Week 5 - Power and Responsibility

This week we are being asked to consider the power and responsibility that comes with being a photographer/making images.

I think photographers do have a power in terms of what we choose to record with our camera, and how we choose to make the image, e.g. with regards to framing and the choice of subject in order to tell the story we want to tell, or record the memory we want to record. I feel we also have a responsibility to ensure the use of our images continues the message we want to tell.

We were asked this week to read a newspaper article about the use of a photo of refugees by UKIP, and comment on the ethics of taking images and their subsequent publication and use - https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2016/jun/22/jeff-mitchells-best-shot-the-column-of-marching-refugees-used-in-ukips-brexit-campaign

This is my response, copied here for my future reference:

There are various ethical questions raised by this image – is it right to make an image like this for profit? Does it exploit vulnerable people? Did all the people there know they were being photographed and did they, or would they, have agreed to it? I think it is important that humanitarian issues and crises such as this are recorded and shared; for posterity, for lessons/reminders about the effects of war (e.g. the comparison between this image and a very similar one from WWII), and to make the wider world aware of these situations. However, in making people aware of the situation I think the photographer should have a responsibility to ensure the right story is being told, and that it is not used just as a stock photo in which the story behind it is open to manipulation. The use of the image may have been licensed correctly, but perhaps the licensing options should have been more specific regarding the use of the image. Not being a copyright lawyer I don’t know whether it is possible to say, for example, you can only use this image if you aren’t UKIP. Mitchell himself said “photographers are there to record stories” and what happens afterwards with the image is out of their control. But this rejection of responsibility and passing the blame on to another party I think is unethical. It may be legal but I don’t think it is morally right to the refugees in the photo; he was there to tell their story, but by allowing Getty to license the image, and therefore allowing the image to be used without a say in how it was used, he was no longer telling their story. As photographers I think we should have ethical and moral responsibilities not only in the photos we take but also in how they are used.

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In my own practice, I feel a power with regards to who and what I photograph. My interests in travel and documentary photography frequently have me questioning the ethics of the photographs I take. I want my practice and my work to reflect more than the standard tourist snap shot, and I feel to do this I need to photograph subjects (people and inanimate) that are not just the tourist sites. However, in doing so I do wonder whether it is ethical to photograph subjects that are not presented for foreign consumption, even if they are aware the photo is being taken. On the other hand, I feel that as a photographer my position of power could allow me to give a global voice to those who might not otherwise have one, and to tell and share stories to those who might not otherwise hear them. Therefore, is it my responsibility to record those images and share them? I also feel that I have a responsibility to the subjects of my images to ensure that any publication and use of the images is done in a way that tells their story authentically. Whilst I cannot control individual reactions to and interpretations of an image, or whether it inspires or is derived into other work, I can at least try to ensure it is presented in a context that accurately reflects the subject/subject matter, and the context in which the image was made.

Some images are especially hard to look at due to their emotional nature and the context in which they were taken, for example images of war, refugees, and death. However, I do not think this means that they shouldn’t be made or shown. Indeed some images can be so powerful in their message and documentation, e.g. the migrant crisis / Alan Kurdi, amongst others, that I think it is responsible to share them in order to bring about greater awareness of a situation or if there’s a chance it could shock people into positive action.

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One of this week’s tasks was to write a statement or manifesto that defines our purpose as a photographer. Whilst I feel I am still in the process of finding out what that is, and what kind of photographer I am, something that has long been important to me is the concept of showing a truth or showing something authentic in my work by not editing a fundamental aspect of my images in post-production, so I feel that is central to my “manifesto” as a photographer. I am fairly sure my manifesto will change over time but at the moment, this is it:

I have a responsibility to my subject to make images with authenticity, and to the viewers to show them that authenticity. I am answerable to myself as a photographer, to create work that I believe in, and I am answerable to the viewers – for them to trust in my work. As an image maker, I think the public are answerable to me to not use my work without authorisation/licensing, and I feel they should have an ethical and moral responsibility to respect the work I make, whether or not they agree with the message, like the work, or think it is good or bad, but just to respect that it was made by someone, and the time, effort, and emotion, that went into creating it.

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This image is a shot I took recently at the river by my home at sunset. The colours appear as they were at the time, and I have not edited it the picture in anyway in post processing. For me this is an authentic image as it is a moment as it happened at the time, and nothing has been edited out or in to alter it. It felt like a completely peaceful time, in which the urban hectic day was slowing down for the night. That is what I wanted to capture and share in this image.