Ethics in Photography

‘The camera never lies’ resides on the tip of the tongue – a phrase so used it possesses no generational gap or socioeconomic prejudice. It is clear that within many critical approaches and genres of photography that realism is often undermined by the power of deceit. The decontextualization ever present in photography proves that an image can never be purely objective because of the decisions made by the photographer. An examination of the subjective choices made by photographers can prove the frequent deception found in the photography discipline.


Manipulation of images is ever frequent in today’s media and is becoming more difficult to detect. This technology is creating ethical dilemmas for journalists, politicians, and consumers. A reciprocal relationship between journalists and readers controls the media, so any alterations can change that dynamic. New technologies assist the falsehoods already present in commercial imaging. While some photojournalists loathe manipulative imaging, other praise the opportunity it allows for perfection. These new technologies should not encourage deception—quite the opposite. A new truth—even a new reality, illustrated. The instantaneous quality of photography creates an illusion that photography is an objective report. The realistic image a camera creates--a photograph’s ‘possession over time’ or frozen image validates the subject matter. Because we as humans cannot freeze our vision reality isn’t real enough, the ultrarealism conveyed in photography is more valid. That concept is surreal. “Surrealism lies at the heart of the photographic enterprise: in the very creation of a duplicate world, of a reality in the second degree, narrower but more dramatic than the one perceived by natural vision. The less doctored the less crafted the more naïve—the more authoritative the photograph was likely to be” (Sontag 52.) The belief that "the camera never lies" forgets the subjective decisions a photographer makes. Jeff Share, photojournalist-turned-elementary-teacher states, “For too long, too many media consumers have been laboring under the false assumption that photographs show the world "as it is" because the camera never lies. This myth of objectivity has contributed to photography's power in society. Given time, the practice of digital manipulation will shed light on the manipulations that occur even before the shutter snaps” ( Every aspect of the images; setting, lighting, subject matter involves a choice. What the photographer chooses to leave out of the photograph is sometimes more important than what is being photographed. Any photograph has the opportunity to exclude any context that is not helpful for the shot.


This opportunity can be especially frightening in regards to political photography and propaganda. Unfathomable amounts of information are available to politicians, the media, and even the public – allowing for powerful propagandized imagery.


People look to photographs as objective representations of firsthand data, as a form of validation. As soon as the integrity of a photo is called into question, so is the relationship between the provider and the consumer. When inconvenient or unappealing objects are altered or removed, the quintessence of the image quickly disappears. The relationship between the photographer and the viewer is violated. The photo is no longer a frozen scene in time. It is now an illusory explanation with chosen truths, and truths unexamined. There is no such thing as true objectivity in photography. By its nature, a photograph is an incomplete and image of reality - a systematic description that shows only what the photographer wants you to see, and no more. Each photograph possesses a narrative, with the photographer in control.


Photography alone is convincing, but can the employment of text can strengthen. The pure visual description and quiet narrative illustrated in a photograph can evoke and encourage empathy much more than words alone. The relationship between image and text, photo and description, is interesting and rich. A photo may denote one thing or something else , based on how it is described. Which raises the further question: can a photograph stand on its own, or does it always need a description? If a photographer has the intention of provoking an undefined reaction from a viewer – a photograph can definitely stand alone. Yet, the cooperative relationship between image and text can build a trust and validity to whatever observation in question. The collaboration of text and photography can be explanatory, draw a focus, direct a theme, and divert personal interpretation of an image.


