The Ethics of Portraying Others
The ethics of development photography is something I have researched and written a lot about. Read some of my work on it here or here. I want to retouch on it quickly because I have not summarized it very well before and its incredibly important to me.
When I take a picture of someone, whether they are from a far-away cultural minority or from across the street, I am invading their space and they are giving me a small piece of themselves. This is a tremendously sensitive and intimate thing to do and its why I love photography. I like coming away with pretty images, sure, but the connections I make with people are the ultimate reward.
Through my work I try to portray others in an empowering way. I seek to represent those who would not be otherwise represented. I want to give a voice to those who would otherwise have no voice. The greatest challenge in this task is to fairly, fully, and accurately tell the story of the subject. Its not always easy and I am sure that I do not always succeed... However, I do always take it seriously.
The ethics of this kind of work can be complicated and gray. This kind of photography is often done very unethically: See my post: Before They Pass Away. At the other end of the spectrum watch this TED talk where Phil Borges photographs endangered cultures and then provides the children of these cultures with digital storytelling courses.
I really believe that Westerners can use their cameras to help other people but we must not assume that snapping away will do good regardless. More often the good must be done well after the images are captured, through real activism, organization, promotion, and communication.
I encourage you to consider the the ethical guides outlined below and comment or email me if you have any others.
Joey L., before taking a photo, asks himself what the image will say about the photographer and about the subject. Learn more about his ethics and process on this NPR interview.
Nomadic Matt the travel blog writes interestingly about travel photography ethics - there the author Lola Akinmade argues that 1. Locals are not scenery. 2. Make an effort to communicate. 3. Observe their daily lives. 4. Smile. 5. Show Respect. -- True words if I do say so!
There are some great books out there on this subject as well. I would recommend checking out this one right away.
The development blog, WhyDev.org, also has some interesting thoughts on the subject. The author, Christie Long, generally argues against the objectification of people and for photographers making connections with their subjects. I think she's right on!
If you read my paper on Cross Cultural Photograph Ethics you might remember this paragraph about the purpose of such photography:
Another point of importance to consider when documenting across cultures with photography is that of purpose. Every photographer who finds themselves with the responsibility of telling someone else’s story or documenting a culture to which they do not belong should consider the ethics of their pictures and should consider serving as a platform for expression. Photographers who serve as a platform for expression to their subjects do not inject themselves into the story but instead provide the tools (beautiful pictures and a mass audience) for the subject to tell their own story. In this way the photographer acts as a megaphone or soapbox allowing important stories to be told. Just as a megaphone enhances the voice in a story, a photographer acting as a platform for expression, can enhance their subject’s ability to be heard.