When we think about ethics in documentary photography, what are the most important issues? What would a comprehensive and inclusive ethical agenda include? How should these topics be addressed?
In this event, Savannah Dodd, the founder of the Photography Ethics Centre, is in conversation with David Campbell. This conversation starts to set out the landscape of ethics. Rather than give answers, it will focus on the critical ethos necessary for an ethical discussion. This conversation will be the first of a discussion series to be held throughout the next year that will delve deeper into the agenda as it takes shape.
David Campbell: So Savannah, it’s great to have you with us, and you’re the founder and director of the Photography Ethics Center, you can tell us a little bit more about how that came about shortly. But you, as I understand you have a background in anthropology, you’ve worked in the NGO sector as well, and you maintain your photographic practice, and on top of all that, you’re also studying towards a PhD, as well. So that makes you extremely busy. How did you come to focus on ethics as the domain that you are most concerned about? And how did the Photography Ethics Center come about?
Savannah Dodd: Yeah, so I’m really through my work in anthropology, I guess. So when I graduated from my master’s in anthropology, I got a job, a six month contract working for an NGO in Thailand. And so I moved to Thailand, took this job, and after about three months, I realized that there were a lot of ethical concerns that I had, and I quit. And actually, quitting that job, really put me on the path that I am now, because I sort of had three months left in Thailand and had to figure out how to use it. So I decided to really pursue volunteering at photography galleries and photography festivals around Southeast Asia. And so really, through doing that, and sort of being fresh out of that sort of academic framing of anthropology, I was having a lot of conversations with people that ethics. And I think that my background, or the studies that have done anthropology really prepared me with a very specific set of skills to think quite critically about how we engage with others, or how we plan for IMPACT Act, what consent looks like, all these things were really integral to the education that I had. And I realized when I was having these conversations at all these events, at the time, this is 2016, people aren’t really having those conversations. And and it wasn’t very comfortable a lot of times, so I realized that that’s really an area where maybe my sort of academic background and anthropology and my passion and interest in photography could really come together to offer something.
David: Was there a particular incident in Thailand that led to you getting or was it something general about the the approach of the work there?
Savannah: Oh, it was a lot of things. It was the a lot of the approach was quite colonialist, and quite, yeah, it was just not. And sort of, I felt that when I was raising concerns, also to do with consent, you know, and collecting data on people, you know, there, there wasn’t a consent process for that. And, you know, I flagged that and it sort of fell on deaf ears. So actually, it’s quite funny. It’s really the same thing that I’m flagging now in photography,
David: Which does suggest that these issues run across more than photography, they run into other forms of inquiry or other forms of investigation, and so on. Do you think that there’s something distinctive about photography in relationship to ethics, even though these things do run across other issues? Is there something particular about the question of ethics in photography?
Savannah: That’s a great question, I think, absolutely. There’s something really specific to photography. And I think it really comes down to what a photograph is, and how we understand photographs. You know, the fundamental difference between right a photograph or a drawing or painting is that relationship that it has to reality that is indexicality. And I think that when we read photographs, of course, we know that it could be manipulated or, or all these other things, but, um, because of sort of the legacy of photography, the history of how it came about the era that photography came about, and you know, sort of rose alongside this idea of positivism. I think all these things have come together to really cement a trust when we see photographs. And I think that psychologically when we see photographs where we’re interpreting it as that was there, and I think that that level of truthfulness or that level of trust requires great ethical care.
David: So there are these sorts of cultural conventions, cultural understandings around a photograph that’s widely held held beyond professionals.
Savannah: Absolutely. I think it comes down to the technology of analog photography, right? Where it’s it’s not just a representation of something like a drawing, but it’s actually that physical chemical relationship between that that’s in the world, and that that shows up on the photosensitive surface. And I think that yeah, that there is that legacy of evidentiary value.
David: Yeah. One of the things that we will no doubt touch on, but we’ll certainly have to get to is, you know, what’s the change from analog to digital? And then what’s the, you know, how, and how much does that transform critical questions like the questions of ethics, and so on. But I think we will probably come across that before too long. So just to say to everyone in the audience, we want to make this as interactive as possible. So if you do have questions, drop them in the Q&A box, as we go along. And we designed this specifically to be a conversation and we entitled this event towards an agenda, because our purpose here is not to set an agenda. As such. It’s to kind of scope the landscape of ethical issues in photographic practice, in practices of representation, and so on, and think about the things that we need, perhaps to think more about, which we will hopefully then follow up in subsequent events next year. So I think, and this, of course, depends on how one approaches ethics and so on. So I think so then you want to give us a brief introduction to kind of the way in which in the Photography Ethics Center, you you start thinking about the question of ethics, and then we can take a more detailed conversation from there.
Savannah: Okay, great. Yeah, I’ll just share my screen here. Can you see that alright?
David: That’s good.
Savannah: Good. Okay. Yeah, I thought it might be useful to start sort of with the the way that we frame ethics at The Photography Ethics Center. And maybe just before it before I go into that, I’ll just tell you just a little bit about The Photography Ethics Center, and what it is that we do. So I founded The Photography Ethics Center in 2017. And I’ve brought together a really fantastic group of people who sort of advise on the strategic direction of the center, and you can read all about them on our website, but broadly, what we do is we offer educational opportunities about the ethics of taking and sharing photographs. We have things like the photo ethics podcast, we run events, we have online courses, we do quite a lot of writing, and guest speaking and guest lecturing, all really on that that topic. And it seems like maybe, you know, we’d run out of topics, with ethics, right to do all those things but actually, we cast the net of ethics very wide because we really feel that ethics is central to every step of the photography process. Ethics helps us decide what we photograph, how we photograph it, how we edit a photograph, where we publish a photograph and how we caption it. Really, there are ethical decisions that we make everywhere along along the way, and we’re making those those decisions every time we take and share a photograph, whether or not we’re aware of it. And I think a lot of times, we aren’t aware that, you know, maybe the the thing that we’re doing is an ethical decision that requires that kind of extra level of, of reflexivity. So that’s really what a lot of my work is about. It’s about sort of bringing those those moments into people’s sort of consciousness. So then what are ethics? You know, we’ve talked a lot about talking about ethics, but but ethics actually what they are, the definition that we use is that ethics are the principles that guide a person’s behavior. And the reason why I really like this definition is because it focuses on the idea of principles instead of guidelines. Oops, sorry too quick there. The idea of principles, I think, is really important to think about how we frame conversations about ethics, because I think that we can all agree that there are maybe certain ethical principles that are important, like dignity or accuracy or safety. And so we can all agree, yes, those are principles, and yes, those are important to guide our practice. But I think that also we each have a responsibility to think for ourselves that well, how do I how do I apply this principle in the context that I’m working in, in the type of work that I’m doing for the client that I’m working for all these other considerations, I think shape how how we apply those those principles in practice. And I think that actually approaching ethics with the principles basis can can often offer actually a more ethical approach than rigid guidelines, because prescriptive guidelines are static, so they can’t respond to changing environment. And there’s actually really rarely, you know, a one size fits all answer to most ethical dilemmas.
