Three questions for photographers to check your ethics

 12 March 2019

Savannah Dodd, founder of the Photography Ethics Centre in Belfast, writes about the importance of ethics for photographers and offers three questions you can ask yourself to make sure your work is ethical.

"Ethics are important in every step of the photography process" Photo credit: Brielle MacDonald on Unsplash

For photographers working in the creative or marketing sectors, ethics might not be high on your list of priorities. You might think of ethics only as something for photographers who do journalism or documentary work, but there are important ethical considerations that impact your work, too.

Ethics are important in every step of the photography process. Ethics help us decide what we photograph, how we photograph it, how we edit the photograph, where we publish it, and how we caption it.

Of course, the answers to these questions will be a little bit different for everyone, because everyone answers ethical questions based on their own life experience, personal judgments, and photographic vision. There is no “one size fits all” ethics that we can sign-up to.

Instead, we need to actively ask ourselves questions about our photographic practice and think critically about our own approach.

Here are three questions to get you started.

What am I representing and why?

Whenever we are creating photographs, we are engaging in a process of representation. Thinking critically about what it is you are trying to represent, and why you are doing it, is a great first step in exploring the ethics of your photography process.

Whenever we are creating photographs, we are engaging in a process of representation.

You might ask yourself: Why have I chosen to photograph this subject? What message am I trying to convey by using this photograph? Is this the best photograph to convey that message?

This is a particularly good exercise when you are beginning a new photo project or series. Through more careful consideration about what message you are trying to convey and the best way to convey it visually, you can stimulate your creativity, prevent a lazy reliance on stereotypes, and engage in a more thoughtful process of representation.

Do I have consent to take and share this photograph?

If you work in marketing and advertising photography, you will likely be well acquainted with model release forms. A model release form is a standard requirement in order to use an individual’s image for commercial purposes to promote or sell a product, service, or individual. Such forms are often not a legal requirement for artistic or editorial photography, however this varies by country so it is important to familiarize yourself with the laws of the country that you are working in.

Even outside of marketing and advertising, consent is an important aspect of photography.

But even outside of marketing and advertising, consent is an important aspect of photography. When we ask for consent to take and share someone’s photograph, we are demonstrating respect for their right to autonomy. Autonomy, or the right to make decisions about oneself, is considered as a human right, therefore we have a responsibility to respect the autonomy of the people we photograph. Pausing to ask yourself if you have consent to take and share a photograph helps to slow you down and recognize the rights of the individuals in your pictures.

Are my captions accurate?

A lot has been said about the ethics of post-processing and digital manipulation in photography. While these are very valuable conversations, I think that often the ethical issue with editing photographs isn’t the editing itself. Instead, the ethical issue is in how the image is presented.

It is important to be able to recognize when a photograph no longer represents its subject and becomes a work of art

For example, if I take a photograph of the Giant’s Causeway, and I edit it so that the rock formations are electric blue and the sea is purple, that is no longer a photograph of the Giant’s Causeway. It is now a work of art. If I were to caption it as the Giant’s Causeway, it could be misleading to the viewer who might believe that those are the real colours of the causeway.

If we are editing our photographs, it is important to be able to recognize when a photograph no longer represents its subject and becomes a work of art. This way we can ensure that our captions are accurate and not misleading to the viewer.

These three questions only scratch at the surface of photography ethics. If you want to delve more deeply into exploring the ethics of your own photographic practice, you can follow what’s going on at the Photography Ethics Centre.

The Photography Ethics Centre is a social enterprise that aims to prepare photographers to navigate ethical dilemmas and to teach photographers how to think critically about ethics. If you want to get involved, the first step is to enrol in our free online training course The Photographer’s Ethical Toolkit. You can also learn more about photography ethics and the other work we do on our website.


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