Towards an ethics for photography

My discussion about science and the baby picture yesterday got me thinking not only about accountability, but about ethics – and in particular the ethics of photography.  In science there is a fundamental ethics against, misleading people and this translates to a very precise set of rules about how, indeed mostly how not, to manipulate images.   The essential tenet of this is the preservation of quantitative information both in terms of intensities or grey values and spatial distributions.  Actions like burning and dodging are big no-no’s. So scientists don’t want to fake data, and you don’t want your scientists to fake data.  All scientists, even the frauds, understand this ethic.

The key to all of this is not to mislead.  But as soon as we leave the realm of science, do we leave behind this taboo?  In general many people would say that faking pictures or altering pictures for political gain is bad, that altering press photographs is bad.  But when we hit the realm of advertising, as we have seen, do all limitations collapse in the quest for financial gain.  Why does this become acceptable?  And don’t hide behind the coattails of art.  Anything goes in art; and advertising is an extension of art.

Where I think that ethics in photography, outside of science, really comes ultimately  into play relates to photographs that are mean, demeaning, or vulgar – faked or not.  I’ve seen a lot of images on popular photo-sites on the web, which I would characterize as vulgar.  They’re not truly pornographic just vulgar in that demean and therefore marginalize a particular group, most often women.

Again you cannot hide behind a smokescreen of political freedom and artistry. The problem, of course, is that we want to protect artistic freedom, and this opens the door.  The ethics to photography has to lie in the basic recognition of human dignity, a fundamental right of privacy, and of protection of the vulnerable, like children.  As always, there is the question of personal taste and sensibility.  One person’s pornography is another’s art. Yes, but the reality is that most of us, just like scientists, share an intrinsic and common understanding of when the line has been crossed, and while we cannot preach and absolute ethic, we can aspire to one.

This entry was posted in Essays on Photography.