While a moment can be fleeting, a photo can be forever. A photograph is a visual representation of a fraction of a second, taken from a single perspective. It’s not possible to see what came before-or after the picture was taken- or- to hear, taste or smell the moment. This lack of information force an interpretation of the photo without any other context. Lack of context and a single-perspective can lead to photos which can be not representative of a situation. For this, photographers have the duty to consider the consequences of taking and circulating photos of people and vulnerable objects.
Ethical principles are an aid for considering what the “right thing” is to do. These principals have been developed from Judeo-Christian values, and are in no way absolute. A sub-set of ethical principals is commonly applied in health care and expresses a set of shared values: 1) every person has a right to make decisions for themselves, and their privacy (Self-Determination); 2) people have a right to be treated equally ( Justice); 3) people have a right to the truth (Veracity); 4) people have a duty to do good (Beneficence); and 5) People have a duty to do no harm (Non-maleficence). These ethical principals can be applied to photography as well.
Considering my photograph (header photo: Man in Window, Lisbon, Portugal), I can make a judgement regarding this photo, and whether I was practicing ethically when I took it, but applying some ethical principles. 1) Did this man in the window give his permission for me to take his photo (Self-determination)? Yes and no. He leaned out of the window and I looked at him and nodded. I picked up my camera– and he didn’t say “no”. I feel uncomfortable as he didn’t say yes, either. 2) Did I treat him like I would treat others (Justice)? A good test is to consider if I would take a picture of a neighbor leaning out of her house in my neighborhood. I probably wouldn’t have taken the photo. Therefore, I did not treat this man as I would others. 4) Did I do good? Did I have good intentions? (Beneficence): I didn’t have bad intentions. The guy looked really cool leaning out of his window. But, in taking this photo, there was no advantage for him. 5) Did I do harm by taking this photo (Non-maleficence). I don’t know if I did or not.
Reviewing my analysis above, I would judge that I didn’t follow the ethical principles which I uphold. For this, I have reconsidered street photography and am turning my interest to a type of photo where individuals can make an informed choice about the use of their image.
Of note: My image was used, without my express permission, to advertise a local cancer research fundraiser. I received an invitation to this fundraiser a few days ago, opened the email and saw me looking back at me. It didn’t really feel good. Although the fundraiser is for cancer research and is related to my employer, I still would wish to have my permission sought. I would have given it freely: