Ethical Photography: Where Do We Go From Here?

August 23, 2017 ·

Andrew Molitor

We’re seeing a lot of commentaries triggered by the Souvid Datta episode, where he is accused of both photographing unethically, and of passing off collaged and plagiarized material as his own. This has led to a great deal of hand-wringing and upset, with many people making observations about the state of the photojournalism industry, about the awards-driven nature of certain areas of documentary photography, and so on. What nobody seems to be doing is proposing solutions.

This piece will end up with a strawman proposal aimed at making the situation better. First, however, let us clear away some underbrush.

 

Arthur Rothstein's staged photo of a cow skull, 1936.
Cow Skull, Alkali Flat.

This is a staged photo from 1936, Arthur Rothstein, presented originally as un-staged. This was used to illustrate the dire conditions of a drought in the Dakotas. Not only was the cow skull moved for the shot but the photo was shot before the drought really got going, and is, in fact, a pretty typical looking alkali flat. It was decried, in 1936, as a fake, for (roughly) political reasons. Errol Morris’s book, Seeing is Believing, has a lot more detail. You can also find the same material, more or less, in Morris’s blog posts for the New York Time, starting here.

Walker Evans photo of a sharecropper's mantel. Alleged, probably incorrectly, by James Curtis to have been staged.
The Gudger’s Mantel, from Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

A photograph from Walker Evans, also 1936, suspected of being staged (by the addition of the alarm clock) by James Curtis in his book Mind’s Eye, Mind’s Truth, with his reasoning repeated by Errol Morris in his book as well as in the blog posts cited previously. Interestingly, Curtis and Morris are both wrong, the clock does belong to the family, and the book (Let Us Now Praise Famous Men) which they claim has no reference to the clock does, in fact, refer to the clock, just not where they were looking. The case was closed by the recently published Cotton Tenants which explicitly mention the alarm clock in a footnote. While Evans could still have re-arranged things, the “smoking gun” of an alarm clock the family did not own is, in fact, no such thing.

Robert Capa's famous Falling Soldier photograph, probably staged.
Falling Soldier

This, of course, is Capa’s “Falling Soldier” yet again from 1936, also apparently staged (or possibly not even shot by Capa). This is another example of the little cottage industry that exists in discrediting the formerly great. Nobody claims that the picture doesn’t accurately depict what it looks like when a guy gets shot. Nobody is claiming Capa didn’t know pretty intimately what that looked like. A few eggheads made a little hay out of the fact that he staged it, and it makes it a bit of a disappointment as a lucky (unlucky?) shot.

Detail of the hands of a victim of Minamata Disease, W. Eugene Smith. Not staged, but possibly "worked" quite heavily in the darkroom.
Minamata Disease Victim, Hands

Finally, we have a photo from Gene Smith’s Minamata project, shot in the early 1970s, illustrating the effects of Minamata Disease, a form of severe mercury poisoning. This photo may or may not be “photoshopped”. I am using it here, really, as a stand-in for another, more famous, a photo which is more obviously heavily “worked” but which I decline to show here for reasons that will become clear. Nobody seems to complain about Gene Smith’s heavy working of photos. All the photos from Minamata seem to accurately depict the effects of Minamata Disease, and many of them are probably very heavily “worked” because that’s how Gene Smith rolled.

We have two quite separate issues at play here.

The first is staging and photoshopping, faking the contents of the frame one way or another. This, in turn, devolves into two more issues. Does the staging or photoshopping reveal the truth, or conceal it? Capa’s photo, while staged, nonetheless shows us what that thing would look like. Rothstein’s photo, on the other hand, merely shows us what an alkali flat looks like, not a state-wide drought. Evans photo probably isn’t faked at all, but Curtis successfully made some hay out of the theory that it was, and Smith seems to have dodged the bullet entirely, possibly because of his manipulations (while extensive) is hard to describe, to quantify.

Steve McCurry got into trouble recently for photoshopping, and while some people were simply mad that he ‘shopped stuff, the real problem is that he was making his pictures untrue. His changes altered the mood, the content, of the pictures, to support the basically invented Steve McCurry vision of India and other places.

Steve McCurry's rickshaw photo, before the cheerful rider was removed in post.
Unaltered Rickshaw Photo

McCurry removes the grinning guy, turning this from a snap of a rickshaw to a moody, gloomy, McCurry Documents The Mysteries of India pictures.

Gene Smith, perhaps, dodges this bullet because he didn’t do that in his working of pictures, he made them in a sense more truthful, while sacrificing literal truth. Arguably this idea that the literal truth of the frame matters much is a very modern idea, nobody seemed to care much in 1936 except when political hay was available to be made.

Smith doesn’t dodge an ethical bullet, though, it slams right into him. He was, at best, treading a risky line in his efforts to best tell the story of Minamata, and in at least one case we can argue that he stepped to the wrong side of the line, which leads us to the second issue at hand.

