Share This Article
Zoe Kemp discusses the ethics behind photography in a world where we are constantly bombarded with images both online and in our physical lives.
In today’s image saturated world, one simply has to type the words ‘photojournalism 2020’ into a Google Search to be overwhelmed by photos of horrendous bushfires, a global pandemic and people flooding the streets in protest of systemic racism. The intermingling of these images amongst those of five-star breakfasts, selfies and luxurious weddings, invite us to question the surreal way in which images of, for example, a starving child, can be served up on the same platform as a photograph of smashed avo and poached eggs.
These images exist within a vast collection of photographs taken of the unknowing, unsuspecting population that may have been used as stock imagery or to fill a travel photographers’ pockets. Given this, should photographers question their own motives when creating photographs? Perhaps their work is for profit? Perhaps for protest? Or maybe just purely for observation. Should there be a deeper connection between the image and the photographer, or is it ok that some images are created solely for their aesthetics? Do they have a right or need consent to take often confronting photos, only then to remain disengaged from the subject?
Is this overstimulation and availability of imagery a reflection of an ethically disconnected and desensitized society? In the past, the only thing that might’ve once captured attention was a photograph of the Vietnam War, or a similar image of war or violence. Even now, the themes remain the same, except the photo has been replaced by that of drowned two-year-old Syrian refugee Alan Kurdi, washed up on the beach of Bodrum, Turkey.
The famous photograph taken in 2015, encapsulates the devastation that is a morbid symbol of the current refugee crisis facing the world. This image is heartbreaking, however, highlights the fact that refugees will flee their countries illegally, if it means getting their family to a potentially safer place. Kurdi, his mother and older brother were fleeing from Syria, the number one country where refugees are currently trying to leave. The family drowned in the early hours of the morning of September 2nd, after their small, overcrowded inflatable boat driven by Kurdi’s father, who survived, capsized on its journey out of Turkey towards Greece.
The Turkish photographer who captured this image, Nilüfer Demir, explained why she took the photograph, stating in an interview with Time Magazine, that her job, “is to mirror their lives, their sufferings and the challenges they’re facing during the journey.” The photographer in this case acts as a reflective surface, giving Kurdi and the numerous others experiencing the same crisis a ‘mirror’ that can speak to the wider public, and possibly instigate wider change.
Whilst the photograph itself is very powerful and created a global sense of outrage, there was significant backlash against the image, as a group of people believed that the photograph was exploitative and was too horrible to look at, it was simply too shocking. The idea of ‘shock value’, something news corporations often strive for, is that an image captures the viewers attention and draws them towards the article, magazine or video attached to the image. Whether it be a bright glittering movie star, or in this case, a deceased two-year-old Syrian child, the impact of shock value on society can be great, and often be the trigger for change, as was the case when Alan Kurdi’s story reached across the world and lead to the British Prime Minister at the time, David Cameron, allowing more refugees into Britain. However one must ask, how long will the shock value of this photograph stay relevant, and be a force for change, before another photograph of a horrible event takes over the internet, and takes its place?
Some argue that humanity should stop snapping away at every crisis we find, and to start actively seeing; to flip the camera on ourselves and question whether we are doing the right thing. If everyone is littering our field of view with ‘meaningless’ images of their breakfast, and covering up the ‘real’ stories, or taking the same photo of a sunset over and over again, should we stop taking even more photographs? Or could we stop trying to control society’s motives, ideas and images, and just accept another ‘average’ sunrise, with the understanding that we may never truly know the photographer’s intentions, but acknowledge the fact that that image could mean everything, or nothing to a person? I think that is completely fine.
Whilst many images have in fact been the trigger of positive action, the world is patched with band-aid solutions, sometimes a cover for more publicity and exposure for those seeking to ‘better themselves’ through helping those in need, rather than out of compassion, they choose to boost their own supposed ‘selflessness’ in the guise of humanitarian aid photo op. Are these people doing good deeds for the people or the shot?
Stock imagery of different cultures, countries and peoples is often made available to the public by the ‘helicopter photographers’, those that swoop in, zoom in, and vaguely thank their subjects for the images before moving on to the next target. This practice is becoming more commonplace in today’s society with the development of better camera technology. Despite their lack of ethics, it could be argued that these photographers are still incredibly talented and will consistently produce excellent images, which will always be acknowledged first.
When I look at a great image, the first thing I do is realise how beautiful it is, because there is nothing more eye-catching than a truly amazing photo. This acknowledgment will happen before learning about the person behind the photograph and their motivations for creating the image, and sometimes having learnt about the person will change my own assumptions about the image.
