Talking Ethics: When It's Time to Put Your Camera or Phone Away

At least here in the U.S., having a camera means that under the First Amendment, you can pretty much photograph whatever you want, whenever you want, as long as you're in a public place where there's no reasonable expectation of privacy. Of course, being able to do something doesn't always mean you should do it. 

Coming to you from Sean McCrossan of When Will I Learn?, this interesting video investigates the ethical issue of shooting and sharing pictures of things like human suffering. The simple fact is that nowadays, many of us constantly have a camera in our pockets capable of instantly sharing images and videos with the world at large, which means there will be an ever-increasing number of situations in which suffering or tragedy happens in front of a multitude of lenses. I know I've personally received the random text or Snapchat before that contains such an image or video, and I remember feeling distinctly uncomfortable seeing them; after all, there was nothing I could do to help those people and being aware of something like an individual car crash certainly isn't borne of a journalistic dissemination of information. As we come across these situations more and more, we should think carefully about when we should pull our cameras and phones out and when they're better off staying put. 

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Quincy Fivelos's picture

We really do have to do something about this "reasonable expectation of property". We simply should never expect property. It's totally unreasonable. :-)

Alex Cooke's picture

Haha, thank you. Sometimes, you stare at something three times and still miss the obvious. :)

Quincy Fivelos's picture

My editor told me in 2011 that she'd buy me dinner at any restaurant in town if I ever gave her a draft without at least one stupid mistake. That was several hundred columns ago and I've not yet managed it. :-)

Quincy Fivelos's picture

"and being aware of something like an individual car crash certainly isn't borne of a journalistic dissemination of information."

About 40,000 people were killed on roads in the U.S. last year. Something like 11.5 people for every 100,000 people who live in the U.S. If we had the same death rate as Europe, as places like Norway or The Netherlands, we would have had about 8,000 deaths. In other words, 32,000 of the people who were killed last year would still be alive today and not even injured if our roads were designed as safe as theirs. How many children who lost a parent last year would still have one?

What responsibility do we have to those who may be killed next year or the year after to try to prevent their deaths? To try to have roadways and bikeways and walkways designed as safe as those in The Netherlands and Sweden and Denmark and Germany and ...?

In what way do photos of crashes and deaths help or hurt? Do they make us more aware of the problem or de-sensitize us? When do we see something, such as a photo of an individual crash, and think that we must do something about it?

Deleted Account's picture

I don't know the answer but, is that disparity solely due to roadway design or do other factors contribute to it?

Quincy Fivelos's picture

According to EU traffic engineers it's entirely road design. And they cite specific elements like US having too wide of travel lanes, too high of speeds on roads w/ crossings, improperly timed lights, roads that discourage people from walking/biking for short trips instead of driving, etc.

William Faucher's picture

I would argue that it is also related to training. The driving courses we have here in Norway are rigourous, expensive, and time consuming. When you get your license, you're a pretty damn good driver. We also have mandatory night driving and ice driving courses.

Needless to say, drivers are pretty well-rounded. Having grown up in Canada, our driving courses were not NEARLY as thorough as they are here.

Anonymous's picture

The speeds allowed in Europe are higher as those in US and I don't know nothing about the quality of roads in US, but the European traffic safety is high due the stringent drive training and license exam rigour.

Sven Wilms's picture

Apart from training it is the mindset. Not all EU countries have roads that are properly designed and maintained. And road accident fatality rates differ quite a bit from country to country. Greece is right up there with the US while numbers in France are about half that.

Anonymous's picture

OK, from photography to road safety :-)

The total fatalities in 2017 in EU (not whole Europe) was 25.600 on 512.000.000 EU inhabitants. The US has 327.000.000 inhabitants and more then 40.000 fatalities.

Here is the detailed statistics by EU country (the number of fatalities is related to 1.000.000 inhabitants).

Indeed the south EU has higher death rate as the central and north EU and the cause is a composite of very high car park age (old cars from CE and NE are sold to SE), the quality of driving schools is very disproportional and finaly it is the road quality.

The worth situation is in Romania, the death rate is some 2.375 mortal accidents in 2017 this is also a bill for very special driving there. Like F1 at start, respecting nothing at all....

Deleted Account's picture

i was on the freeway a month ago in the fast lane going slow because 10 cars ahead of me was in flames. Instead of just stopping and car slowly made it into the shoulder of the slow lane. When we inched past unfortunately the car was devoured in flames and it was obvious none of the occupants got out (in was a van). I was staggered to see people taking cell phone shots. I dont know about u guys but i find it vulgar and appauling that people would want to take photos of a car where people inside have died.

Dylan Gorishek's picture

Wait, asking a homeless person for a quick shot is unethical because they're struggling with misfortune? Are you kidding me? You yourself are then dehumanizing them by assuming they don't have bouts of artistic streaks, narcissism, and individualized beauty to showcase like everyone does. In my experience, people are just interested by my camera, want friendly conversation, have stories to tell, or just a chance to be a model. I very rarely actually get asked for cash.

Jon Kellett's picture

It's a personal call, just like ethics in general.

I personally won't take a photo of a homeless person when doing general street photography, as I wouldn't have a meaningful use of the image in mind.

That said, if I had a concept of how I could use my photos to improve their lot in life (improve awareness or something), well... Then it would be different. I'd approach them first and try to engage with them.

The problem is that most homeless shots I've seen are just that - Quick shots taken surreptitiously like a sniper. No engagement with the subject. Now if I was down and out like that, I personally would be rather upset at people sniping me instead of engaging with me.

If you're engaging and not profiteering from your work, no problem...

Michael L. McCray's picture

Having photographed homeless people from 1983-1998 primarily in Cleveland the best lens is a 50 mm. .

Michael L. McCray's picture

The question is why is the photograph taken.

I think history and photography tell us how we are not how we think we are as humans. Violence and death entertain just open up Netflix and look at the content. There is no need to know for the most of the news.

Matthias Kirk's picture

There is some great work out there portraying the life and the personality of homeless people. The artists often have an intimate relationship with their subjects.

Most images I see labeled "street photography" featuring homeless people fall into the realm of "poverty porn" for me and serve only one purpose: feed the vanity of the photographer, who wants to have an exciting image.

I really hate when misfortune of individuals is exploited for personal gain. These voyeuristic "candid" homeless shots are the worst.

Michael L. McCray's picture

I think when you start it is for gain, nothing wrong with if you like to eat, I wanted to be photojournalist. Not sure what drove me but I had been homeless a few times before but that was not in my head at all. My first shot was the start of a relationship with my subject and discovery about my self. I love photography it has given me the licences to peek in the world of others to see both the pleasant and really unpleasant. In time I have discover the true gain is the journey.

Again I still ask my self why is the photograph taken.