The Rise of the Photographer pt 6: Ethical Grey Area | The Philosophy of Photography

Before diving into the ethics of photography, it is best to give a quick overview of what defines ethics, that is; what makes ethics different from religion, etiquette, and laws.

  • Ethics - Right and Wrong as defined by conscience or reason

  • Religion - Right and Wrong as defined by religious authority

  • Law - Legal and Illegal as defined by judicial body

  • Etiquette - Proper and Improper as defined by culture and cultural norms

Photography is a retrospective activity. One does not typically make a final decision on a photo until one is away from the present scene. In the film days, the judgment on if a photo is respectable and appreciable comes after the film has been developed. In the digital age, the final decision is primarily made on the computer (although I can concede that decisions can come in the moment due to the LCD screen). Because photography is primarily retrospective, it allows us (the photographer) to look through many photos after the thrill of the shot wears down and contemplate the composition and the subject matter. A Photographer typically won’t be thinking about the present time and decisions that might have to be made. This is where ethics come into play; right and wrong as defined by the conscience or reason.

If a photographer is taking a controversial image, they will have to weigh the benefits of the story telling against the potential backlash and risk for posting the image. As an example, you are taking a picture in a crowd (maybe like Bruce Gilden or maybe more traditional) and someone asks you to delete that photo in the moment. As a photographer you know your rights; that is if a subject is in a public space, there is no expectation of privacy, so you might decline and say you are in your rights to take this photo. On the other hand, to save face you might delete the photo to appease the person. Ethically though which is more correct? and is that person who said to delete the photo being unethical?

Legally you are in your rights to take that photo, you did not break any law. The person was within a crowd, in a popular area and there was no signage saying “no pictures”. Therein lies the issue, because lawfully you are within your rights, based on your ethics you are in your right. What about etiquette? Because etiquette is based on cultural norms, and a photographer typically exists outside of cultural norms (as it is not normal to take a photo of a crowd with professional equipment), if someone with different norms, different morals deems your actions as brazen, what does one do? It is difficult to make a decision as the photographer, especially in times of escalation, because a photographer is an artist, the photographer is creating and the photographer has not had a chance to review the photo yet. Typically one of two things will happen:

  1. Photographer will delete the photo

  2. Photographer will state law

Before snapping the photo, the photographer has already reasoned with their conscience that this is an okay action, “I am within the legal laws as governed”. Subjectively, there is no issue with this claim, but 1 person out of a crowd of 100 has an issue with it. The photographer becomes sought out because it might go against the agitated persons etiquette; they think the photographer is a pariah and needs to be corrected. So to the agitated person reasoned with their conscience that it is okay to ask the photographer to delete the photo, even though legally there is no leg to stand on, because it goes against their cultural norms. So the photographer is thinking on a level of rationalized belief of lawful correctness. The agitated person is thinking on a level of rationalized believe on etiquette correctness. This then becomes a tribal state of win-lose, either the photographer looses or the agitated person looses.

The example I gave is something that rarely happens, especially in the digital age. People tend to not care that they are in a crowd in a photo. This example does provide insight that a photographer will always live in an ethical grey area, because of reasoning with the conscience and extends to all types of photographer.

  • “I’m going to alter this persons nose just a bit in photoshop” - Portrait photographer

  • “I’m going to change the blues in this image to teal” - Landscape photographer

  • “I’m going to add the moon over this building, it’ll look cool” - Urban Photographer

There is no right or wrong to any of these statements. Editing images is one of the most controversial aspects about photographer due to the ethical dilemma it creates. That is, is it right to edit something to enhance it? or is that wrong?

Photography at the end of the day is art, if someone asked you to delete the photo that they were in and you declined, chances are you will delete it at home anyways because it left a sour taste in your mouth. A photographer will never become integrated into the etiquette of social norms because in order to exist as a photographer, you must stand out. A photographer will always exist in an ethical grey area.