become virtually obsolete. Imagine a history of photography without Cartier Bresson. While a debate about legislation and how it might benefit photography would no doubt be a valuable exercise, swingeing laws would not eradicate unethical practices any more than marriage prevents infidelity.
The rise of citizen journalism means of course that anyone with a camera can and does get published. As they are not members of a specific profession, and thus not united by a code of practice, anything goes.
The concept of ‘public interest’ has long since morphed into ‘what interests the public’…which, to the dismay of serious news photographers, means a picture of someone who once failed to win on the X-Factor buying a large skinny latte (with their cellulite showing).
It is the duty of contemporary photographers to question continually what they are looking at, and why it is appropriate to permit others to look too. Such self awareness would not limit their practice, but would rather enhance it. And of course many of them do.