Ethical judgement of photography
Ethical considerations, judgments, and actions seem, at first glance, to be straightforward.
At a recent workshop run by the anti-slavery charity Unseen UK, participants were asked if they were involved in slavery, directly or indirectly. Most people were. If you buy cheap clothes, have a phone or laptop, smoke marijuana, or visit nail bars, you might be involved in modern slavery and tacitly supporting it.
In this context, the ethical considerations are obvious. If you are really concerned about slavery, you can start to take action by not doing those things. If you are against it, then you should not support it, and if you don’t know where your clothes, your phone, your drugs come from… then you’re as good as supporting it. Similarly, if you are against tax-dodging corporations, the rise of cheap labor, the destruction of local markets, the loss of housing for local people, or the concentration of wealth in a few pockets, then you shouldn’t buy from Amazon, take rides with Uber, or book an Airbnb.
At first consideration, these are not difficult choices to identify and we can judge our ethical omissions and commissions quite easily. Yet they are incredibly different choices to make and very few of us will be able, hand on heart, to say that we live our lives according to the convictions that we think we hold. Those rules are not suited to our modern lives and nearly all of us buy from Apple, Amazon, and H&M. We shouldn’t, but we do. Nearly all of us accept it and we accept our friends who do it. It is actually difficult to act ethically when it comes at a personal cost.
When it comes to photography, however, especially other people’s photography, the challenges of acting ethically are sometimes obscured by the rush to ethical judgment. Our ethical standards are raised to standards that the great martyrs, saints, and philanthropists of times gone by would struggle to meet. One reason for this is it’s easy to do. There is no personal cost.
This was the case for me when I saw that Tyler Hicks’ devastating image of a young Yemeni girl was published in the New York Times last year. The picture is familiar. It shows a 7-year-old girl, her ribs showing, her eyes staring. It is a picture that I identified as fitting into what George Alaghiah called ‘the template photography’ of famine, a template that visually corresponds to the recent visual history of famine.
It’s a very recognizable famine picture. It is made in a particular way, it fits a certain way of understanding the world that did not exist before the invention of the camera.
The girl can be seen as a ‘famine icon’, an example of Susan Sontag’s claim that photography is ‘essentially an act of non-intervention’. Seen in those terms, it is exploitative and othering, an example of a Western photographer going to a far and distant land (but not so distant given that the bombs destroying it aren’t supplied by the West) to deny agency and voice to a young girl who is dying. The criticism could continue on the decontextualized nature of the image, its simplistic appeal to emotion, and the superficial narrative it evidences.
That is part of the story. It certainly was for me. But it is not the whole story because the picture came with a name, Amal Hussain, a name that gave at least some life to the obituaries that followed when Amal died on 26 October 2018. It also came with eyes that, though looking away, were filled with a terrible sadness. Most unusually of all, it came with an editor’s note explaining why the picture was used.