Featured Post

Pinned Post, A Policy Note:

I have made a decision to keep this blog virus free from this point forward, at least until the smoke clears. This is not a judgement about ...

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Consent and Ethics, Again, Yay!

In appropriate circles, the pseudo-academics are murpling away again about "consent, so critical, don'tyouknow" because Steve McCurry's famed photo of the Afghan Girl (Sharbat Gula) is somehow or other back in the press, blah blah blah whatever. They're all mainly signalling to one another that they know the True Story and that they hate McCurry (who is pretty hateable.)

As usual, though, there's nothing useful being actually said about consent. It's just the usual chin-wagging and muttering, congratulations all around aren't we a clever lot?

McCurry grew up in a tradition of photography into which was built the unstated proposition that the photograph is completely separate from the subject. There is no relation between them. The photo merely records appearance and that is the end of it.

Contemporary academic thinking is, as those of us who pay attention know, a mere hairsbreadth from "the picture literally steals the person's soul." There's a certain amount of dancing around, because it turns out that when I take pictures I am not stealing anyone's soul, it's when you take pictures that this extremely violent act occurs. Explanations are so obvious as to be left to the reader, naturally.

As a corollary, you should pay your subjects handsomely, but I am mysteriously under no such obligation.

Neither McCurry's nor the contemporary pseudo-academic's positions reflect current mainstream social reality. Current social reality includes a vague discomfort with being photographed, with photographs of the self, and so on. The 1970s concept conflicts with this one, and it cannot stand. These are all social constructs, social reality is the relevant reality. At the same time, almost nobody believes in soul-stealing in photos, and current social reality also encompasses a lot of comfort with being photographed, and with photographs of the self. The difference between comfort and not-comfort is one of nuance and degree, it is personal, it is social. It's not simple.

The 1970s/McCurry idea, though, is at least built on a model of how photographs work. While the details are not all worked out, one essential mechanic is pretty clear: the photograph does not touch the subject, it is completely distinct and separate from the subject.

This is, to be honest, a pretty sound position. It is quite difficult to argue into existence some kind of relationship, some kind of persistent connection, between the photo and the subject. I have given it a shot on a couple of occasions. Here for instance, and here. The best that I have been able to do is to construct a fairly attenuated, essentially social, connection.

The McCurry idea is wrong, and we feel that it is wrong. Indeed, it is because we feel it to be wrong that it is wrong. Social reality is reality, for these purposes. Putting that feeling onto a workable basis, from which we might develop some ideas, has proven to be a bit of effort. I like to think I've made some headway on it, though.

Contemporary thinking completely lacks any model of any kind. It appears to be built on pure emotion, combined with a fairly obvious, deeply venal, desire to simply condemn any photographers the speaker deems too successful and to attempt to create space for the speaker to be paid more to take photographs.

It's very depressing, and more people should read my essays.


  1. Well I'm glad we finally got to the crux of the matter there at the end.

  2. A lot of brows have been knitted, a lot of keyboards thrashed, and some 'Like' buttons mashed ... to utterly no discernible effect.

    Is this, in fact, a productive use of our precious human resources? Discuss.

  3. Newsflash: Photoland discovered a whole new world, outside Photoland !!!.

    You know, regular folks who wait tables and drive vans, but aren't enrolled in an MFA programme. Yet.

    1. OMG Are they ok? Should we send vegan smoothies?