Reflections on Week 5 – Power and Responsibility

As part of this week’s readings and lectures, we were asked to consider the power and responsibility of photographers. I have considered below the following questions that were posed at the end of the first presentation.

As an image maker or author, what moral dilemmas do you encounter in your own practice, or more broadly, around the medium of photography?

I often find a moral dilemma in taking photographs of people in the street without them knowing. There is nothing sinister to the photograph and it is usually the only way to get a truly natural photograph of people in their environment, however it does sometimes feel like you are stealing a photograph. These days I try to at least explain to any subject why I am photographing (before or after).

Do you have any models of your own to assess the appropriateness of an image or how it is used?

I haven’t used a formal model to assess the appropriateness of an image or how it is used. One way of thinking that I have developed is to put myself in the subject’s shoes and ask myself would I be ok in his or her position to be photographed and would I be happy for that image to be shared on whatever platform I am considering. It also doesn’t harm asking the person when this is possible too!

One of the most striking images taken recently was the photograph of Alan Kurdi on the beach which prompted the tutor to raise the following questions of the cohort:

Do you recall any memories or experiences at the time of the publication of the photographs and footage of Alan Kurdi’s death? What are your own views on the appropriateness of the publication of these, or similar kinds of image? What is your own assessment of the impact of these images?

I was shocked at the photograph when I first saw this and incredibly saddened by the situation. I remember that this photograph did help change the perspective of a lot of people on the migration issue and it created more sympathy towards the migrants. Sadly nothing has changed apart from the view of a number of European’s on the migrants’ plight. Since then there have been hundreds if not thousands who have suffered the same consequences as Alan.

It is a highly sensitive subject but I think it was ultimately right to share this image given the circumstances (nothing could have been done to change anything at that moment in time) to highlight the realism of what was going on in Syria which was perhaps to some just another war in the Middle East. It is sad to see what is happening there and the plight of the people. Another more recent image taken in Syria is that of the bloodied Syrian boy, Omran Daqneesh (Links to an external site.), in the ambulance shell shocked. Whilst this is a still image from a video it is still an image which in this case seems to have been taken with a view to prompt a public reaction – upset and shock. As a father of two young boys I found this very difficult to deal with and it made me feel that the person creating the image should perhaps have done more in this case to comfort the boy rather than capture the video.

What has challenged me this week?

The biggest challenge this week has been in researching the legal frameworks in photography which I hadn’t really looked into until now given that I have not been producing images for clients before the course. It was also interesting reading up on different ethical stances with respect to photography.

What have I learned this week?

Having considered photojournalist Jeff Mitchell’s image of refugees crossing from Croatia to Slovenia in October 2015, which was used controversially by the UK Independent Party during the 2016 referendum campaign to leave the European Union, I have learned that I need to take greater care with the way in which I engage with future clients to protect the way in which my images are used.

The NPPA Special Report: Ethics in the Age of Digital Photography provides some useful guidance on the way in which a photograph is used.

“As William J. Mitchell points out in his book, The Reconfigured Eye, Visual Truth in the Post-Photographic Era, we are experiencing a paradigm shift in how we define the nature of a photograph. The Photograph is no longer a fixed image; it has become a watery mix of moveable pixels and this is changing how we perceive what a photograph is. The bottom line is that documentary photojournalism is the last vestige of the real photography.

Journalists have only one thing to offer the public and that is credibility. Without credibility we have nothing. We might as well go sell widgets door to door since without the trust of the public we cannot exist as a profession.

Credibility – some questions to ask

In what Context is the photo being used?

Is the photograph a Fair and Accurate Representation of the information being presented?

Does this photograph Deceive the reader?” (1)

When a photographer sells an image to a large company such as Getty then I think you have to be prepared to accept that you have lost control over the way in which an image is used. In this case, perhaps one could question whether Jeff Mitchell considered whether his image was suitable for mass circulation and whether in fact it would have been better to consider other routes for sale of his work? Getty’s terms state “Your images may be altered by our customers, distributors or us to suit the use for which it is marketed or licensed” (2) so you basically lose control of how an image will be used. There is only a carve out for any use that is defamatory, pornographic or otherwise illegal.

Having sold the license of the image to Getty, Jeff Mitchell lost control over most of what is posed in the three questions above, perhaps apart from question two in that he documented what was going on at that point in time. However, the questions are still relevant for reseller of the license and publisher of the image. In respect of Getty, their business model is unlikely to enable questioning of the use of each and every sale of licenses to images on their site – they will just rely on their terms and take action afterwards if needed. The publisher of the image in this case UKIP does however have the ability to consider the questions posed but chose not to. The way the image has been used clearly does not provide a Fair and Accurate Representation of the information being presented and does Deceive the reader.

Interestingly, in this particular case, I came across a comment from Tom van Laer (Marketing Lecturer at Sir John Cass Business School) who stated that:

“Ethics become a great concern when storytelling is adopted for the promotion of political views … It is unlikely that already vulnerable voters will resist the power of stories in general and political, mediates stories in particular. This reinforces the need to restrict voters’ exposure to this type of political advertising, especially in situations in which these vulnerable people are likely to be lost in the story. [But] political advertising has been exempt from the Advertising Code of the Advertising Standards Authority, the UK’s independent regulator for advertising across all media. The Electoral Commission, which oversees British elections and referenda, has rejected the idea of regulating political ads.” (3)

As another student commented, it does pose a lot of considerations for photographers in how they can improve the way in which they license their own work to ensure that any such agreements include appropriate ethical issues. Definitely something I need to look at more closely myself.

(1) (Links to an external site.)

(2) (Links to an external site.)

(3) (Links to an external site.)

I came across a good article which is a good resource for photographers on licensing which also references a number of other associated resources so this will be a good place to turn when I do get to that stage.


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