Thursday, March 4, 2021

Photography is Inherently Ethical

The title of this may not come as a surprise to many people, but nevertheless it's a position that needs, I think, some defense. It's not that loads of photographers are wrestling with this, but there are serious people who actually write books and get quoted in the mainstream press who disagree.

So, let's see if I can mount a defense of sorts.

My thesis here isn't that photography is always ethical, that every photograph is a shining light of purity, or that every photographer a saint. Certainly not. It's more like cooking. Feeding people is a basically ethical activity. You can make it unethical (Sweeny Todd) but you kind of have to work at it. If you go about it in the ordinary way, it's pretty much definitely going to be an ethical act. You can assume as a base position that it's ethical.

There is a surprisingly well-received theory, or set of theories, that photography is not. Photography is seen by the self-styled experts as suspect by default. The photographer's gaze is probably re-victimizing someone, or re-capitulating colonialism, or something.

So why is photography inherently ethical? Let's break it down in a way that seems good for what I am about here: photography is in the first place seeing, and in the second remembering. This isn't quite the whole of it, but I think it's a sound enough breakdown to be getting on with.

To defend remembering is easy. Every society has people whose job is literally to remember. Remembering is an unalloyed good, with almost no exceptions. To remember someone is to grant them a kind of extended life. To remember good as good, and evil as evil, is to teach future generations. To remember evil is to open the door to justice. On and on.

An old photo of damn near anything evokes, it remembers for us. There is something in us that responds. This is, in part, why every goddamned archive of shitty negatives of whatever is, invariably, revelatory of a hitherto unknown talent. It's never an unknown talent, it's always the power of memory, working its magic on us. And that's good. I mean, the business of "Vivian Maier, Photographer" is still a grift, but the general working of her photographs is basically good.

There is one exception. We forget, as a part of a process of forgiveness. We agree, as an act of mercy, to forget a wrong done to us. By calling this out as special, though, we prove the rule: we acknowledge that the usual course is to remember. Further, this "forgetting" is pro forma not literal. Often we state the sentiment as "we will not speak of it again." To thrust something into the oubliette is exceptional, even fictional. Remembering is the default, and we see it almost without exception as a good thing.

To remember is ethical, almost or perhaps entirely without conditions.

To see, though, that's a little stickier, a little harder to defend.

To photograph is to see twice. Once when you take the picture, and again when you look at it. The second seeing is attenuated, and different from, the first one, by virtue of the distance from the subject. But let's worry about the distinctions between the two seeings later, and think about simply seeing at least for a moment.

There are things we ought not to see. Peeping from outside through not-quite-drawn curtains is broadly frowned up. Privacy is widely seen as a not-unreasonable expectation.

To use the camera to subvert the normal uses of curtains would be unethical. To use the camera to subvert an unusual use of curtains to, perhaps, conceal a crime might not be so unethical.

Ariella Azoulay remarks that cultures have hierarchies of visibility. These things are not to be see. These other things are only to be seen by priests, or men, or women, or the Gods. These others are only seen on holidays. This is seen only by a man's wife.

This is, obviously, true. It is tempting to propose that subverting these hierarchies is an unalloyed evil, that it is inherently unethical. This is, almost as obviously, not quite so true.

In the first place the hierarchy might need some good old fashioned disrupting. As the curtain might hide a crime, so many a cultural veil has concealed many a crime against humanity. Do we respect the hierarchy of the visible when it conceals practices we find odious? We do not. There is a whole separate question of colonialism here, about how far, and exactly why, we ought to extend the ideas around cultural relativism.

Still, we can argue at least that to photograph a cultural practice is as ethical as it is to condemn it. Only by taking an absolutist position on cultural relativism can we take the absolutist position that visual hierarchies should be respected. These are the same thing.

The rightness of condemning slavery, or sati, is identical to the rightness of disrupting the visual hierarchies that defend these and other practices.

So, we'll all land in different places here. Very few people will support sati, but there are other rituals and privacies. Even the well-meaning might differ on them here and there. You'll land in hot water with yourself if you allow the desire for the visual to override your own belief about what ought to be private. You'll land in hot water with others if your desire for the visual overrides their beliefs about what ought to be private, but perhaps you ought not to worry so much about that.

Seeing, though, is not quite the whole of it. To see is to imply presence.

If you are present, and pitching puppies into a wood-chipper to get a great visual, perhaps you should evaluate your life choices. If you are present, and not preventing someone else from pitching puppies into a wood-chipper, ditto. If you are powerless to prevent it, though, then perhaps the ethics flip and you now have an obligation to see, and to remember. To witness. This is basic photojournalism stuff.

To be blunt, the old standards of photojournalism look fairly sound to me. If presence is nullified because you cannot, for whatever reason, intervene, and if allow yourself to see, then all that remains photographically is the unalloyed good of remembering, of witnessing. So, do that. With, maybe, one minor wrinkle:

These is also the secondary seeing of looking at the photograph, and of the pseudo-presence that implies.

It is, philosophically, right about here that the modern thinkers discover a trove of problematize-able material. This is where "gaze" lives.

So let us first note that the secondary seeing, and the pseudo-presence, are attenuated. They are not, no matter how much you might try, equivalent to the primary seeing and the primary presence of the photographer. They are also profoundly modulated by the viewer.

To point to any ethical issue that is rooted in the secondary seeing, but not also present in the primary seeing, is essentially to implicate the viewer.

If my taking of the photo was OK, but you see something not-OK, that's on you.

At this point, in the secondary seeing, we have what my father would call a mare's nest. It's a mess, and there really is no disentangling it in the abstract. You can unpack these things more or less indefinitely, and you will uncover cases, more or less indefinitely, in which photography takes on a distinct lack of the ethical.

The point, though, is that we're kind of down in the weeds here. Yes, there's plenty of opportunity to drop the ball, to behave badly as a photographer, but for the most part, most of the time, if you comport yourself in the ordinary way, you'll find yourself on pretty firm ground.

Photography is, basically, ethical. Remembering is an unalloyed good, and seeing, well seeing is usually just fine. It's OK to see.


  1. I have a question. You encapsulated the idea this way, "Photography is seen by the self-styled experts as suspect by default. The photographer's gaze is probably re-victimizing someone, or re-capitulating colonialism, or something. "

    I am not at all familiar with the literature on this subject, other than what I have read here (and not always read very carefully). Is that idea used as a tool to analyze photographs to see if anything useful comes out of that analysis that we wouldn't have seen any other way? Or is it used more like a belief system that requires adherence before one can proceed further?

    1. Ariella Azoulay is probably the most prominent published person here, she gets cited a lot by this crowd. There are some books, "The Civil Contract of Photography" and "Potential History: Unlearning Imperialism" which you could, in theory, read. I have not.

      There is this:

      which is pretty accessible and which I assume more or less offers a precis of sorts of her thinking in, at least, "Unlearning Imperialism"

      It's certainly possible I have her completely wrong, but my take is that she has a political project, namely to support a Free Palestine, and is using a critique of photography mainly to signal her political alliance.

      This is kind of the larger program I see in the Photographic Academy, though. It's all politics, and photography is simply a handy foil.

  2. I like being down in the weeds, dropping the ball, but still ending up on solid ground. Photography in a nutshell.

    1. You'd think so, but what about the inherently ethical part?

    2. There's nothing ethical about golf. Speaking as a former caddy.

  3. "How can we, as a society, justify a gossip industry that is engaged in what we can think of as societal bullying? How can we [...] justify thinking [...] that once you make movies [...] or once you record music [...], then you deserve to be the object of ridicule?" -- JG, 2013. Also 2021 (via Twitter).