Power & Responsibility

There are two areas of ethical responsibility relating to photographic images.

The first area relates to the photographer and the making of the image.

The fact that there are ethical issues surrounding the making and use of photographs is recognised by professional bodies representing photographers, at least in relation to photojournalism.

The following is an extract from the National Press Photographer’s Association’s Code of Ethics:

“Photographic and video images can reveal great truths, expose wrongdoing and neglect, inspire hope and understanding and connect people around the globe through the language of visual understanding. Photographs can also cause great harm if they are callously intrusive or are manipulated.”

National Press Photographer’s Association’s Code of Ethics

The NPPA’s Code of Ethics then goes on to provide guidelines which, as an example, suggest that photographer should put themselves in the place of their subject when photographing people and, if they themselves would feel uncomfortable being photographed, to look for an alternative image.

Clearly the photographer has extensive control over the photographic process. They control what images they take, when, where and how. Of course, such things may, in part, be subject to contractual obligations: clients commissioning work may insist on some creative input. However, at the end of the day, it is the photographer who presses the shutter release.

The second area, an area where the photographer has much less control, is in the end use of the image.

The control that a photographer can exert over an image’s use is limited to the rights for image usage that are agreed upon at the time of sale.

Once an image is sold, how that image is used is largely beyond the control of the image maker. This is especially true when images are sold to stock libraries and photographic agencies. Perhaps such organisations should be more diligent in terms of determining the appropriateness of an image’s end use?

Individuals or organisations are able to buy more or less any image and use it for any purpose, the only criteria being that have sufficient funds to facilitate the image purchase.

This raises an interesting point. When an image is used for purposes which are perceived as being unethical or controversial, to what extent is that unethical or controversial use still associated with the photographer as the author of the work?

Taking Jeff Mitchell’s migrant image as a point in case, this image was, arguably, used unethically by UKIP in order to further a specific political agenda. Clearly Mitchell had no control over this particular use of the image but, in the eyes of the public, Mitchell’s name is definitively associated as being the image’s author. To what extent, then, is he held responsible by the viewing audience for the end use of the image, if at all?


The National Press Photographers Association, NPPA Code of Ethics, https://nppa.org/code_of_ethics

(16 October 2016)

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