David: I think it’s worth focusing a little bit on that distinction that you’re making between principles and guidelines, I think it’s a really important distinction. Because, I mean, if you think, you know, in the Christian tradition, the 10 commandments or 10, ethical statements, but they’re very strong, thou shalt do this, and thou shall not do that. And that’s, I take it, kind of what you mean by guidelines, prescriptive things that have already come to a conclusion about what is right and wrong, whereas here with principles you’re talking about something different.
Savannah: Absolutely. Yeah. I think I think that’s a great a great way of putting it, I think, you know, it’s more about acknowledging that, yeah, safety is important, everybody’s safety in a situation is important. But the steps that I’m going to take to ensure my safety or to ensure somebody else’s safety will vary, right, depending on the situation that we’re in, and I think it’s very hard. You know, of course, there’s some clear rights and wrongs, but it’s very, I mean, the vast majority of ethical decisions are in some shades of gray. And I think we need to be able to work through that in a constructive way. And I think that this idea of principles, if we adopt this this language around principles, we can say, right, well, how did you apply this principle in this context, and we can have sort of a shared language that we can use to, to unpack those things. I think that the photographer on the ground is going to be the best place person to make those ethical judgments. And I think that, you know, if we’re adopting, like principles basis, we’re sort of empowering photographers to take control over over those ethical decisions. I think that that also makes an assumption or requires that photographers are ethically literate, and in order to actually feel those dilemmas and feel those those issues as they arise, and so that’s, you know, things to do with just developing those skills of critical thinking and situational awareness, and cultural sensitivity. But it’s also about in developing a practice that embeds ethics from start to finish. And yeah, I guess the other thing I wanted, I think is as useful to say on that is that, you know, if we are to use a principles basis to frame these conversations. So if we are agreeing that, you know, certain principles are important. That’s great, but it’s rarely as easy as just adhering to all these principles equally at all times, and I think that that’s something that sometimes gets missed, you know, that, yes, dignity and safety and accuracy, we’re going to adhere to all those all the time? Well, there’ll be oftentimes where these principles are coming into conflict, where you’re going to be in a situation and you maybe can’t uphold accuracy and dignity at the same time, and you have to privilege one or over the other. And I think that a lot of times when we when we think about these ethical decisions that people are making. I think that if we, if we use this language we can say, right, well, you know, which, which principles did you privilege and and why, you know, would you do the same thing, and it takes out that binary of somebody was ethical or not ethical. Instead, it becomes more of a conversation about how we made decisions. Does that makes sense?
David: Yes, it sounds like that it’s also making a quite complex. I mean, life is generally quite complex. But this in particular is quite complex, because the approach that you’re taking is for good reason, avoiding kind of a very simple set of principles, a very, very, very simple set of guidelines written down as points one through 10, or six or whatever. Instead, you’re saying, pay attention to these things, reflect on these things, pursue a discussion on these things in relationship to the situation you’re in. Which would mean that there are probably no particular answers that can be given prior to the situation is that..?
Savannah: I think that to expect people to do all that on the hoof is a very, very tall order. And, you know, I think that that there’s a lot of considerations that goes into this and a lot of layers. So I do think that, you know, practicing sort of this type of ethical reasoning, looking at examples, reflecting on it doing a lot of sort of, yes. checking in with yourself about how would I answer that situation so that when you’re actually in the moment, you’re better prepared for it. So I think that, you know, I think there’s so many layers to to the decision making process. And of course, in the moment, you’ve got a split second to make a lot of decisions. And but if you if you’ve practiced that, if you’ve embedded that, in your practice, if you have cultivated an understanding of these things, I think it makes it a lot easier. Does that answer your question?
David: Yes. I mean, there are many approaches to ethics. If one went back to moral philosophy, there would be all sorts of the there are up to centuries of discussions on what constitutes ethics and proper ways to live and what’s right and wrong, and so on. And that sounds like your approach is much more what they would call situationist ethics that it is linked to that situation. And I think one of the proponents of situational ethics, you know, has a good quote, where it says that moral judgments are decisions, not conclusions. And that seems to me to tap into when you’re talking about things not being binary and not being fixed. That is the process of making the decision, being literate, to make the decision, reflect on certain things to make the decision. You’re not coming to a situation with an already predefined conclusion but you are coming with some principles. And generally, I think, in the work that your center does, you talk about three principles. You talk about empathy, you talk about autonomy, and you talk about in integrity, as principles. Let’s go through those. And maybe you can explain why those ones and then kind of what what those they mean. So why is empathy, kind of one of the starting principles that that you’ve adopted?
Savannah: Well, I guess I’ll just say before we get into those, that those aren’t the only principles we talk about but they are sort of the three principles that we have in our sort of the first training online course that we put out. Those are the ones we focused on in that. And we did make, of course, conscious decisions to pick those for the first one. But I wouldn’t necessarily in general, practice narrow it down to those, those three. But we did choose to focus on those three as sort of a starting point, because I think that they’re really transferable across all all genres of photography, I think that they’re relatable for professionals as much as they are for amateur photographers. I think empathy is really important or really fundamental, because it’s that it’s that reflexivity about how we’re engaging with others. And I think that, you know, especially when we’re engaging in a process of representation, we need to be very considered about how we’re working with others in that process, and how we would feel if we were on the receiving end of that process. Does that make sense?