The modern ‘ruthless’ photographer’s work is at risk of overshadowing the likes of some of the first political documentary photographers like Dorothea Lange. Lange was well-known for her documentary photography for the Farm Security Administration in combat of rural poverty during the great depression in America in the 1930’s and 40’s, and produced some of the most recognisable documentary images during this period, and was successful in telling the stories of those experiencing true hardship in this time. Knowing this does the morality or intentions of the photographer, or lack thereof, even make a difference in the overall acceptance of a truly amazing image that will tell the story on its own if strong enough?
There has been an ethical divide in photography from the moment it gained prominence as a medium. However, this divide does not concern issues of respect for the subjects of photos but rather, concerns issues of respect for past visual art practices such as painting, because, how dare we be the ones to disregard history and destroy tradition?! This says it all: often, photographers simply do not care about their subjects. Charles Baudelaire, a once passionate adversary of photography, especially it being anything other than a scientific process, argued strongly against photography as art, in his writing ‘on Photography 1859’. Baudelaire states that the invention of photography incited, ‘a madness, an extraordinary fanaticism took possession of all these sun-worshippers… it is useless and tedious to represent what exists, because nothing that exists satisfies me.’
Baudelaire calls the public fanatics, implying a sense of urgency and almost insanity as he writes with disgust towards the sudden idea that anyone could create images, and potentially call it art.
The public were possessed, completely taken over with the need to capture and document their surroundings and to show everyone else how they saw the world. These images were often simple photographs of homes, streetscapes and family members, seemingly ordinary images to someone living in the 21st century, however, to a person in the 17th century this was the first accurate depiction of their life, and allowed them to capture it almost exactly how they saw it. Was this new technology a possible unnatural reincarnation of Narcissus, out to trap humanity in its reflection? Or could it be a new frontier for storytelling and memory? Whatever the case, Baudelaire would be turning in his grave.
Today people are constantly taking photographs.
Photography is something that has become so integrated into our lifestyles that we often move to pull out our phones and snap a picture before we even realise why we chose to take that image in the first place. It’s a subconscious movement so ingrained in our muscle memory that it has become second nature. Is the need to capture, document and preserve, one that has developed from a society that is continuously overloaded with new information? Is this need to hide away pieces of it our way of coping? Or, are we addicted to the act of taking the photo, with little consideration for the image that has been shot but may never be viewed again?
If a photograph or video is created solely to satisfy the viewer and not the subject, then must the intent of the photographer be questioned? Keeping this in mind, If the true intentions of a photographer were to give themselves and others satisfaction or validation after staging and capturing an image, one would wonder was it right to create it in the first place, or if it had no real value other than for aesthetics. Images can be created with the right purpose, a sense of moral decency and cultural awareness that is tied to a genuine care for the subject matter, and the existence of the subject post capturing. This is however, something that we don’t always see as the viewer, so, would the photographer’s moral compass even matter at the end of the day?
The photography of a person for an image because of their disadvantage is a long standing theme throughout image making and photography; where the construction and design of a photograph expresses a certain understanding or observation of the subject, highlighting a sometimes biased view that can alter the viewers perception and assumptions of the subject. however it is how the person is depicted and captured by the photographer that often determines not only our impression of the subject, but our understanding, or attempt at understanding the photographer’s motives.
The photographer can choose whether the image degrades or uplifts its subject, all with a minor adjustment of a lens or the angle at which the image was shot. This poses the possibility of the photographer having considerable influence over, and responsibility for how the subject is seen by the viewer, unless, the viewer is actually in control of the reception of the image and ultimately decides for themselves what the photograph is or isn’t expressing. Take for example, an image with no caption, just a photograph. Who holds the power in this case, is it the photographer or the audience? Does the communication of the photographer’s intent then rely on the strength of the image, or the open-mindedness of the person looking at it?
What the audience takes from an image is completely up to them, the photographer’s work can only convey so much of what they are trying to communicate, or not communicate, it is the viewers responsibility to not assume what the photographer is saying through the photograph, but to instead take in the image as it is presented. People may seem to take images without a second’s thought or consideration, however one photo that you might think is completely mundane and ordinary, could signify a pivotal moment in the photographer’s life, or a day where something life altering might have happened right after the image was taken.
Whilst the actual intent of the photographer may never be known, it would be naive to make the assumption that you know their exact motivations from simply viewing the image they present. You are in control of your own morals and ‘code of conduct’ which you may or may not choose to follow when both creating and viewing images, however you aren’t in control of theirs. Each of us could decide on a code of conduct that aligns with our personal ethics and ideas, or not. Once we have chosen whether to follow it, do we then reflect upon our own work with a critical eye and limit the number of ‘meaningless’ and ‘tedious’ photographs we take and share with the world? Or do we dismiss intent and the audience, and just post another photo of what we ate for breakfast?
Images: Zoe Kemp