What surprised me about Week 5 was that there is much more to say about the ethics of photography and codes of practice than I thought there was.
Like many perhaps I’ve muddled along with a rough-and-ready code which generally means not breaking the law (so far as I know it), not making photographs of distressed or vulnerable people (ditto animals) and keeping away from situations that just feel wrong. Vague, I know – a pretty ad hoc following of the ethics of the Golden Rule.
A more thought-through code would be useful as my practice in cities raises questions of privacy, of tense situations, and of putting people on the spot who may not want to be photographed – foreign nationals, unlicensed street traders, members of religious groups or of ethnic minorities, etc. A stroll through say Whitechapel Market in East London might well raise all of these issues. So the basic message is I need to be more aware, and that comes down not only to respect for others but to research. I won’t be aware of the nuances and particular social codes that may operate wherever I am unless I have first done some study.
I’ve looked around at a few standard codes of ethics, such as
The NUJ’s Code of Conduct
US and European outfits have parallel codes.
Photographers Without Borders have what strikes me as a very useful code of ethics for when on assignment overseas, particularly in remote tribal areas where there’s a high risk of cultural misunderstanding and exploitation. However, the same ideas apply close to home and anywhere that is multicultural and ethnically diverse. The PWB code can be found here: Code of Ethics
There is also the Royal Photographic Society’s code for nature-lovers: The Nature Photographer’s Code of Practice
I have come across some requests for a code of practice for the environment more generally – stewardship, the impact of mass tourism, leaving wild places undisturbed. These are increasingly important issues.
There is a lot out there but so far I have not found a single code which covers it all.
Codes of ethics can be tricky, however. Potentially, they can become over-complex and burdensome. The risk is they would then be disregarded. So while I think codes of ethics are very important – more so than I thought at the start of the week – some kind of balance and understanding needs to be employed. We live in a very uncertain world and people are going to make the wrong calls from time to time. Some moments are incredibly hard to read. A lot more thought is required, at least by me.
Self-awareness based on research – that is the takeaway from this week.
The following books cropped up:
Evans, H. (1997). Pictures on a page. 2nd ed. London: Pimlico
Kennedy, L. and Patrick, C. (2014). The violence of the image : photography and international conflict. London: I.B. Tauris.
Kobre, K. (2008). Photojournalism, the professionals’ approach. 6th ed. Waltham, Mass.: Focal Press
Lester, P. (2015). Photojournalism: an ethical approach. London: Routledge
I have done some work on my research project in Week 5 but that will follow in a separate post.