The photography industry has found itself under the spotlight several times over the years. Once in a while it’s because of a controversial photo of a starving child in Africa, all skin and bones, curled up on the streets. Sometimes it’s because of an all-too-graphic image of a warlord’s crimes. And sometimes, or quite often actually, it’s about the shamelessness of paparazzi in stalking public figures.
Truth be told, neither rich and powerful nor poor and helpless are safe from the over-sensationalism in photography. Many media outfits nowadays especially thrive on these sensationalised photos to get exposure, good ratings, and therefore bigger profits. Even some NGO’s and charitable organisations are guilty of doing this in order to elicit pity and solicit more funds. But regardless of intention, these photos can be exploitative, dehumanising, unfair, and downright unethical.
All too often photographers capture what’s now termed as “poverty porn”, referring to photos featuring inhuman living conditions. While these may be good because they shed light on certain realities, it also has a tendency of portraying its subjects as undignified creatures. They are portrayed as weak, helpless, barely human. It has even happened that some photos are used wrongfully on issues that have nothing to do with the subject. In which case, it isn’t only exploitative, but also misleading and deceitful.
On the other side of the coin, there are celebrity’s faces all over the tabloids as they go about their personal lives. These don’t only shamelessly ride on the celebrity’s fame in order to earn money for themselves; they also violate rights to privacy and the person’s right to a good quality of life. How many famous faces have gone down because of the pressures of having to be perfect in public, because every single mistake will be documented and disseminated even without their consent?
Photographers, especially photo journalists, should follow a certain code which assures that they not only do good work, but also don’t step on anyone else’s rights or overstep their own boundaries. To do that, they must always be aware of the stakes, particularly for their chosen subject, before, during, and even after they take their photo.
Before taking a shot, always, always get the subject’s consent first. The only time consents aren’t required is during big public gatherings involving a crowd. That’s it. If you are taking a person’s photo for a particular story or send a particular message, get their permission first. Consider also your motives and intentions for taking their photo. Do you aim to help? Do you aim to give awareness to others? Knowing that your purpose is positive is a step in the right direction.
While taking the shot, always consider your subject’s well-being. Does the photo expose them to harm? Does the photo present them in a respectable and dignified way? It helps to bond with subjects first and get to know them deeper. That way you can better capture their story through your lens. Never ever get in a shot either. That means never to involve yourself in a scene where your involvement may alter or influence an unfolding story.
Finally, after taking their picture, make sure that no stereotypes of false generalisations are present, which may represent your subject or their society wrongly. Always be faithful to the shot as well, and don’t alter anything that will change the story.
In the end, being ethical photographers isn’t hard at all. There are no set rules to ethical photography. The good nature and sincere concern of a photographer for the subject’s dignity and story are good enough guides to shooting ethical, objective, and respectful photos.
Julia Escano – Shoot The Frame