The Ethical Photographer
Besides all the obvious questions photographers ask themselves before they press the shutter button, such as the technical and aesthetic considerations, comes the most important question of all: should the photo be taken in the first place? For decades, the mechanical nature of the camera has imbued a sense of objectivity in the medium, however, photography is under increasing amounts of scrutiny and for once, the criticism is not limited to photojournalism. Sam Edmonds reports.
Looking back at photographic history, there are several points in time that one could highlight when considering the relationship between photography and ethics. But one example in the early 1990s has remained the most noted and most referenced example of a photograph that sparked in-depth and widespread debate about the ethical implications of a single picture. In 1994, South African photographer Kevin Carter won a Pulitzer Prize for an image he took the year before – that of a young, emaciated Sudanese boy stalked by a vulture. Appearing in The New York Times in March of 1993, the image prompted hundreds of calls to the newspaper with readers wanting to know the fate of the child, and if the photographer had intervened. After a flurry of criticism and harsh conversation in the months that followed, Carter would later go on to take his own life – unable to reconcile his role as a journalist with what he had witnessed in various parts of Africa.
A quarter of a century later, the actions of Carter are still being questioned by photojournalists, perhaps serving to underscore the little progress that photography has made when attempting to define its own ethical functions and responsibility. However, at a time when politics and ideology have never been more enmeshed, when racial, religious, and ideological turmoil has never been more divisive, all genres of photography are now being questioned more than ever as to their ethical foundations. Where photojournalism once copped the brunt of outside scrutiny, the questions being posed to this genre have been slightly altered while the sub-disciplines of editorial, advertising, fashion and even portrait photography have been brought into the gaze of those considering photographers’ motives and responsibilities. In the age of the social justice left and the alt-right, it seems we are also entering the age of the ethical photographer.
Truth or Propaganda?
Considering this new emphasis on photography’s ethical foundation, it would seem advantageous to turn to the advice of photographers whose careers thus far have spanned these last few decades, and the metamorphosis of photography into an increasingly ideological practice. Perhaps none better in meeting this criteria is member of the prestigious VII photo agency and critically acclaimed photojournalist, Ed Kashi. With a career spanning decades and having covered issues as diverse as the impact of oil in Nigeria, the protestant community in Northern Ireland, and the lives of Jewish settlers in the West Bank, Kashi has witnessed the transformation of the medium as the impacts of technology and politics have both facilitated and altered the means for dissemination and the relationship between photographer and subject. On the topic of Kevin Carter, he uses this as an example of how much the ethical landscape has changed. “Kevin Carter’s thing in particular, in light of today’s conversation, seems so far away. I think he would have been skewered horribly in today’s world because of this increased discussion about diversity of voices and who is able to tell whose story and so on,” he says. “It’s so interesting for us at the moment in this profession because of gender issues, diversity issues, and these kind of geographical representation issues.”
What Kashi is talking about here is one of the most glaring examples of external ideology impacting the practice of photography so immediately. By most standards, the social justice left is a very recent manifestation of the political spectrum, but nonetheless is displaying a booming voice when it comes to discussing the place of white, Western journalists and their role in telling stories of non-white peoples. For many, if the Kevin Carter situation were to play out again today, we would probably be much less concerned about whether the child made it to a feeding centre or not, and more with the political implications of Carter’s ethnic background. Nonetheless, Kashi sees this as a step in the right direction when it comes to photographers’ ability for self-awareness. “I would argue that we are way more sophisticated as visual interpreters than we were back then,” he says.
Kashi’s career has thus far been punctuated by covering a vast array of some of the world’s most political and intricate humanitarian crises, none of which has been without an enormously vast backdrop of ideology to navigate. But having come to prominence at a time almost exactly mirroring the rise of technology and social media, Kashi speaks at length about the impact of broader access to media, and importantly, how this has affected the relationship between photographer and subject.
As most established professionals will tell you, there is a hard lesson to be learned when one realises that both those in front of and behind the camera have ulterior motives. “I’ll never forget the first time I experienced that was in the late 1980s and I was covering a Ku Klux Klan rally for Time magazine in Northern California,” Kashi recalls. “I watched as just a handful of Klan members entered the scene and all these protesters started throwing rocks at them and abusing them. I realised in that moment, of course, that you want to get that picture, right? But what am I actually doing by shooting that? I am being a propagandist for the KKK! Because I am going to make a picture that is potentially sympathetic to them because they are being beaten,” he says.
