The issue of ethics in photography can have a lot of similarities with issues related to ethics in any creative profession and the seemingly endless growth in digital photography, particularly with camera-phones becoming almost ubiquitous these days, has brought these issues very much into the mainstream.
Much of the concern related to the ethics of photography actually relates to the manipulation of images either in terms of digitally altering images or in terms of photographs being used without the permission of the original photographer, most (in)famously by Richard Prince.
There are, however, still a number of ethical issues related to the act of photography itself, which should be acknowledge by all serious photographers, whether professional, amateur or just social.
Over recent years, many concerns have been raised about the rights of photographers, particularly in the light of the purported artist Richard Prince openly appropriating other people’s work from social media, manipulating it slightly and selling the manipulated images as original art, without paying any fees to the photographers who took the original images. What needs to be remembered, however, is that the subject also has rights. Essentially the subject has the right to be treated with respect and presented in an honest way.
For example, if a subject slips on a patch of ice and lands flat out on the pavement, then, provided they are not hurt, it could be appropriate for a photographer to capture the moment as a funny memory. It would not, however, be appropriate for the photographer to use the image in any way which suggested that the subject had wound up flat on their back because they were drunk.
Equally a photographer should take the subject’s safety into account at all times. While incidents resulting from the taking of selfies are unfortunate, at least those are cases of a photographer taking risks with their own safety. When photographing other people, safety should always be a key consideration, even when dealing with adults and especially when dealing with children.
Children do not necessarily understand risk the way adults do and therefore adults will need to do their thinking for them. Amateurs should be particularly wary of trying to recreate innovative shots taken by professionals. Professional photographers, particularly those who specialise in photographing children, tend to use assistants and/or safety equipment, which are subsequently edited out of the final image.
The issue of safety also has a broader meaning, in particular it relates to the fact that some images are best kept private. Basically any images which convey personal information about a subject, such as a portrait taken in their own home, may be best kept off the public internet.
Just as photographers need to have respect for subjects, so they also need to have respect for situations. Travel photographers, for example, may find local funeral customs a fascinating subject, but they need to remember that these occasions, by definition, tend to be at least somber and can often be deeply distressing for those involved. Therefore it is inappropriate and unethical just to start snapping away, regardless of the feelings of the participants. It may be possible to photograph the situation, but only if agreement is given.
Respect for situations applies when photographers are at home too. There are many places which are open to the public, without actually being public property and where people may be sensitive about photography for various reasons. Places of worship for example, may permit photography outside of service times, but expect cameras to be put away when religious activities are in progress. Other locations may have more earthly reasons to be concerned about photography in general and flash photography in particular.
Museums and art galleries, for example, often sell photographic merchandise themselves and may well depend on this source of income. They are therefore highly unlikely to welcome amateurs taking their own photographs. Even without this consideration, camera flashes are distracting to people and can damage light-sensitive materials, such as old documents and therefore the use of flash may be strictly forbidden, even if photography is permitted.
It’s also worth remembering that some people may be sensitive to the sight of photographers using their cameras, or even just having their cameras with them, in what they consider to be restricted areas. For example, if a photographer takes their camera with them to a gym, because they are planning on going out later, it is hardly surprising that some people may ask why the camera is there.
As well as showing respect and sensitivity towards subjects and situations, photographers should also be respectful of and sensitive towards other photographers’ intellectual property. Legally the concept of plagiarism is a challenging one since photographers, like all creative professionals, will almost invariably be influenced by their peers and by those who have gone before them. There is, however, a point at which influence becomes copying, at least from a moral perspective if not legally.
This point may be hard to define, indeed it may never be possible to create a definition in words, hence the challenge of combating plagiarism through the courts, but most people recognise it when they see it. If another photographer has a great idea, then this should be treated as inspiration rather than as a template for setting up more-or-less the same shot.
This is the only ethical approach and it’s also the only approach which allows photographers to get the most out of photography. At the end of the day, photography is about creativity and expression. There are no rights or wrongs and in these days of digital photography, photographers can take shot after shot to learn their craft and only keep the best of them (if they so choose). Serious photographers may also wish to learn about legitimate digital manipulation, which can turn a good shot into an outstanding one and can be done in a completely ethical way.