Tuesday, March 9, 2021

Toward a Framework for Photography Ethics

I have been thinking about the ethics of photography for... a while now. More recently, I've been digging in to what we might think of as kind of the state of the art of "photoethics." I have opinions.

What are the ethical considerations around punching a man in the face?

To judge such an action, whether in the heat of the moment, or in front of a jury, there is a sort of calculus. The reasons leading up to the punch, the likely immediate effects of the punch, the expected outcomes, and the actual outcomes: these are all options to be considered, weighed, and added up.

Are you a bigot and his skin or accent offends you? Did you start the fight? Are you protecting an innocent? Are you meting out justice? Are you preventing your best friend from pursing a fatal course?

Before you can really get started you need to know what a punch to the face does. It hurts. It shocks. It might injure, it might disfigure. It might even kill. It is different in very specific ways from giving the man a daisy, it has a very specific functioning. It does specific things, there is a world of possibility beyond those. It surely hurts. It might kill.

The calculus of ethics examines the situation leading up to the punch, and the results (both hoped for and actual) that follow. The punch connects these two things.

There's an underlying problem with all the contemporary discussion of the ethics of photography in that it's not based on a theory of how photographs work, on what they do. You cannot really theorize an ethics without a theory of function. Without knowing how a thing works, or what it actually does, you're a bit at sea when it comes to working out what's right or wrong. The result is that, since everyone is just sort of feeling their way through how it works, they wind up feeling their way through ethical discussions.

You can't judge a punch to the face if you don't know that a punch hurts.

And so in photography there's a lot of scenario-based material, there's a lot of "well, it's complicated, innit?" and so on.

This is not to suggest that the people doing the talking don't know how photos work. They do, but in an intuitive way, and they tend to focus on the kinds of photos and the situations that they're interested in. They have no conscious theory of photos, and so tend not to notice when they're a bit tunnel-visioned. At best, they end up simply thinking through a series of specific, sometimes too-specific, scenarios.

At the end of the day some scenarios are gonna turn up. You're going to wind up working through examples and trying to apply them. I'm not proposing that a purely theoretical ivory tower is the way forward, or even tremendously useful. But maybe some kind of foundation might be useful, as a basis for the examples.

When we examine scenarios for whether or not it was ok for so-and-so to punch what's-his-name in the face, we always have in the back of our minds that a punch hurts, that it shocks, and that it might kill.

Therefore, let me begin by re-iterating my theory of how a photograph functions: When we look at a photo, we are in a sense transported to the scene of the photo. We react, viscerally, somatically, a little as if we were actually there. As a consequence of this transport, we imagine a world to contain the picture. You and I might imagine different worlds, because we are different people, but we will tend to imagine a world tightly fitted to whatever we've noticed in the picture. We will tend not to imagine the photo as showing an inflection point, but rather as a typical depiction of a fairly static world. We will not imagine an inappropriate clown outside the frame. We will not imagine that the girl's expression changed a moment later, and so on.

To take a photo is to create a talisman with specific properties, as outlined. This is "a punch hurts, and it might kill" except for photographs. This talismanic power of evocation can, but does not necessarily, create a kind of duty of care. If you punch a villain, who cares? If you punch a friend, you care. Unlike a punch the power of the photo lands on both the subject and interested parties, and viewers. You may, or may not, have a duty to care for your subject. You may, or may not, have a duty to care for your viewers.

You might photograph a villain to look like a monster, but never a friend. You might strive to make a photo that reads truthfully, if you are a journalist, but the opposite if you're making Art.

Having been steeping a bit in contemporary thinking around photo ethics I am going to propose first a division that formalizes much of the thinking and talking around this.

There's the bit that comes before you take the photo, the situation in which the photo will be taken.

And then there is the bit after, where the photo appears somewhere in some context, in which a use occurs.

I am going to treat the photograph as a floating un-contextualized abstraction, as an essentially neutral object which connects the situation to the use. It connects the situation to the results in the same way the punch does. The punch is not the point, the point is that it hurts, that it can maim, that it might kill. The photograph is neutral, it is a talisman which, in use, exhibits certain powers.