However, while photography’s intricate link to contextualisation and propaganda is an ever-present minefield for the photojournalist, the dissemination of work as facilitated by the Internet has held the photographer accountable in a less than obvious way. As Kashi describes, “In the moment we are in now, rightfully so, there has never been more scrutiny of the ethics of photography. In the same way that 20 or 30 years ago when I would go out into the world to photograph, I could be like 99% sure that my subjects would never see what I was doing because they wouldn’t have access to the publications my work was printed in,” he says. “But now, do I not only have to be almost 100% certain that they will see whatever I produce, but that they have also sometimes even Googled me before I have arrived so they know who I am. Those are all good developments because it requires us to not only be more professional, but also more responsible, or even more accurate.”
Adding to his defense of Kevin Carter, Kashi admits that simply being among such violence and turmoil as a photographer can often be enough to sway one’s judgement in any given direction. “I have watched photographers in action. I have talked to and witnessed enough photographers to know that sometimes the best judgement is not easy to make in these situations because of the sort of pressure or the determination to make a quote unquote award-winning photograph,” he says. But what does this say about the state of contemporary photography when the drive to create an “award-winning” image can slightly impact our moral judgements? Award entries for the last few years, even at the level of World Press Photo, have been rife with instances of rule breaking; photo-manipulation and staging. Presumably this want for recognition has an impact on our image-making processes, and ex-VII member turned photographic renegade, Donald Weber has written at length about the dangers of a competitive culture and its ability to facilitate dogma and doctrine.
In many ways, paving a new pathway for contemporary photography through his lecturing at the Royal Academy of Art, in The Hague, Weber has diagnosed the need to “un-discipline” the practice of photography and to redefine the nature of “good work”. And closer to home, at arguably Australia’s foremost institution for contemporary photography, RMIT, associate lecturer Alan Hill is echoing this sentiment when teaching the next generation of Australian documentary photographers. “There is no question that the political economy of ‘Photoland’ and its constituent network of institutions, including prizes, festivals, editors, curators, publishers, funders, and so on, is extremely fraught,” says Hill. “It’s something we don’t place a great deal of emphasis on in our undergraduate program at RMIT. Our guiding principle is really to help students develop a meaningful practice that has integrity. If people win awards or grants, that’s great, but that’s not what we set out to achieve, and we don’t emphasize those forms of external validation.”
So, will the next generation of photographers be less obsessed with contest and validation? As much as the learning centres and the academic branch of photography are attempting to undermine this culture of contest, the nature of social media and, simultaneously, the need to put a roof over one’s head surely do a lot to breed a constant sense of competition, and in an industry where dollar signs are tough to come by, the temptation of reward is always present. As Hill adds, “Capitalism and neoliberalism shape everything, because they aren’t external, and we can’t make, disseminate, or consume images outside of these ideologies.” Adding to Kashi’s emphasis on the need to consider the changing face of dissemination, Hill also points to the digitization of media and the end of the magazine era as a drastic change to the way we both deliver and receive photographs. As algorithms are constantly relied upon to curate out digital ideological experience, according to Hill, what we can say is that “this era of ‘disruption’ and change presents opportunities as well as risks”.
While many of these considerations might be somewhat new to photojournalism, that genre of photography is well and truly used to scratching its head over a long list of ethical considerations that have faced its proponents. But at a time when ethical discourse is so commonplace, the less obvious genres of photography are also coming increasingly within the sights of the more vocal sections of the political spectrum and are thus needing to think more consciously about some facets of their day-to-day roles. While some of these considerations speak directly to the broader, more overarching themes of photography itself, others might become more specific to each genre.
As Australian commercial and industrial photographer Gavin Jowitt explains, the term “ethics” is not something that he is always acutely aware of at work, but has become more obvious in an age where gender and racial diversity is a constant sticking point for large corporations. “Particularly with larger corporations, there is always the desire to show gender diversity, ethnic diversity in the workplace,” says Jowitt. “Sometimes that means that people are selected for the images that might not necessarily work in that location, or whatever, but that is what the company would like to portray.”
Often working for large industrial companies in the mining sector and similar areas, Sydney-based Jowitt says that the time of male-domination in these industries is fading quickly as female apprentices now make up a large constituent of workers, and that the photographs he make should be a precise reflection of the changing times. “Sometimes you will find that when you need a shot of people doing something together in the workplace, you will actively select a mix that shows diversity, but the fact that they work within the company means that there is a level of honesty about that,” he says. “If a company was actively bringing people from the outside to convey diversity, I would probably question that, but whether that would be enough for me to not continue with the shoot, I’m not sure.”
