Ethics & Photography Seminar

Semester 2 Week 5 : Ethics

Today’s seminar was to discuss Ethics in Photography and how it impacts all of photography including the photographer, subjects, publishers and wider world.

Alice discussed topics Considering  Ethics, Review examples and reflect on our own work that we make.

We were split into groups of two and tasked with discussing what we thought about the following questions:

What are Ethics?

Moral code, legal rules, treating people fairly, opinion based, being a good human being and citizen of the world.

Are Ethics the same for everyone?

No, experience and upbringing creates sets of ethics for  different people, groups, religions, cultures, companies.

How do ethics relate to photography?

Who can you take you pictures of? Should you take pictures of an event?

In my opinion it’s sometimes important to go outside of what’s deemed ethical in order to capture something important. In terms of photographing public events such as police brutality, it might appear at first to be wholly unethical to video or photograph the arrest of a suspect but the importance of some footage cannot be underestimated.

What are your responsibilities as a photographer?

Treating people fairly. Being accurate, not misrepresenting people or events.

Setting expectations as to where the photos might be used.

Alice shared with us a good range of quotes that she’d collected from the website and recommended that we take a look to see if there are any other quotes or discussions that affect our practice.

Monograph Task

We had another task given to us in the form of a book, or more accurately a Monograph. We were split into three teams and one group given Sally Mann’s Immediate Family, another Diane Arbus’ Aperture Monograph and our threesome of myself, Gin and Ieva were handed Martin Parr’s The Last Resort. We were also given some question prompts to talk about and respond to in the feedback.

Image from Martin Parr’s The Last Resort (1983-1985)

What are your reactions to the work?

My reaction to the book was fairly nostalgic as it brought to mind memories of my own childhood in the seaside towns of Rhyl, Barmouth and Blackpool.
It was interesting to see the capturing of the scene as a complete image rather than a carefully curated and staged image. I was a bit taken aback by some of the in-your-face flash photos of naked children which I certainly would not be comfortable committing to film or memory in this day and age.

What questions are raised by the work?

Are there issues taking photos of naked children and partially clothed adults? Is it ethical to capture these on film? It could be argued that if the parents were concerned by others seeing their children naked, that they should be covered or not allowed to be seen by others. The opposite argument is that there should be no reason to be concerned about your child running free with no clothing as it’s completely natural and normal. I agree that in today’s society with social media and the issues with people engaging in practices of making indecent images of children, that this could be a huge problem. Like the images in Sally Mann’s book Immediate Family that we discussed as a group, is it perfectly fine to keep images of your own children for the family album as long as you don’t share them inappropriately?

Capturing working class holiday makers in the untidy surroundings of the New Brighton seafront could be seen as a mocking of them, especially considering the middle class background of the photographer.

What was being achieved by the book?

I feel that Parr was documenting, without any prejudice or judgment, the British working class at their most relaxed in their normal environment. It is a more true to life document than the family photos taken by the people in Parr’s images. Their family photos would dodge around the earth moving vehicles and litter strewn pavements hiding the facts of the actual location, where Parr has captured everything in context.
Personally. I don’t feel it’s mocking at all and as we discussed in the seminar, people in the New Brighton area also did not think it’s tone was mocking.

Image from Martin Parr’s The Last Resort (1983-1985)

What was ethically challenging about the contents?

The ethical challenges are that it seems no consent pr permission was garnered before or after the photos were made. It seems “rude” to flash a camera in someone’s face and then publish it in a book. The money and adulation Parr would make from the publishing of this tome could be seen to be distasteful. Playing devil’s advocate for a moment there are opportunities for everyone in the images to have done the same as Parr did and use it to establish a career in Photography if they had wanted. Many of the people in the photos might, today, be grateful of appearing in a recognised publication or having a memory documented even if it looks to the people of today like a “Trashy Seaside Resort” as Parr has put it previously.

How are the subjects presented?

To me, the subjects have been presented faithfully and without any judgment on them. It’s simply a depiction of the British public, albeit the working class, at play experiencing some leisure time. It documents accurately the general state of the resort at that time in history and in the year or two after they were made, the images would have been considered mere snapshots rather than the historical document it has become today.

Who has the power in the relationship ?

Parr has most of the power in the process, he didn’t seem to ask for permission or consent and I doubt there were any model release forms completed. It was before this sort of guidance had been worked out so everything and everybody was fair game. The power dynamic is apparently greater due to the gulf in the photographer’s Middle Class upbringing and the subjects of this book being Working Class. It appears aloof and condescending even if it’s not construed as being mocking of the people within.

Parr took this image behind the subjects backs. Image from Martin Parr’s The Last Resort (1983-1985)

Parr has been quoted as saying  on the Magnum Photography website “I realised pretty early on that controversy didn’t do you any harm.” It’s a statement that reaffirms that there is no such thing as bad publicity, and authors and artists have used this controversial element to their advantage, whether it was Salman Rushdie with his book The Satanic Verses or  Penguin publishing redacted versions of Roald Dahl’s stories.

Other Groups

The other two groups discussed their monographs that they had been given to study and we all got involved in the conversation about what is ethical or not.

Sally Mann’s work Immediate Family documents her three children in their younger years and was especially controversial owing to the nature of the images in the publication. Some spectators thought it incredibly inappropriate to use her children in this manner and some accused her of furthering child pornography. She had spoken to her children about the work at the time but as they were minors it is questionable that they could be considered as having the agency to agree to the request. In fact now the children are grown, there is a mix of those who don’t mind the images and others who object to themselves appearing this way at such a young age.

The conversation ultimately ended with us discussing whether it should have been published. It might be acceptable to have these photos in a family album but to share them with the world like this may have been a step too far. I also made the point that in many paintings or sculptures there are children who are depicted naked so this form of art is not a new phenomenon.

The other group was looking at Diane Arbus‘ Aperture Monograph from 1972, the year after she’d died. There were some apparently shocking and confrontational images within and talk of “Freaks” being photographed. She was documenting people on the fringes of society, with Down’s Syndrome subjects, appearing alongside people suffering from dwarfism and gigantism .

A Jewish Giant at home with his parents in the Bronx, N.Y., Diane Arbus 1975

Playing devil’s advocate again I wondered aloud whether Arbus photographing these people forced into the margins of society may have actually furthered their cause. If people are marginalised and hidden from the wider populous then they can be forgotten about, making them visible as Arbus did might have ultimately helped the wider public to understand more about the people in the photos.


This ethical discussion was enlightening and brought to mind many arguments that I’d not considered primarily during the course of my own photography practices. I do take candid images of subjects in a particular location, not because I’m trying to belittle them or mock them but usually because they’re a contradiction to the scene or their movement is important to document the scene accurately. Some of my favourite images have contained people but have been unidentifiable.

The ethical nature of photography has occurred in some of my work as I am regularly confronted as to why I am taking a photograph. Security guards, police officers, bouncers, and members of the general public have taken me to task for capturing images that they see as being an issue. The law is generally on the side of the photographer until harassment becomes an issue and as long as I am respectful and polite, the issues normally disappear with a mutual understanding.

My publishing of images containing people may not be a large catalogue but there are a couple where people are identifiable and if I were asked to remove the identifiable characteristics I generally would do. I’ve never made any money out of photography so that is not a primary driver for me at the moment, it’s more about creating interesting images that catch people’s eyes.

With my age and experience I’d say I was pragmatic about it ethics and I try my best to be a nice person who respects others wishes.

We were also tasked with completing an Ethics Window, which will appear in the next post with an explanation as to what it consists of.

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