The second issue, the issue that actually matters, that is important, is of photographs (altered or not) which are ethically questionable. Smith’s photos from Minamata are arguably terribly exploitative, depicting as they do the awful effects of the disease. The disease was socially very complex, being caused by the town’s major employer, which led to victims being ostracized, or denying their own illness. The most famous of them, “Tomoko Uemura in her Bath” (the one I declined to show) proved so problematic that Aileen Smith passed the copyright back to the family, who has since declined to grant permission to reproduce.

One of the many commentators on the current issue, Nina Berman (her comments appear in the NYT lens blog) also shot this problematic picture of Marine Corps Sergeant Ziegel’s wedding, which photo is as much about the tremendous injuries he suffered in combat as it is about a wedding:

Nina Berman's photograph of Sergeant Ziegel at his wedding.
Marine Wedding

I don’t think it’s even necessary to detail why this might be problematic, but I will note that the fairytale marriage did not last long and that the man himself died about 6 years later from complications from addiction. I do not pretend to know if Berman violated any ethical boundaries, and I assume that she did not. This is, after all, her business, and I assume she does it correctly. Of course, she obtained consent to publish, that goes without saying. Issues might arise surrounding how freely, unencumbered, and competently given Sgt. Ziegel’s consent was. Issues might arise later, as they did for Tomoko Uemura’s family, as the picture gains global exposure, leading to unforeseen consequences.

Consent, and in a more general way the rightness of taking a picture and of publishing it, is surprisingly fluid. As time passes, it changes. A photograph published in one way may be perfectly proper and right, published another, not. Consent given today may well be regretted in future, but cannot generally be withdrawn.

Two things strike me as missing from the discussion.

The first is the reality that sometimes the pictures that best tell the story are ethically difficult to deal with. Sometimes the right answer is to not take the picture that best tells the story. Nina Berman chose to publish a very powerful picture that told a story well, as did Gene Smith. Souvid Datta did as well. All were praised for their work, at least two won awards. And all of them were taking pictures fraught with ethical entanglements.

An argument can certainly be made, and Lord knows it has been, that Berman was right and Datta wrong. Smith surely falls into a gray area. But the point is that these things are not easy. The photographer on the ground is being asked, essentially, to make ferociously complicated choices that do not have clear answers, on the fly. The photographer is being asked, as well, to predict how these pictures might be used, and to judge if those uses are ethically sound. It is obvious that the photographer is often not well-equipped to make these choices.

Which leads to the second thing that’s missing, which is any sort of discussion of how one might solve the problem. Therefore, I offer a strawman proposal, as follows.

Interested and qualified parties of all sorts and stripes should assemble educational materials, case studies, statements of principles, and so on. Package these materials into (initially) easy to access, easy to understand, free, courses.

Pass the simple course, be it online, or at a conference, or at a training session put on by your employer, and you get to put some letters after your name for the next year. Congratulations, you are an ABCD Certified Ethical Photographer! Next year, you have to re-up.

At the same time, lobby grant-giving, prizegiving, and photograph-purchasing organizations to recommend or require one or more such certifications, at least for certain categories of content.

At this point it’s easy. It’s a sort of trivial fig-leaf, easy to get, doesn’t mean that much. Everyone knows it’s kind of silly. That’s the point, it’s so silly, so trivial, why not get the certification? Crack a beer and get three of ’em! But it still gets everyone kind of thinking along the same lines, encourages “most people” to be tuned into the issues in a modest way.

Next year, or the year after that, the material gets a little denser, the tests are a little harder.

Some of the certificate granting organizations will evolve into money-grubbers, some will evolve into other things. Certifications will rise and fall in popularity, in credibility. Over time, though, the “respectable” contests, the “respectable” grant-givers, the “respectable” magazines will gravitate toward requiring the “respectable” certifications.

Ten years later, it’s just part of the landscape. Of course, you get one of the three “respectable” ones, everyone does it. You study, you do the work, they’re not trivial anymore, but you just do the work same as you learn how to use Lightroom, same as you learn to properly expose pictures. It’s just basic. Eventually, certifications could be rolled into standard journalism curricula.

You’ll still have cheats and scumbags, you’ll still have the problem that sometimes the pictures that tell the story are the pictures you shouldn’t take, the pictures that shouldn’t get published, but at least everyone will have roughly the same set of tools, the same basic grounding, to make those hard decisions.

But it’s just a strawman proposal, it’s just a starting point. Where do we go from here?


Andrew Molitor
August 2017

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Andrew Molitor

Andrew became a mathematician about the time the internet became the world-wide-web, but fell in to software development by accident. After 25 years of that he's just Dad. All along, Andrew took pictures, some of them small ones, and formed opinions, some of them big ones. He lives in Bellingham, WA, with his beautiful wife and two small daughters. Andrew's slightly unorthodox ideas for the beginning photographer can be found here: http://intro-to-photography.blogspot.com/

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