David: Yes, yeah, absolutely. And we were discussing beforehand, actually, that being white Europeans, we’re actually not often on the end of the process of photographs being made. And in one of your online courses, there are these video examples of what it’s like to be photographed by someone who doesn’t does not ask for consent. In these particular, in particular situations, it’s quite confronting, when you haven’t experienced that, but empathy is about putting precisely putting yourself in that in that position at all.
Savannah: Yeah, and I think, you know, I definitely think that the idea, you know, the golden rule, right? Do unto others as you would want others to do to you, is a great starting point. But of course, I think, you know, it’s not enough when it comes to practicing empathy. It’s, I don’t think it’s enough to just say, Oh, well, I’d be okay with that. So sure, they will, too, because, you know, we’re all coming from different walks of life. And part of that is really having those conversations as well. You know, can you really empathize with someone if you don’t understand who they are? And so I think empathy also provokes oops, sorry, folks, that sort of human interaction level as well.
David; Yeah. Let’s talk a little bit about autonomy and what you mean by autonomy kind of as a principle because it it’s related to consent. We have a question from Rhea on consent that I’ll bring in very shortly about that, but say something about why autonomy as a principle and how you think about it, and and then the relationship to consent.
Savannah: Yeah. I think autonomy, you know, autonomy as a human right, right? People have the right to make decisions about themselves. And I think part of that is, you know, when we apply it to photography is really thinking about people have have the right to decide whether they want to be photographed, or whether they don’t want to be photographed. And as a photographer, I think we have we have a responsibility to respect the, you know, the right to their decision making about that. And, and so yeah, I think it’s very connected to consent. And I think it’s very connected to not only consent to have a photograph taken, but shared, right? Those are, those are two different things that we’re agreeing to because, of course, it’s one thing to say, sure, take my photograph, it’s another thing to say. Sure. Put my photograph on a billboard. Those are, one consent is not sufficient to cover all of that. And I think, yeah, I think autonomy is that maybe potentially helpful framing for thinking about the importance of consent and why it matters, why do we need to ask for consent?
David: Yeah. So let’s bring in Rhea’s question about consent. She says, what if I followed all ethical practices to shoot a sensitive topic got consent from my collaborators, the people being photographed the subjects, NGOs, social workers, but still the images are being questioned by outsiders? And she said, subsequently, that by outsiders, she meant the spectators, the audience of photography, the people that have consumed the image. And the pressure gets to a point that it’s affected all parties already in start, they start to question whether what she did was ethical or not. It gave the collaborator the second thoughts, and then I’m the one in trouble at the end, but I’d like to reiterate that we all agreed in the first place. I mean, that gets I think, right to your point about polarization in a debate and so on. But how would you respond to that, if you, you go through a series of ethical discussions and decisions, and you collaborate with people being photographed and the people wanting the photograph, but then people outside that process are coming in and asking some, some very difficult questions.
Savannah: Yeah, no, I think that that’s a really, I think that’s a really good question. And I think it does speak to a lot of the a lot of things we’ve talked about, I also think there are a few a few stages in it. And that question, which we can maybe unpack a little bit, the first absolutely, you know, when you when you go through the process, and you have sort of, you go through the the ethical considerations that you that you need to, right? And you go through those conversations with with participants. I think, I think at the stage when, you know, if you’re receiving questions about, you know, how you came to those things, how you navigated those things, I think it’s really helpful to be transparent. And I think part of that is just articulating the process, you know, and articulating, you know, why you made certain decisions, and different people might make different decisions. But if you know why you made those decisions, and you can explain how you got there. And you know, that you considered X, Y, and Zed, and you ended up at a certain, you know, option one or option two, I think that’s really helpful to share, not just to defend yourself, but to help others learn as well to help others understand, you know, well, how did you do this, and your practice might help other people inform their own practice. And then I guess, when it comes to, you know, if participants who then wanting to withdraw are questioning their participation, I think that’s one of the tricky things about consent, right? Is that, you know, it can be withdrawn, and, you know, how we how we do that is sometimes very complicated. And photographs have already been released. It’s already publicly available. You know, it can be quite complicated, but I think that it is important to allow people that option as well, if they wish to withdraw from something, I think, you know, we can maybe think through before it ever happens, what that process of withdrawal would look like so we’re not like taken off guard when it does happen.
David: Let’s, let’s probe a little more the the kind of various types of consent because I think as we’re construct looking at the landscape of ethics and thinking about what would be on the agenda, consent is going to be one of the biggest topics here. And you were talking there about withdrawal after the photograph was made. What are the times or, what are the mentions of consent in the making of a photograph, would you say? And what do people have to think about in terms of getting consent?
Savannah: I think it really depends on, first of all, what you know, where your photographs are going, who’s going to be publishing them, where they’re going to be seen, and that has, you know, will really impact you know, whether you need written consent or things like that, but sort of written consent and consent forms aside, because I think a lot of times the conversation sort of stops that consent forms. And it seems really, to lack dynamic conversation about what consent actually is, then because it isn’t a form, that’s evidence of consent. Consent itself is really a conversation, I think about where photographs are going, and why they’re being taken. I think consent is really only consent, if it’s informed about those things, you it’s very difficult to consent to something if you don’t know what you’re consenting to, right? And that said, I think there are also a lot of situations, especially in sort of flash news, when photojournalist will find themselves in a situation where they can’t explain exactly where photographs are going. And I think it can be helpful to maybe think, or have some sort of framing about how we identify consent in our own practice, so that we can better understand, did I have consent for that? And if you did have consent for it, you can maybe identify, okay, was it prior consent, ensuing consent or subsequent consent. So prior would be consent, that’s agreed, before you start photographing, right? Ensuing would be it’s agreed while you’re photographing, and subsequent is, you know, you take the photograph, and you get consent afterwards. So I think that you can think about when did consent happen, and that can help to identify consent in your practice, I think you’d also think about active and passive, right? And some people will actively give you a thumbs up, you know, if you’re not, if you’re not in a position to stop and have a conversation, for flash news, for example. And it passive, maybe they just ignore you, you know, non-consent, right? Might be putting a hand up or or things like that. So I think that maybe if we if we start to be able to identify what consent looks like how it happens, that that can that can be quite useful.
David: So various dimensions to getting consent during the process of making and taking the photograph as a word. And actually referring back to an earlier event we had with Nicole Sobecki and Jill Filipovic, who are photographing survivors of sexual violence in refugee camps. They developed a process between them, where they had to have three conversations with the people that they wanted to photograph, before they felt comfortable photographing them, and I think that gets entirely to your point about a consent form is not the issue here. It’s not signing, you actually have to sit down, talk to people and engage them in this way but that, of course, depends on the type of project you’re doing. And having the time to do that. And being as it were, more documentary and slower. It’s going to differ in a news and fast paced situation. How should people think about consent, if it’s a fast paced situation in a public space?
Savannah: Yeah, that’s really, that’s really tricky. But I think one of the really good things that we can do is to look at body language. And, you know, I think, if we can be quite attuned to how people are acting toward us, both when we’re taking photographs, but also when we’re reviewing them, you know, you might not realize that in the heat of the moment, if you’re photographing a, you know, riot, you know, you might not be have the presence of mind to say, oh, right, that person sort of turned their shoulder to me, I don’t think that they want to be photographed. But maybe when you’re looking back over it before you publish, publish it, you might say, Oh, that person looks a little uncomfortable. So maybe I won’t choose that frame. So I do think that there are ways of sort of having that kind of level of sensitivity. Of course, it looks very different than if you’re doing a longer term documentary project, where you have the time and I think time is one of the big themes that comes out whenever we’re talking about ethics is the importance of time, you know?
David: Yeah. Sabrina was asking a question kind of related to this point, saying that she was agreeing, of course, as a documentary photographer with the perspectives about autonomy, but as a news photographer, she was thinking about a situation a protest, a riot, police action, or so on when there’s very limited time to ask people if they want to be photographed. She visibly carries her press card, etc. So she asks, would you agree that there are different ethics for news and documentary photography?
Savannah: Yes, different ethics in terms of sort of a fast paced situation?
Savannah: Yes, I mean, I think I don’t know if I would so much it’s different ethics as maybe a different consent process. I think the ethics, sort of, you know, again, the principles are the same. It’s just how they’re applied differs, right? You know, it’s the principles of sort of respect or privacy or, you know, things like that, I think they’re, they’re still there, but what that looks like in practice, by virtue of it being a fast paced situation, by virtue of it being, you know, a large crowd and not a, you know, an inability to speak with every person in that frame. I do think Tara Pixley talks about this really well, in relation to the Black Lives Matter demonstrations, talks about how, I don’t want to misquote her, do look it up. But I believe she said something about the importance of if you’re, you know, have a wide shot, of course, you can’t get consent from everybody in demonstration, right? But if you’re focusing in on just a couple of personalities within that, you know, it should be easy enough in a situation like that, to make eye contact, at least, you know, to sort of just have that sort of human level. It’s really just about I think, being human in a lot of ways, you know, having basic interactions with people.
David: Yeah, and I suppose one could argue that if someone is engaged in a public protest, they’re taking action, they know that the police are there. Some individuals have their faces covered, others, don’t, they’re in a public space. Do you feel that, in that circumstance, you know, it’s a public action in a public space, They’re confronting the police, who may or may not have as many ethical considerations as the journalists and photographers there. Isn’t the fact that people are already engaged in that action in a public place itself a form of consent? Or, do you still have to ask questions about consent on top of that?
Savannah: It gets complicated. I think, definitely, you know, if you’re an active participant in a protest, you know, you can surmise that there’s a good possibility it’s going to be covered by the press. However, I don’t think that exonerates us from the impact of our photographs, I think that we still have a responsibility to think about the impact and think about, you know, how photographs could be used and you know, The Authority Collective, wrote a really, really great document about that. And I would really encourage everyone to have a look at that it’s, particularly with reference to the Black Lives Matter demonstrations in America, I can find the link and pop it into the chat. But I think it’s about that sort of awareness, and also, you know, challenging the entitlement that we have to take photographs, you know, just because people are wanting to participate in something, and wanting to show their support doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re entitled to take their photograph. And I think, I think also, you know, I’ve heard it said a lot of times that, you know, well, everybody, you know, all the protesters are going to have cameras, too, and they’ll be taking pictures. True. Absolutely true. You know, what I mean, we’re not, you know, photojournalists are not the only ones in a situation with a camera, and not the only ones taking taking pictures of people’s faces. But I would also argue that that our responsibility is greater because the reach of photojournalists will likely be much, much greater than the reach of, of people who are just taking taking snaps with their smartphone.
David: Yeah. Sabrina’s also just made the good point that it may also be the opposite, that the police don’t want the events recorded and the acts of violence recorded, you know, as has definitely happened, and therefore the photographers themselves become targets as well.
Savannah: Yeah, that’s a great point.