A great deal of concern about the situation is just regular ethics. At the end of the day, when we're somewhere and we're taking a picture, the main thing is that we're in a place and we're living our life. If you're abusing your models, pimping a 12 year old, or pitching puppies into a wood chipper, the camera is irrelevant. You're a scumbag, and should change you ways, and this has nothing to do with photography.

At the same time, much of the genuinely photographic issues that arise (are you posing your subject, re-arranging the furniture?) are of ethical note only in some uses but not others, so those ethical concerns can be deferred to the use discussion.

Finally, there are purely photographic issues on which regular ethics are more or less silent, but which are not tied to the usage of the eventual photos.

The situation end of the discussion therefore reduces to cases in which regular ethics do not dominate — you're behaving, I guess, more or less normally — but for which the use is irrelevant. The pure nature of the photograph, as a talisman with certain powers, and our cultural understanding of that is what matters here.

Is it, or is it not, ok to create such a talisman here and now, regardless of the ways the talisman might be used?

This is the nub of consent. Does the model consent to have you make a photo, knowing that the use could be anything? Does the stone consent? Does the stone's owner, worshipper, or friend, consent? Is it OK to make a thing which evokes this "being there" response, and which could evoke that in anyone at any time in the future? Is it OK to invite others to the sort of half-presence this talisman evokes?

This is why people don't like to be photographed. We know what a photo of us does. It is a talisman which evokes us. It conjures us, whether we like it or not.

Try as I might, I can find nothing but consent as an ethical issue that is truly present in the situation side of photography. But perhaps you are smarter than I am!

This brings us to the use side which is where the wheels really fall off.

The trouble with use is that anything is possible. You, as the photographer, might intend the photo for your blog, or a magazine cover, but there is not a lot you can to to prevent its use in some deep fake pornography. Whatever duty of care you have for the subject side, or the viewer side, can be well-thwarted here.

This is the "a punch might kill" end of things. All things are possible, but most things are unlikely. We cannot go through life assuming that every punch will certainly kill, or that every photograph will certainly end up in an odious deep fake. We can appreciate these risks, and we can work to mitigate them, certainly. We should.

We should advocate, fight, argue for limiting the uses of photographs to those agreed upon before the shutter fired. At the same time we should be conscious of the worst case scenarios.

If you punch a man in the face, and against all odds he dies, that is blood on your hands. If you punch your best friend in the face to prevent him driving drunk, and he dies, that is going to create a problem for you. You failed in your duty to your friend. But perhaps you made the right choice anyway. You made the best guess possible in the heat of the moment, you gambled with the odds on your side, the dice nevertheless rolled the wrong way.

Anyways, with this sketch and discussion, let us lay out concisely the framework I am proposing:

The situation is the context in which the photograph is taken, and the ethical considerations here are: 1) (informed) consent, 2) consideration of possible future use of the photo, and 3) just regular old don't-be-an-asshole ethics.

The use is what comes after, the ways people will see and read the photographs, which we hope has been considered thoughtfully in the situation under the aegis of item 2, but which now occur in perhaps unexpected ways. Here we're considering the impacts, both real, emotional, imaginative, on interested parties (subjects and viewers) caused by the ways the photograph is read in the uses which occur.

Overlaying and informing all, the photograph as a talisman that evokes a presence; that the photo is read as a kind of imaginative version of reality in possibly many different ways which depend on the use, on the context in which the photograph pops up; and the duties that accrue therefore to the photo.

Just to tie it all together, here's a shitty diagram.

I dunno. I think it's a start, maybe.

1 comment:

  1. Let's talk about the ethics of misdirection.

    This isn't 'whataboutism,' it's WTF-ism.

    As in: why are some academic under-achievers with the self-appointed moniker "photoland," like it's their fiefdom to police, mounting sustained, mouth-frothing campaigns of mass hysteria, over stuff some rando photographer did, 20, 30, even 100-years ago?

    This in an era of multiple, existential, no, literal existential threats to every fucking person on this motherfucking planet?

    I mean, W.T. Actual F.?