For commercial photographers and photojournalists alike, most professionals will attest to the fact that finding work in today’s climate is not always easy. However, while ethics and a strong sense of idealism are ostensibly axiomatic to the practice of photojournalists, commercial photographers’ sense of right and wrong is something they bring to their profession as an extra-curricular item. And as Jowitt explains, there can be a precarious balance between needing to put food on your plate and sticking by your values when approached by less than reputable potential clients. “I have, in the past, turned down work for tobacco companies, and likewise I have been approached fairly recently by people who I wouldn’t want to necessarily associate with. They just didn’t really sit with my personal beliefs, and I thought that they were trying to exploit people,” he says. “So, in those cases I turned down the jobs; either told them I was too busy or I quoted too high, or something like that, to make sure I didn’t get the work.”
Fashioning a career
Evidently, photographers like Gavin Jowitt are being tasked with the idea of being particularly conscious of contemporary ideology while also (very honourably) balancing their livelihood with a sense of their own ethical foundations. Jumping to another Australian photographic stronghold, Sydney-based fashion photographer, Henryk Lobaczewski echoes Jowitt’s sentiment when he explains that ethics can often overlap with his sense of identity and branding as a photographer. “Sometimes, I simply won’t put my name to something if the client would like it in a certain way that I don’t enjoy the look of or think is my style,” he says, adding that there is also a clear line in the sand when it comes to even taking on work in the first place. “Obviously, there’s a limit. I wouldn’t ever shoot porn or anything that would be detrimental for anyone involved.”
As much as this might seem like a hyperbolic example of the requests posed to a very successful fashion photographer, Lobaczewski goes on to explain the very delicate balance between sex and gender in his part of the industry. In much the same way that a political mandate for diversity in the workplace has directly affected Jowitt’s consciousness of that issue, Lobaczewski says that the male and female roles that have long played out in fashion have become even more apparent within the current political climate. In the face of so much liberal dialogue about the “wage gap” at present, Lobaczewski immediately throws a curveball stating that “straight off the bat: women are going to get paid more. It is just one of those industries where women just get paid more.” Why? “Because, sex sells,” he says.
Seemingly, the fashion photography industry is somehow at once oblivious to external criticisms surrounding gender roles and masculinity versus femininity as well as being a melting pot for the exploration of androgyny. Essentially, for most daring to speak about it in this context, fashion photography presents a political minefield that photographers are left to navigate alone. But as Lobaczewski explains, most of it boils down to simple business and a kind of friendly exploitation of the human species’ sex drive. “Generally, more women will care about looking good than men do,” he says. “When you look at the amount of people buying these fashion products, there are a lot more women than men. So, obviously then it is the brands that sell women’s clothing that will pay more for female models.”
But, in an industry where the ratio of female models to male photographers more often than not means a man photographing a woman, a number of implications can play out within an industry that is essentially based on sexual appeal. In this respect, Lobaczewski recounts a recent scenario he encountered with a religious model. “We had a shoot where the model was quite religious and she didn’t want any low-cut garments which, to me, is a little crazy. I mean, if you are a model you kind of need to be OK with being in lingerie or swimwear,” he says. “I don’t think it is professional as a model to say, ‘I can’t show half my body’, and even when it is covered up. So, in that instance, we kind of pushed it to the limit that she was OK with. We only asked once, and then said ‘OK, well that’s where we shoot to’. In the end, it just took more time than it should and so I simply wouldn’t book her again. That’s basically because I couldn’t do my job properly.”
The politics of progress
Evidently, in the last 25 years photography’s role in society has gained ever more importance through a widespread reliance on social media, and the precarious nature of a photograph’s message has increased exponentially. While photography self-examines its own proclivity for competition and rewarding of images of suffering, the outside world examines the medium’s ability to precisely reflect and incorporate an airtight ethical practice. Despite this, photographers like Kashi, Hill, Jowitt, and Lobaczewski are all fighting the good fight in their respective fields. Whether continuing to navigate the most complex humanitarian issues on the planet or simply seeking to maintain transparency and authenticity, photographers of all genres still have a rocky road ahead, but nonetheless will most likely weather the ethical storm.
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