David: Yeah. I wanted to bring in an example thinking about autonomy and consent, one that Gary Knight sent me the other day, so let me find that. So Gary, of course, as people know, is the founder of so co-founder of VII Photo and co-founder of the VII Foundation, which causes behind VII Insider. And he posted on his Instagram, Instagram, this juxtaposition, he had read this New York Times article about Sharbat Gula, who, of course, people know as the Afghan girl from the cover of National Geographic, who had to be evacuated to Rome as the Taliban took over Afghanistan. And he just opposed it with a screenshot of an auction at Christie’s back in 2012-2013, where her photograph was put on sale with an estimate of 30 to $50,000, and ended up selling for nearly $180,000. And the point here is that that he was making in this was that National Geographic Steve McCurry, Magnum, etc, have collectively made millions from the sale of this image as art, not journalism, and that Sharbat Gula has been completely commoditized. Now she needs help precisely because she has been turned into a product. I think this is a very interesting example thinking about autonomy, because in this situation, she’s lost autonomy completely. Let’s assume she consented to the photograph originally, that seems quite likely given its kind of a portrait mode. But of course, it became so famous and circulated so far, that that visibility, some time later, a long time later, led to, you know, her autonomy, in fact, her life being threatened, and then having to evacuate. Now, this is a juxtaposition to make that point, so it’s not a simple black or white argument about that on who should do what or what should happen as a consequence. But how do you how do you think about this, as this as an example of, you know, maybe offering consent at a time at the time the photograph was taken, but then it gets circulated. How does this play into a discussion on consent?
Savannah: I think it’s really interesting sample. I think, you know, for think about withdrawing consent, you know, I mean, you made this point earlier, once something’s in the public consciousness, it’s not like, you can take it back. Yeah. And I think that that really complicates this, this issue, in particular, I think, I think maybe part of it is, has to do with sort of consent in the first place, you know, and and how, to what extent can we plan for impact? You know, to what extent can we predict? you know, where photographs gonna go, how it’s going to be used? I mean, I think it probably would have been quite hard to predict that this photograph would have gone as far as it as it did. But I think if we apply it more generally, I think that, you know, more generally, the principles of, you know, did she know what she was consenting to? Did she did she know where it would go and how it can be used? And, what that what that could look like? I mean, those are, those are all all the questions, and and then, you know, I believe her name was only revealed years later, right? When he went back to find her, you know, did she can, at that point to be identified by name? Did she know, you know, what impact that could have on her at that point? You know, I think I think there are a lot of layers and a lot of maybe conversations that I think I mean, I wasn’t there. I don’t know if they were had or not, but I think there are a lot of conversations that need to be had in a situation like that.
David: Yeah. Yeah. I think the point about where your photograph goes, and the impact it has, it’s such an important one. But it’s such an impossible one, too, because, as you say, in this case, who would know that when their portrait was made that 40 years later, you know, or 20 years later will be sold adoption for a vast sum of money. 40 years later, it would lead to her being evacuated from that country. It’s not the only reason she was evacuated from the country but definitely promoted visibility. We don’t know what’s gonna be viral, in advance of it happening and beyond the initial moment of publication. We don’t know the people making the photographs don’t know, let alone the people in the photographs. How do we deal with that? It’s such an important question to ask but it’s such a on the other level, perhaps such an unknowable thing.
Savannah: Yeah. This is a question that I think I talk about more with generally, when I’m talking with people are you doing photographs for like the international development sector, so maybe you can share how you know, to what extent you think this is useful or practicable for documentary photography, and photojournalism, but something that I really advise people to do in the sort of international development sector is to think about consent as a multi-layered, so people can consent, right to being photographed, they might consent to having their photograph shared, but maybe this person in particular is really okay with their name being shared, but not their last name. And then, you know, we have processes for documenting whether or not consent was taken, we have processes for capturing, you know, the caption and, you know, metadata, I think that surely this could be integrated into just the the processes that we already have for image data storage. You know, if a person doesn’t want their last name shared, or if a person maybe is completely okay with their photograph being used, but only for three years, and then it needs to be retired, or maybe their geographic or online restrictions, that the person just is, you know, for whatever reason, isn’t comfortable with their photograph going online, I think this is quite relevant when thinking about international development sector or so the community voluntary sector, because we don’t know a lot of times what risks a person might face. We don’t we don’t know always, you know, what situation they’re in, and so I think giving people the opportunity to set stipulations or set restrictions, gives them more autonomy, in that process, and more dignity in the process as well.
David: And time limiting is an interesting one there because, you know, if you’re negotiating contracts, for the use of images, it’s often for a year or 18 months, or whatever, you know, for a set period of whatever, but in news photography, and maybe in documentary photography, too, there’s almost an assumption of, you know, until the end of time, unless specified otherwise. And while it is difficult to withdraw things, there is of course, that development in relationship with the internet about the right to forget that people having sometimes for bad reasons, but sometimes for good reasons, trying to remove things from Google and and search engines because five years later, 10 years later, it’s no longer relevant, or it’s damaging them in a way that that is causing real harm. So maybe if technology permitted, in terms of in embedding those points within the metadata, that would be an interesting thing is to put a time limit in or conditions that that would travel with the image wherever opened.
Savannah: Absolutely. I mean, yeah, I think you, you know, going back to the empathy thing, right? Like, if you think about a photograph being taken when you’re at your worst, you know, if you’re seeing that for 10-20 years to come, you know, that’s really traumatizing over and over. And I, you know, I don’t know, at a certain point, you know, is that still newsworthy? Is that still valuable? What value is it adding?
David: Yeah. Yeah, sometimes there are odd cases for that, like there was a recent case of the, of the man who when he was a baby was photographed for the cover of one of Nirvana’s album, his parents gave consent, and then he decided later, he didn’t want to be to be that it was a little bit 40 years later was a bit late, so you know, those issues crop up in all contexts. We’ve got a couple of questions. I’ll combine them, one from MJ Milnak and from Ted about relating this conversation to street photography. And MJ says, for example, Gary Winogrand was an artist where in his words, quote, “Bruce Gilden is just a creep with a camera.” Ted has a maybe a slightly more positive view of Bruce Gilden, you know, shooting on a street with a short lens and a strobe in the face of strangers and so on. Street photography, how does that have ethics relate to street photography? And vice versa? And is there a difference between art and documentary too?
