Talking Ethics in Photography

Talking Ethics in Photography

While some photographers are on the hunt for the most outrageous image, others become increasingly sensitive to what they shoot. We are confronted with a never ending stream of images that blurs our ability for ethical judgement. I asked Joey Lawrence and Graham Macindoe about their opinion.

When is it acceptable to take and publish a photograph of someone? The camera may “intrude, trespass, distort, [and] exploit,” said Susan Sontag in her book, "On Photography." It bares the potential to do that. Theory suggests that taking a photograph deprives the subject of power over their own representation and forces the photographer's vision on them.

For photographers working in documentary, fashion, portrait, or other genres that require photography of others, being reflective of our practice is a necessity. As with every human interaction, when taking a picture, it’s important to be mindful of how your art and actions could affect the other parties involved.

Social media platforms made it simple to portray a certain image of ourselves. We feel entitled to curate this image and we often feel bad if someone interferes with it. Over time we grew so used to interacting with people’s digital alter egos, that we stopped seeing through the pixel-curtain. In our new age, Sontag said, reality is “understood to be images.” The “image world is replacing the real one” and in a world that values images over reality, one photograph bares the potential to significantly alter the public’s perception. This is especially problematic if the subject has little or no means to correct the image.

Photographer Jimmy Nelson had to face strong criticism in 2013 when he published his book "Before They Pass Away." The book's product description reads that it "showcases tribal cultures around the world." In a piece published on Truthout, director of Survival International, Stephen Corry, lamented that some of the images and descriptions in the book were inadequate and even preconceived: “In his photos of the Waorani Indians of Ecuador, he has them unclothed except for their traditional waist string. The Indians are not only shorn of their everyday clothes, but also of other manufactured ornaments such as watches and hair clips. In real life, contacted Waorani have routinely worn clothes for at least a generation.”

”What Jimmy Nelson says about us is not true,” said Benny Wenda, a Papuan tribal leader, in an interview with Survival International. “My people, the Dani people, were never headhunters, it was never our tradition. The real headhunters are the Indonesian military who have been killing my people. We are not ‘passing away’, we are being killed by the brutal Indonesian soldiers.”

Nelson defends his project, saying that he chose the title very deliberately in order to get people’s attention and to show that something is passing away. Some agree, including Michael Tiampati, a member of the Maasai community in southwestern Kenya. "It shows the world the reality confronting these communities — the threats to the culture, ways of life and livelihoods," he told Aljazeera. While some of his subjects do appreciate Nelson’s work, the use of raising awareness for a fabricated reality seems questionable.

A tribal community has little to no means of counteracting the impressions left by a Jimmy Nelson photobook. While Nelson’s intentions might have been honorable, it backfired. He, as well as everyone else, has a responsibility to try to do the right thing. If you are putting out work into the public, you need to realize how you are contributing to the conversation. A lack of research and understanding opens up a wide array of pitfalls.

Keas Hable Mariyam, the monk of the cavern church, poses on top of an estimated 5740 remaining pilgrim corpses. "Most of them came from Jerusalem and now they remain here to rest." Yemrehanna Kristos Chuch - Lalibela, Ethiopia, | Copyright 2018 | Image by Joey Lawrence

Photographer and Director Joey Lawrence, like Nelson, has a history of photographing people and topics far away from home. Before he was 20 years old, he went to photograph tribes living in the Omo Valley in the southwest of Ethiopia. “My first trip to Ethiopia was just out of fascination; The preserved cultural heritage, and over 80 different languages spoken,” Lawrence said. Questioned about if he was initially drawn to the tribe because of the spectacle, he responded, “When I was younger that's probably what I was up to because I'm from a small town and anything outside of the small town borders looks exciting … But there's a difference between what I do now now versus being like Jimmy Nelson or someone like that … And that is not being so juvenile about things.”

Graham Macindoe, a photographer and teacher at The New School, has another take on this.”To me it is [about] what you are trying to say, what is the takeaway? Why are you doing this and what is the takeaway for people from doing this other than ‘ohh, look at those big amazing beautiful pictures that are $50,000 each, and look at those poor people that are going to be extinct in 50 years.’ That is not enough for me."

Since his first personal project, Lawrence’s approach has changed in multiple ways. Research and personal connection to his subjects have become an integral part to his work. He decided to photograph Kurdish fighters because of his “interest in endangered languages and culture." While his photographic approach has not changed (his images are still depicting foreigners, glamorously lit, ready to be placed in a commercial), his motivation did. The project focuses on fighters, but Lawrence explained: “If you have a people that are an ethnic minority it means that they have to fight to survive against genocide and the assimilation at the hands of these extremist groups or state powers. So the true beacons of culture are rebels in the mountains … That is how a project on Kurdish culture evolved into a project highlighting Kurdish fighters.”

Lawrence’s yet to be released photobook, "We Came From Fire," is supplemented by his two documentaries, "Guerilla Fighters of Kurdistan" and "Born From Urgency," that give an in-depth look at the Kurdish fighters and their lives. According to Lawrence, Kurdish people are the ones who support his project the most.