The relationship between image and text can be especially useful during research. Using photography as a research method requires understanding the duality of the camera and the photographer being capable of both objective and subjective product. Susan Sontag in her book “On Photography” states, “The photographer was thought to be an acute but non interfering observer—a scribe, not a poet. But as people quickly discover that nobody takes the same picture of the same thing, the supposition that cameras furnish an impersonal, objective image yielded to the fact that photographs are evidence not only of what is there but of what an individual sees, not just a record but an evaluation of the world.” Sontag infers that a photographer can both objectify reality and subjectively change a viewer’s focus within the same photograph. People believe that photographic images are the truth, even though they understand that photographer’s have the power to direct the image to achieve a desired attention and result. Photographs in research are tangible pieces of evidence that provide validity to accompanying text, “photographic images do not seem to be statements about the world so much as pieces of it” (Sontag.) The trust that is granted to a photograph gives an ample opportunity for skewed truths. Viewers regard photography in research as proof; however, the photographer has chosen that image to portray his interpretation. This brings into question the importance of what is missing from a photograph versus what is included – both are equally important. If a photographer takes a hundred images and only ten images prove his point, the other ninety images are disposable from the research and the audience.


The subject of a photograph can also make choices. By adjusting the way they allow a photographer to photograph them, the subject can convey a certain message that may not always be the truth. For example, averting a gaze while being photographed lessens the perceived vulnerability of the subject. “Those who are culturally defined as weak – women, children, people of color, the poor, the tribal rather than the modern, those without technology – are more likely to face the camera, the more powerful to be looking elsewhere” (Lutz, Collins 370.)


Photography is capable of convincing viewers to believe in the world an image portrays. Photographs are relics, a visual reminder of the past. Even images of the very recent past can be considered antique – a captured moment from reality. Photography can be a very powerful tool when depicting an elapse of time. For example, everyone can think of photographs of their hometown from every generation. The visible changes remind viewers of their recent past, and how the photographs they take will one day be referred to with the same curiosity. “The contingency of photographs confirms that everything is perishable; the arbitrariness of photographic evidence indicates that reality is fundamentally unclassifiable. Reality is summed up in an array of casual fragments—an endlessly alluring, poignantly reductive way of dealing with the world.” A discussion popular amongst my friends is my theory of present nostalgia. I often find myself being nostalgic for a moment I am currently experiencing, being very aware that I will miss this moment. So I do. I am nostalgic for my experience as it is happening so that instead of being depressed about losing it later, I can remember how joyful it was. Photography supports this theory. Every photograph ever taken is memorabilia. Polaroid and digital images make it possible for present nostalgia to be instantly illustrated.


Fine Art photography can be described as authenticity combined with the art of deception. Cameras (or photographers) do not have to lie. Photography can provide a reality which is resolved through the artist, and therefore controlled, but nonetheless evokes a truth about the subject. Manipulation is part of all art, whether it’s methodological or aesthetic. Cameras do not lie; photos sometimes do, especially photos that are manipulated and presented as if they have not been. An image can also manipulate a viewers conception of beauty—from the artists success in the field of form, lighting, negative space and composition. Is beauty “there” in an individual — or an image? Is it something that a viewer needs to bring to the experience, or that the photographer has to provide? Can people rethink their perception of beauty? Surrealism allows for the obscure to be beautified, and for beauty to be diversified. If it is true that an individual’s concept of beauty can changed over time, maybe photography can tame institutionalized suggestions for beauty. I believe that beauty can be defined as implied symmetry. Everything that anyone everyone ever remembers as being beautiful is due to an almost-symmetrical quality, or implied balance. Imperfection is beauty.


Anthropology has embraced and employed photography in ethnographic research. Some anthropological photography is nothing shy of informational, other images balance the line between visual anthropology and fine art. This can create falsehoods. For example, anthropological photographs found in National Geographic can be beautiful images – but they can be misleading. These photos, intended for exotic and aesthetic shock value, usually only further exploit a stereotypical narrative of foreign peoples and cultures. Other anthropological photographs demonstrate minimal aesthetic consideration, often discouraging the viewers interest in the research and text associated with the images. Some anthropologists value themselves as artists as well, and have compiled textual research with beautiful photography. Hugh Brody is one anthropologist that has achieved this balance. His books contained valid research, and employed supporting images. Both the research and the photographs could have stood alone, but together it was impressive. The risk associated with aesthetically pleasing photography in anthropology is losing the intended focus, or even validity of the research.