Savannah: Okay, um, I think that maybe, and thinking about street photography is perhaps where the idea of you know, locating consent could be really useful, you know, thinking about did it happen before, did it happen after I know, a lot of times people say, Oh, well, you know, I don’t want to interrupt what’s happening, because then it won’t be candid, and that won’t be, you know, a street photograph or so, you know, you can still get consent afterwards. I think there’s, you know, no ethical law saying that has to happen before the image is actually snapped should happen before it’s shared, but doesn’t have to happen before it snapped, right? But at the same time, I think that when we think about street photography, how are we representing people? Because when you’re just see a person on a street, you don’t know who they are, you don’t know who they are as an individual, or what makes them tick or what their passions are, or what makes them who they are. And so I think you have to ask yourself, what am I actually representing in this? You know, am I representing them as in terms of tropes or stereotypes in terms, you know, or am I representing them as they are? And I think it’d be really interesting, you know, I think a lot of times more interesting photographs are ones that happen after a conversation is taking place. If you know, you know who you’re photographing, if you can work with them. I think actually, the results of that are much more nuanced and an offer a lot more to the viewer, I think the viewer can learn a lot more from photographs, when we are picturing or photographing an individual, not just a figure on the street is aesthetically pleasing. And I think that’s fine, you know, maybe there’s a time and a place for, you know, a figure on a street, but I wonder what that adds to the conversation now that we’re having across the industry. To me, I guess, a difference between documentary and art, absolutely. I think there’s, you know, a massive difference. I think, you know, if we go back to what we were talking about the start about the difference between a drawing and a photograph, you know, the trust that we put in, in photographs, I think that that’s heightened when work is presented as documentary or as photojournalism, you know, if a photograph appears on a gallery wall, I think it, you know, is presented as art, then there are fewer ethical imperatives than if it is a you know, in a newspaper, I think that we have more responsibility toward accuracy.
David: Yeah. Ted has a an additional point. He says it’s still the right to photograph in the public domain is legal, if not ethical, there’s no expectation of privacy in the public, which is why it’s called the public. I would caveat that with that depends on the country, because there are different expectations, say in France to other European countries, for example, but how do you think about that? I mean, in the sense of if things are taking place in in public, they’re legal not necessarily ethical, how do you balance the legal versus the ethical in the consideration to photograph in public spaces?
Savannah: I’m definitely no law expert. I’ll say that, or couch my response with that, but definitely, you know, just because something is legal does not mean it is necessarily ethical. I think there are plenty of things that you know, are legal, but still, you know, I wouldn’t necessarily do just because it’s legal, doesn’t mean, you should do it. And yes, depending on the country that you’re in, street photography, or photographing public spaces is legal in many countries, but again, not all countries. So it’s really important to check in with the jurisdiction that you are working with then but I think, I think, yeah, anytime you’re engaging in a process of representation, especially in the process of representation, representing others, you know, I think that there are ethical conversations to be had. And I think that we collectively need to move past an entitlement that we many of us have thing to think that we can just, you know, that it’s our right to enter a public space and take people’s photograph because people also have the right to say no, and, and I think that’s important that that’s respected.
David: Couple of questions that, I’ll sort of combine a couple of points about from Rachel and from Mike. About the difference, kind of where ethics is located I think is the point. We’re talking a lot about the responsibility or or responsibilities lie with the photographer. But Rachel’s asking, you know, is the sole responsibility with the photographer, or is there’s also responsibility with consent with the industry, newspapers, magazines, websites, etc. desiring certain kinds of images and using certain kinds of images?
Savannah: Yes, absolutely. I think and actually, I think a lot of times, sort of the burden of a lot of these conversations and a lot of the sort of fallout from maybe questionable ethical practice falls into the hands of the photographer, and I don’t think that’s always very fair. I think sometimes, sometimes it is, you know, but I think sometimes it really isn’t, because it is an industry and we are working within an industry within an ecosystem. I don’t, I think it’s very hard to separate the parts from the whole. And I think, you know, there is a system in which, namely, you know, the white male gaze has been preferred, and has been the dominant way of saying that, you know, we’ve seen for decades, and I think, for hundreds of years, really, since the advent of photography. And I think, yes, there’s a responsibility that lies with the people who are commissioning images, to challenge that. And to think more critically about that, I think that it’s no longer acceptable to say that they, you know, a commissioner couldn’t find a local photographer, or couldn’t find a black photographer or a female photographer, I think, you know, there plenty of opportunities to find other voices. And I think it’s imperative that our visual landscape is diversified with the view of gazes other than white men. That sort of went off the track of your question, but feel free to follow that up.
David: That does raise a an important point, which is that, I mean, we have been talking about ethics in the making of images, the representation of people in the use of images, predominantly. And there’s a whole set of ethical questions related to the makeup of the industry or the makeup of the profession. So I think it’s worth calling attention, for example, to the photo of Bill of Rights that was put together and released last year, I’ll drop the link into the chat in a second, which focuses a lot on those issues about how people in the industry itself in the profession itself are treated by others, and by organizations and so on the levels of diversity within the industry and their profession, and so on a huge array of ethical and moral questions there, in addition to the ones that, that I think we’ve been focusing on in terms of making the image and then and then using the image. And that’s important to think about in terms of like scoping the landscape, because it’s even broader than we’ve been talking about. And in that sense,
Savannah: Massive, yeah, it really, it really has, I think, you know, and I’m very, I’m keenly aware that we’re also two white people here talking about ethics but it would absolutely be a missed opportunity to not not talk about representation as definitely being central to the agenda going forward.
David: Yeah, and speaking of questions of bias, because being two white people gives us a particular perspective, being two European white people gives us a particular perspective doesn’t disqualify us, but it gives us a particular perspective. But there was a question earlier from in terms of, how do we professionally address our cultural bias and unconscious bias when we’re working on an assignment as a stranger in a strange land?
