Wednesday, September 29, 2021

A Question of Ethics

This piece is being written with an eye to a slightly larger audience, so I beg my regular readers' indulgence as I bang on about a few points that you're probably exhausted with. Also, less swearing than usual, and again, I beg your forgiveness.

This photo is being passed around on twitter, with the accompanying caption, and has sparked the usual re-iteration of everyone's opinions.

I intend to produce nothing like a definitive answer, although my opinions may creep in from time to time, but rather to provide some food for thought. Let's think about this photo.

First thought, the photographer, if the caption is to be believed, was being sneaky. Being sneaky is never a great idea, whether you're photographing someone, or cheating at dice. On the other hand, this doesn't really reflect on whether the photo ought to exist, where some uses of it might be ok, and others less ok, and so on. Nevertheless, the photographer is a sneak.

What about the photo, though? How does a photo work anyways?

A photograph is a talisman which conjures its subject. We react to the photograph, in an attenuated way, as if we were there with the subject. This is in contrast to a drawing, a painting, a verbal description, none of which evoke this visceral response. It's not magic, of course, the subject does not feel our eldritch gaze or anything like that. But, when we look at this photo we are as-if present in the subway, with the mother and children.

(Set aside abstract photos and photorealistic paintings, if you don't mind)

The mom has consented, implicitly, to be seen. She has not consented to be conjured in this way.

As photographic subjects, we know at some level this power of the photo, and (sometimes) we object. We may gesture in a way to specifically indicate I do not consent to the making of this talisman, with its power to conjure me. No. Not everyone reacts this way, not everyone reacts this way all the time. Nevertheless, social convention is that we ought to be permitted to withhold this consent. The law varies, and often does not agree, but social convention is commonly in that direction.

Note that the "harm" the photo does is not of the order of violence. The functioning of the photograph is more on the order of a rudeness, something like a stranger butting in on a private sidewalk conversation. When we look at the photo, the mother does not feel our gaze, it affects her not at all. Nevertheless, if she knew of the photo, she would know that the talisman exists, she would know that, in this one-way, attenuated, fashion the presence of she and her children can be conjured at will.

I did it just now, pasting the photo in up there. I am as guilty as any of us. I conjured her presence, for myself, for you, without her consent, and in defiance of social convention. I am being rude, right now.

Let's think about rudeness.

Sometimes it's OK to be rude. You can shove a total stranger, if you're shoving them out of the way of a speeding automobile. You can butt in to a private conversation to let someone know the train is boarding.

With a photo, every time you look at the picture it's a new pseudo-presence, a new pseudo-interaction. Most of the time we're just butting in.

What if the mother and children were leaving the country, never to return? Their relatives might appreciate this photo, this notional usage might be more akin to "your train is boarding!" than "MY OPINION IS!"

It is also a very beautiful photo. Bordering on extraordinary. Perhaps as a parent I am biased. I am happy to have seen it, my life has been in a trivial but real way improved. The world is in a trivial but real way improved by the addition of this little beautiful object.

Do these things cancel on another out? If there is enough benefit accrued, does this cancel out the lack of consent?

I don't think so. I mean, we can't help but add things up and weigh them, can we? But the fact that the train is boarding and that this is useful information does not make the rudeness go away. It is rude to butt in. The information was helpful. We can weigh one against the other if we like, but both remain perfectly true and unchanged when we do that.

The photographer is a sneak. Neither mother nor children consented to the making of a talisman to conjure. Neither mother nor children are particularly harmed by the talisman they did not consent to. Some uses of the photo might be excellent things, others terrible, most are more or less neutral. All these things are true, they overlap and interconnect, but I do not see how anything cancels anything else. They simply are.


  1. Boy that IS a beautiful photo. In his even sneakier trips on the NYC subways did Walker Evans ever manage to capture a Renaissance masterpiece? As soon as I write that I realize he almost certainly did. They're all around us.

  2. That picture is from a Guardian story. Here's the link: I have the link because I shared the story on Facebook a couple of days ago.

    The question about the ethics of this particular picture raises the whole question of street photography in our time. I think it used to be that people were less aware of people like Henri Cartier-Bresson taking pictures of them in public settings. And a lot of his famous photos are just as intrusive as this one is. But now we live in an age where just about everyone is a photographer, albeit using their phones as cameras. But what this means is that people are more sensitized to photographys and what they mean and imply, and thus perhaps more reluctant to be photographed. And more reluctant to have their children photographed by strangers.

    Your question also reminds me of Diane Arbus' memorable quote that "taking pictures is like stealing cookies from the cookie jar", an admission that there is something not morally neutral about the photographic process.

    1. The photo is not available in the Guardian gallery anymore: "This gallery was amended on 4 October 2021 as a matter of editorial discretion."

      You can go to the competition web site to find it:

  3. It's a brilliant shot.

    Stupid dorks need to get a life.

  4. It is very good, but I can see why some might find it troubling. Sort of "Migrant Mother" meets "Ecstasy of St. Teresa".

    That one on her back is asking for trouble, though. A classic case of "What happened *next*?"


  5. I wonder what the mother featured in this photograph thinks about the picture? I think that most of the mothers that I know would be grateful to have a recording of such a rich moment with their children.

    It's fashionable to talk about the person who has had their picture taken as if their experience is of primary importance, as if something has been stolen from them that they weren't already freely giving just by being in a public place. But the person with the camera is a rabid barbarian who brutally transgresses social boundaries to steal private moments from strangers.

    The photographer is also living their life, out in the world, observing the events around them and being observed by others. Everyone surely have an unassailable right to their observations of the world. And isn't a simple recording of an observation one of the more powerful things that a photograph can be?

    Or is this all the individuals version of corporate “brand management”?

    You can’t record or remember this moment because it’s off brand for me!

  6. Very broadly speaking, I don't have a problem of the taking of the photograph but beyond that things get very complicated very quickly. If it is never looked at, even by the photographer? If I enjoy it personally but don't share it? If I print it and display it in my home where others can see? Varying shades of gray in each of these and the gray gets much darker if I decide the share the image or the file. I very rarely take photos of people beyond friends and family for exactly these reasons. When I do, I ask and offer to share a copy of the file with the subject. With that, I have a clear conscience but these are not spontaneous candid images. It's an entirely diffecnt ballgame.

  7. JC's back for another round of spittle-flecked photography bashing, the tedious old scold.

    "Float down the river with rats in your hair. Everything's lovely, the sky is still there."

    1. Jörg has, as far as I can determine, no theory of photography at all. He's flying entirely by the seat of his pants.

      As such, he uses the same rhetorical strategy as everyone around him, which is: well, I think X, and I am a good person, therefore all good people think X, therefore society as a whole has collectively decided "X." QED.

      Which is wrong in several different ways. But these are the people he hangs around with, and it's pretty hard to *not* absorb the world view of your peers. So, you know, I get it? I just think it's wrong.

    2. Pimping moral panic ain't a good look.