The Liberation of Tel Hamis, YPG/J, | Copyright 2018 | Image by Joey Lawrence

For his work, Lawrence does not only look in the distance. His project "Halloween in Brooklyn" came out of wanting to “study culture that is closer to us.” The image style, though black and white, is comparable to his other work, only this time, he is photographing at home. Similar to his other personal projects, he revisits the locations and communities he photographs to develop a better understanding over time.

“We are photographers and we tend to analyze and maybe overanalyze a lot of things,” said Macindoe. Once you start to reflect on your practice, the evaluation becomes surprisingly simple. If you are taking a photograph, ask yourself why you are doing it. Try to imagine yourself on the other side of the camera. Would you want that picture taken, maybe being published in blogs or magazines? Would you want this particular self of you to be representative of either yourself or your community? If you can answer with an informed yes, then you are good to go.

There is an innumerable amount of people taking snaps of native peoples. Do a quick Google search for Maasai or Mursi and see for yourself. “I know that image. It may be glossier and better and the sensor might be bigger and the Profoto lighting kit might be a little better … but I know that picture. I’ve seen that picture. Lots and lots of times,” said Macindoe. “Can you bring something different to the story?”

Serge & Brittney with sons Jeremiah and Jabari - American Exile | Copyright 2018 | Image by Graham Macindoe

Or like in Macindoe's "American Exile," a series of photographs and interviews that shows the stories of immigrants who have been ordered deported from the U.S., is the photo useful to promote a bigger cause? If so, are you achieving this goal with your photo and any additional material? In the case of Nelson, does the attention he brings to the tribes justify him selling his prints and special edition books for thousands of dollars? “You can’t walk into a troubled place, take the photos, make a career for yourself without giving anything back. I think that is totally exploitative,” said Macindoe.

In the end, it comes down to respect. No matter who or where you are photographing, realize that every individual lives their own life with their own motivations, struggles, and hopes, and realize that you and your camera bare the potential to influence that. When taking a photograph, make sure that you are knowledgeable about your environment and your subject so you are able to make informed decisions. Put yourself in your subject’s shoes. If you would not want to be photographed in their position, you should probably turn away.

Maximilian Benner's picture

Maximilian Benner is a German-born documentarian living in NYC.

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Phenomenal read–a level of thought and detail on the nature of photography not seen everyday.

Most notably, your sources that quote the varying sides of the Jimmy Nelson's images (told from those he photographed, some of whom agreed with his representations, others did not), show the level of complexity inherent in documentary photography. How one wishes to portray a person is ultimately the decision of the photographer, but intent is key. And intent, unfortunately, is also often unknowable.

Personally, beyond decisions like lighting and composition, I find most other documentary photography to be disingenuous. If you are not showing a person the way they are, you are creating a fantasy (which is artistic, but not truthful).

I recommend the work of Milton Rogovin, a photographer in the late 20th century who photographed citizens of Buffalo, NY. His claim to fame was that he let his subjects chose their clothing, stance, and background. He returned to them every decade or so, and one can form a deep understanding of the lives which he documented through the process.

Hi Allen, glad you enjoyed the read. Thank you for mentioning Milton Rogovin. Definitely a photographer to consider.

Excellent article, Maximilian. Upon taking an art history class, and at the same time starting out in photography, I was exposed to Sontag's thoughts on photography. When I first read excerpts from "On Photography" I felt a bit distraught because I never assumed that the viewer was led to believe what they were seeing in a photograph was a true representation; perhaps due to the bias of being the one behind the camera. Perhaps I was too green at the time, but I've come to realize that viewers tend to take what they're shown at face value, and I understand that there are many who purposefully misrepresent a person or a culture in order to execute a photographer's vision. Best practices would suggest not offering up your work as "documentary photography," if the scene is directed. Moreover, and as your article mentions, the subjects represented have little recourse when it comes to correcting the record; there is something predatory and vile about exploiting people in dire straits for the sake of a good photo, even if the photographer offers compensation, when the "story" they tell isn't true. I have a difficult time – and maybe because I'm just too damned cynical – believing photographers who proclaim " I want to tell their story," when they direct the scene.

As an aside, I've remained skeptical of Sontag, and have often wondered if the irony of criticizing photographers for using visuals to depict a warped sense of reality, through her use of carefully selected words and framed phrasing, escaped her, or if she was wittingly disingenuous.

Good points, Michael. I think most artists understand how subjective and interpretative their work is (visual artists as well as writers, including Sontag hopefully!) but especially in photography, the general public is more inclined to see "truth" in that work.

Whether or not we as photographers should be held accountable for some people's inability to think critically is up for debate. I think a greater focus on visual literacy in schools would be helpful.

Great and important read, and thanks for pointing out the possible 'side-effects' of uploading a photo to the world wide web. I think in this day and age it's becoming more and more important to think about the footprint we leave behind and the meaning we give to our lives.

Great article on an important subject! Thank you!

The other question you could ask is this one. Do the pictures a person takes represent the truth and is do the people want that truth to be published. As far as I know, most tribes in Papua New Guinea were actually head hunters and I have read diffferent articles on the internet stating that they were indeed headhunters.

Not all people want the truth of their lives published.

Yes, photography also helps to keep powers in check and to expose injustice.

thanks you so much for sharing good post, like to read more.