Savannah: That’s a great question so props to whoever whoever asked it. That’s an excellent question. I think it’s a requires a lot of introspection, right? And a lot of reflexivity. I think, you know, you’re talking about bias. And I think that’s such an important thing to address, because there is this sort of historical legacy or assumption that we can be objective that there is some objectivity in photography. And I think the sooner we acknowledge that it’s impossible to be objective, the sooner we’re on our path, right? To addressing that. I think in terms of, of maybe acknowledging your bias, I think, looking at just doing a lot of reading, doing a lot of sort of contextual awareness about the place where you’re, where you’re working within talking with people, you know, generally developing an awareness of the context you’re working in, but also asking yourself some really tough questions, you know, reflecting on, yeah, what are my my assumptions? You know, what are my my biases? And and how is that going to come through my photographs? Or how will that influence what I focus on? And how will that influence what I ignore? When I’m, you know, approaching a situation because I think inevitably, if we don’t think about that, we’ll go into a situation, we’ll ignore some key things, and we’ll focus on some things that we are assuming or the story, right? And until we we develop that awareness of our own processes, our own perspective, will continue to overlook those things.
David: And one of the things that I would think about there, which is a kind of a conceptual point to start with building as a lot of practical implications is, we do talk about these issues in terms of bias but sometimes the idea of bias assumes that there’s something that’s not biased, that would be completely free of a perspective, or a location in a situation. And I don’t believe that’s the case so we all have perspectives, we all have worldviews, we all have cultural baggage. And I think that gets to your point about integrity, which is being honest and transparent about those things, understanding where they come from, and sometimes so last week’s talk, we talked to Arturo Soto, Mexican born photographer, reporting on Brexit and politics in the UK, sometimes the external perspective brings a lot of value into a situation and so on. So I don’t see him as Biased or Unbiased versus others. I see different perspectives.
Savannah: Absolutely. I’m so glad you made that point. Yeah, it’s, you can think about it. Yeah, as an inside perspective, or an outside perspective, and you do offer different things. And and I think maybe another layer to add to that, is to think about, first of all, you know, when we’re going into a new situation, thinking about why we’re photographing it, you know, what’s our purpose? What’s our intention? But also, you know, what will the viewer learn that’s new, what are we adding to the story? And I think, if if we realize we’re not adding anything to the story, then that’s, that’s a real moment to check in.
David: So here’s a difficult question for you. They’ve all been challenging, but this one, this one has added challenge to it, it’s a very good question. From anonymous, where’s the general line between the story must be told and spread, a kind of a journalistic justification, and potentially dishonest self promotion a lot, I think other reasons as well, for the example they gave, when the Taliban took over many photographers shared pictures of Afghanistan, it felt also like a photographer’s rite of passage to go and shoot there, and then on the other hand, there are of course, stories that must be heard. So what to do? What are your thoughts on that, on that balance between the justification of story must be told, and but I suppose personal investment in telling the story?
Savannah: I think that’s a really good question as well. And I think it reminds me of, yeah. It reminds me of lots of examples that have come up in previous conversations I’ve had, I think it really goes back to that that self reflection, right? About, well, why why am I here? What am I doing? Am I here to take the award winning photograph? Because if that’s the reasoning, maybe that’s another moment to check in. Right? But also, yeah, what are we what are we adding to the story? But also, am I the right person to be adding this to the story? You know, I think Amanda Mustard talks about this really well, and a podcast episode that I did with her. And she talks a lot about, you know, her thought processes, when she moved to Egypt, and she talks exactly about, you know, this feeling that, you know, a need to go and go and tell a story. But also, she raises the importance of telling stories close to home, you know, there’s so many stories that we don’t have to leave to tell, you know, traveling to Afghanistan to tell those unheard stories, quote, unquote, you know, might not be where you’re best placed, you know, maybe, there are inevitably stories in your backyard, that are equally unheard and equally need told. So I think it’s it’s really multi-layered. I think it can be quite challenging. But I think we’re at a very challenging point, maybe in the industry and in the growth of the industry that, you know, recognizing that all work isn’t ours to do, I think is tough. Is that, like you said, it’s not to say that that an outside perspective is is invalid or not correct. It’s not to say that they’re that you don’t have something to contribute, you know, if, for example, if you’re do a lot of stories about women’s health, you know, and you’re doing stories, you know, in your own community, and then you go somewhere else and do a story in Afghanistan, for example, on women’s health, you know, you’d be really well placed to do that because you have that experience. And you would be bringing a different perspective, but I think that’s quite different then going somewhere because it’s the done thing, if that makes sense.
David: Yeah absolutely, I think, yeah, if you want to tell a global story, you’re going to have to go to multiple locations outside the one from which you reside or came from, and make those those sorts of connections. I mean, as one who’s seen a lot of juries judge prizes over the years, anyone who thinks they can go off and shoot a prize winning photograph in advance has no idea how juries work, because they’re completely unpredictable in a lot of times. But certainly what you do get, unfortunately, are people shooting photographs that they think might have won previously, or stereotypical images thinking that they will be the ones that will get attention. Not always the case, but like the viral image, also extremely hard to predict. We’re coming towards the end of our time, but we still have some more questions to deal with. But I just want to say to people in the audience, if you want questions, drop them in but the other thing you might also want to drop into the chat and so on, is if you think there are issues that we’ve not talked about here, because we are planning on having more of these conversations, that you think that should be on an agenda for ethics, then drop those in as well. I mean, I will also note happily and we won’t go into detail now, but we haven’t really discussed digital manipulation as an ethical issue, which is good, I think, because it needs to be located within this much larger context, that could be a separate topic of itself. So that’s wonderful, I guess. We don’t need to dive into that. But if people in the audience, have others that they think we’ve missed, and which we have undoubtedly missed, drop them in.
Savannah: I mean, there’s so many, so many directions to take it, which is what I think makes it such an exciting, exciting area.
David: Yeah. A question about working for if you work for a big international agency, very quickly, your photos of a news event becomes stock photos, and then can be used in different contexts by different people and so on. Do you think that’s an unethical practice? Do you think it’s one of the ethics around that practice? How do we think that through?
