Wednesday, March 17, 2021

On the Relativism of Ethics

If you look through earlier posts a bit you'll find a thing a couple posts back. I re-wrote that with less swearing and more focus, and cleaned up the thinking a fair bit, and it appeared on PetaPixel to be admired by millions, and read by three or four of them.

I think it's a pretty solid piece of thinking, and well worth everyone's time. No surprise there. In this post which you are reading right now I want to unpack some of the consequences of my theory, and take a little time to understand what it is not.

As background, here are two posts by one Wasim Ahmad. With Trump Threatening to Track Protestors Down, Should Photojournalists Show Faces in Photos? and then, later, Yes, Photojournalists Are Allowed To Film You Being Racist.

In the first of these articles, Ahmad argues that Journalistic Standards demand certain things (he calls out getting the subject's names, as a proxy for consent). In the second of these articles, Ahmad argues that Journalistic Standards demand no such thing, and instead strongly suggest that the opposite is true (it is, mysteriously, no longer necessary to get people's names.)

Obviously what is going is that Ahmad has a political position, he feels that BLM protesters are on the side of goodness and truth, and the Proud Boys and their ilk are, well, not. He feels, explicitly, that one set of rules applies to one group and another to another. I'm sure he would argue that the BLM protesters are at risk and the Proud Boys aren't and so on, but whatever. There's a lot of half-assed logic chopping you could do, if you were devoted to the idea that you're applying objective Journalistic Standards consistently.

Anyone can see, though, that this simply isn't the case. There are two quite different readings of "the rules" being applied, and it is no accident that the readings fall along political lines.

The trouble is that, somehow, we want to pretend that there's a single, unique, coherent, standard to which we can all hew if only we try hard enough. There isn't.

As my brilliant remarks on PetaPixel make clear, if you read them thoroughly, there are no absolutes here. Ahmad absolutely should photograph BLM protesters one way and Proud Boys another. That is his political allegiance. It is perfectly human to choose sides. It happens that Ahmad and I are on the same side here.

Having chosen a side, it is absolutely moral to hew to it, and arguably immoral not to.

Ahmad, being a leftist, being a person of color, sympathizes with the BLM protesters. His duty to them, the subjects, is ascendant, his duty to his viewers, descendant. He feels that his obligation to protect his allies supersedes his duty to reveal all to the viewers of his photos. With Proud Boys and their ilk, his loyalties, and therefore the duties he feels, are reversed. The viewer's right-to-know is ascendant, and fuck the Proud Boys.

Do you get to yell at people whose loyalties differ from yours? Do you get to yell at people for revealing the faces of protesters you are trying to protect?

Sure. Why the hell not? It's a free country. But be aware that they're applying the same rules you are, but starting from a different political stance. You cannot get all Journalistic Standards with them, not honestly, because you don't actually care about them yourself.

Photoethics is a lot more like personal relationships than it is like a hard-and-fast set of rules.

There is an argument to be made here, but it is fundamentally a political one. I happen to think, and could argue, uh, somewhat cogently, that the BLM people are right, and the Proud Boys are wrong. This hasn't got anything to do with photography. Literally nothing.

But since I believe in this political stance, I would photograph the two protests differently, not because Journalistic Standards, but because this is where my allegiance lies, and because it would be immoral to set aside my allegiance.


  1. "[Magnum photographers] are seen to some [sic] as the pinnacle of photography"

    In Canada, we call this the 'tall poppy' syndrome*.

    (*naturally, we stole it from Australia)

  2. It occurs to me that some of 'photolands' most prominent denizens are slow learners.

    E.g., "I've spent ten years researching offshore banks, multi-national corporations, intelligence agencies […]" (name withheld to protect the innocent)

    - photoshopping low-quality images (which said photoshopping did not improve) that you then collate into a book isn't "research," whether the 'book' is some half-assed 'zine,' or a bespoke tome.

    This is not an ethics problem per se, more a problem of grandiosity.

    1. Lewis has done some interesting things, and some less interesting things. War Primer 3, God. He seems to think research involves *some* reading, analysis, and synthesis. Not as much as actual researchers do, but not none either.

      He's in a milieu in which some people literally consider "taking some photos" to be "research" so in a way he's ahead of the game.

    2. That book's (WP3) got some pretty egregious typography issues, not to mention it's on the backs of two previous publications of the same name.

      Artisanal liberties?

    3. "...*some* reading, analysis, and synthesis.." is actually and literally NOT research. That is called a "review article". (well, um, in science, it is.) A review article is a super-worthy endeavour undertaken (as a mark of honour and acknowledged expertise) by someone notable in the field (that's important) to pull together a decade's worth of advances and make sense of it all, but it is by definition not original research. A review article is a [significant] step along the road between individual experiments in a lab or in the field and the textbooks we read in school or at college. [stone seal]

    4. Well, in the humanities there's a bit of ambiguity, isn't there? Since the source material is literally all words, even the hardest research boils down, in the end, to reading some words.

      Sometimes it's so and so's letter in the archive at the Obscure Library which you the cross-reference with newspapers at the Less Obscure Library and the poems or whatever, and there's a lot of synthesis?

      The photography "researchers" often seem to think they're sociologists (pretty sure they tell the sociologists that they're photographers) so their research is.. observing? So that's photographing?

      It doesn't actually make a lot of sense. I have no idea what "research" would be as a photographer. Or even a thinker-about-photography. Everyone, including me, basically just seems to say shit that's popped into their heads based on other shit other people wrote down after it popped into their heads.

      Sometimes an original thought creeps in?

    5. Slagging off those who managed to achieve some success as *photographers* is a more pleasant diversion than contemplating the paper-thin intellectual flimflammery their own careers are based on. Ethics, eh?

    6. yeah, it occurred to me as soon as I finished typing that the humanities have to be kinda different. But everywhere... it's discovery versus review/re-hash. The descriptive natural history of a geographical area never before described is certainly discovery even if its not classic hypothesis-testing... and the library thing, yeah, lots of discoveries are made in libraries for sure. But because it's all kinda words, seems like it's alot easier to type one's way past an actual discovery and past a worthy review to full-on self-absorbed handwaving and then camouflage one's discovery-less handwaving with an annoying "y'all just don't grasp the intricacy of my words and the beauty of my discovery". And that's hard to bear. [stone seal]

    7. Photography writing has traditionally been a branch of "cultural criticism" which is itself just blathering about how you think culture/society works. You do it by reading a bunch of it, and then either just filing the serial numbers of and rehashing it in your own essays, or by having an original idea or two of your own to toss in there.

      Nobody does anything resembling discovery, except by searching in their own minds.

      Gramsci started it off by writing a huge bunch of shit about "how cultures work" while actually in prison, which rather hampers any efforts at discovery. So he read things and wrote things and that's it.

      He was influenced by Marx and Freud who mostly did the same thing, but had a tiny bit more contact with the world, and were interested in things other than "how culture works"

      Occasionally, someone does some real work, performing an experiment or something, but I don't think anyone pays any attention to it.

      So now we shit like "photographs re-victimize" and "photographs are literally violence" and people just gobble this stuff up because it's all just words that fall out of people's mouths.

      I do it too! It's fun!

      I like to think I salt in a higher percentage of original thoughts that the average bear, but then, I would right?

  3. Here's a different take:

    "To photograph is to deny and foil all morals, all beliefs, all justifications that would want to contain the vital impetus, the organic thrill brought to its most cruel expression." -- Elie Monferier

  4. The numpties and panjandrums of photoland have got their panties in a twist, again ... I suppose this isn't news, though.

    As you were.

    1. Is this Maaza Mengiste's dopey "analysis" of a news photo, or something else? (Mengiste seems to be perfectly nice, good intentioned, and has responded more or less reasonably to being dragged. She's just got some of the stupid on her from her media studies friends, as near as I can tell.)

    2. Just the Usual Suspects. Mengiste`s an author (no, a real author), not one of these 5W 'luminaries'.

      Yeah her analysis is dopey, though not worth getting bent of shape over.

  5. Rinse, repeat.

    "You know how you have to take classes when you want to get a driver's license? I sometimes wish, the same system existed in photography. You just gotta know certain things and be made to think about ethics and morals. Otherwise: well, look at what just happened." - JC

    Ah yes, the Ariel Sharon dictum: 'Always escalate.' (per Noam Chomsky)

    1. Yeah. Sigh. These guys are all born authoritarians.

    2. "There’s a deep psychopathology associated with #Photoland SM trolling."