Savannah: I think it really depends on what the image is, and you know, not to repeat myself too much, but I think it’s, context is super important to thinking about this, you know, or making a contextual or situational judgment is really important. If it’s a photograph depicting some sort of, like trauma, I think that it’s always advisable to include as much context around traumatic imagery, to situate it in order to avoid sensationalizing it, or to ensure the dignity of the people pictured as well, you know, I guess what I’m trying to say is that I think it’s incredibly problematic to use imagery of people who are in vulnerable or distressing situations as illustrative props for stories, if it has nothing to do with them. So that’s maybe a very specific example but I think it’s maybe worth raising, because I do think that there’s a lot more that that we could say that we could talk about when it comes to think about photographs of trauma. But in that case, in particular, I would say, it’s really important to contextualize those kinds of images and to repurpose them in other contexts with would be quite concerning in a lot of cases.
David: Yeah. I mean, this is, this gets back to the earlier points about these ethical considerations, not just issues for photographers, they are issues for the agencies that distribute the publishers, the websites, and so on, Sabrina points out, you know, a lot of these elements, either in or not in standard contracts, for many agencies, and so on. So that’s an element that’s beyond the control of the photographer too.
Savannah: Yeah, and, you know, I think maybe it goes back to that idea of multi-layered consent as well, that, you know, I see what Sabrina said here, you know, it’s for every kind of image, well, you know, maybe maybe it’s not appropriate for every kind of image, you know, maybe that’s a process that needs to change, and that needs a rethink.
David: But difficult for an individual photographer to change.
Savannah: Oh absolutely, possible. Yeah, no, absolutely. I mean, I think I and that’s, again, where I would say, you know, repeat something I said earlier about, you know, yes, photographers have responsibilities in this but they’re there are massive things that need to happen on a on a wider industry level, for sure.
David: Yeah, yeah. Question from Mike. Speaking about consent, I remember the Eugene Smith photos of Tomoko Uemura, in his Minamata story, the family asked media and galleries to stop the distribution after it became famous, even after she passed away. How do you think media should address this? Considering the current nature of digital media, it’s almost impossible to stop viral photographs should that should the platform’s should galleries or whatever, consider this if such a request is made.
Savannah: So who asked, sorry, who asked for it to be stopped?
David: It was one of the, it was the family of one of the people photographed in Eugene Smith’s Minamata story.
Savannah: Okay. Yeah, I mean, again, it’s sort of that idea of withdrawing consent, isn’t it? I think, I think there’s often no easy way to withdraw images once they’ve gone out, you know, however, I do also think that maybe there’s a way that when that happens, we can use it as an opportunity. I’m sort of a big believer in using, you know, ethical dilemmas or ethical breaches are things like that as opportunities to educate ourselves, but other people too, you know, and I wonder if there’s an opportunity in that to frame a withdrawal or with a removal of an image as an opportunity to educate the wider public, the audience about about consent and about, you know, changing consent and changing opinions. I think it doesn’t have to be a negative to a store, I guess, is what I’m trying to say. I think, I think we can use things as positives, I do this sometimes in my workshops, if I don’t have consent to share an image, I’ll put up a black square. And I’ll say, I’m not I’m not showing you this photograph, because I don’t have consent to use it but I’m going to describe it to you. And so instead I describe the image to to the workshop participants. And I think that rather than detracting from the workshop, I think it just adds another layer to the learning and to the process.
David: Yeah, yeah. So I think we’ll have our final question. I saved this one one to last, because I think it’s a good one to finish on. From Jessica, how would you recommend addressing a problematic image in a way that is constructive? And I think this is getting to how to have an ethical debate about ethics, on a problematic image.
Savannah: That is a really good question. Yeah, I saw that pop up in the chat as well. I think it’s really important to frame problematic images within current debates. So it depends, I guess, where this image is appearing. But you know, if we’re thinking about it appearing within an archive, or in a news story, I think it’s really important to yeah to contextualize that image. So that the viewer isn’t just engaging with the photograph, but that they have to engage with the things around the photograph, right? If it for example, it’s problematic image for whatever reason, you know, and yeah, problematic image is hosted online, if you were comes to it, you know, and just encounters the image, that could be a big problem. But if we contextualize it within current discourse on photography, ethics, within historical legacy of why that photograph was taken, the context that was taken, I think, again, we can turn that into a learning opportunity. And I think we can also use it as an opportunity to unpack how we make ethical decisions, and think about, you know, at the time this photograph was taken, you know, the focus was on accuracy and reporting. And now we know that, you know, dignity is equally important. And now we are, you know, this is maybe how it would be done now. I think, long story short, I think it can be really used as an opportunity to have exactly the kinds of types of conversations we need to be having. And I think it’s a really great opportunity for that.
David: Yeah, I would agree. And I think that, for me, the number one thing is, you can have a productive conversation if people approached the conversation with questions rather than conclusions. And then we can get to the complexity of the context without difficulty and explore those things. And part of that also is understanding, as you said, understanding the purpose of images which were taken at particular times, and then they might be requested in different ways in different times and so on. But above all else, to me being constructive involves approaching things with a set of questions that might be extremely difficult and critical questions, but questions rather than conclusions to get the conversation going.
Savannah: Absolutely. I think I think I think it’s too It’s a two part thing, right? It’s how the conversation is brought up how the questions are posed, and also how the questions are received. And I think, part of ethics and part of this idea of principles is that, you know, the way that I would have taken photographs 10 years ago is different from how I do it now, and that’s okay. You know, I think that’s a great thing. It means I’ve grown as a person I’ve learned, you know, I’ve changed my practice in response to things. And I think it’s really important. I think we all do things differently now. And I think maybe being vulnerable and acknowledging, you know, acknowledging that process is an important component to that conversation as well.
David: Which I think is a perfect place to end for this session, because we’ve had fantastic questions from people in the audience, we really appreciate that. It’s been good to bring them in. As we said, you know, this is about trying to scope the landscape, scope the agenda for ethics, and there’s a lot more to say. So if you are interested in more discussions, you have on the event page, you have our two email addresses, you can send us some emails and some things that we missed that we should discuss next time and so on, but we hope to do some more next year. But Savannah, thank you very much for your time today. It’s been really good to have a really good conversation about this.
Savannah: Thanks so much for having me. And thank you to all the participants for your excellent questions and engagement.
David: Yeah, great. Thanks very much. See you later, Savannah: