How can an art form like photography be unethical? After all, we are merely capturing what is already out there. If people are acting a certain way, isn’t it their own fault for making their display so public? Not really. Photography is just like any creative endeavor. It has the power to uplift others, and it also has the power to destroy them. It can change communities halfway across the planet, or it can serve our own egos. Have you done any of these unethical things?
Disrupting An Animal’s Habitat
Wildlife photography needs to be conducted with elegance and grace. It requires an inhuman amount of patience that very few people possess. It’s okay to become a non-invasive part of an animal’s surroundings in an attempt to get closer, but you skirt the line when you intentionally disrupt that animal’s day-to-day life by trying to get a photo. Acting out, and thereby forcing a reaction, does nothing to produce a natural looking image. It only causes harm to your subjects.
Tourists are often the most guilty of this one. They think it’s okay because there are plenty of other tourists nearby. Pretty soon, the animal is so confused it just panics. I’ve seen other photographers get between mothers and their children. You seriously have to wonder what’s going on in a person’s head to make that person think it’s okay to do that in order to “get the shot.”
Be patient. You will be rewarded.
Not respecting everyone’s daily struggle
The panhandler on the side of the road lives in a world with constant trials and tribulations. This person deserves to be respected. You can’t just waltz by and grab a quick photo. You need to get to know him. You need to become a part of his world. It is only from this position of mutual respect that you can then ask to take a photo. These people aren’t some circus on display for everyone else. You need to do more for them than simply take a photo and leave, never to return.
There are other ordeals we all go through, sometimes in public. It’s not right to grab your telephoto lens and capture an image without that person knowing. That makes you a paparazzi at best, and a complete.... well I’d prefer not to say it, at worst. Think it through. If you are at a private funeral procession, does it make a lot of sense to break out your camera and take pictures of your grieving family without asking? If you are going to take photos during intensely emotional times like this, you need to do it with the utmost concern and respect for those affected by the tragedy.
I have a simple rule. I never allow myself near a telephoto lens during hard times. Use a fixed lens. Get close. Really mean what you are doing, and make people aware of your concern. This is no time to snoop.
Making your subject appear undignified
Human dignity. What does it mean in photography? To me, it’s a process of selection. I don’t wan to portray someone’s life while that person is blinking, looking away, or generally looking strange. I want that person to have a very distinct style with very distinct emotions. I want to get on that person’s level, enter his or her world, and show that world to everyone around me. I want to present that world with the same attachment my subject has to it.
The impoverished live in a world that is completely unlike ours, and many of them are just as happy as we are. More importantly, they are just as proud of their accomplishments as we are. What appears to us as a squalid living arrangement in some faraway ghetto is someone’s life’s work. It’s not right to portray that person’s life as if it means less than ours. It’s like playing the big bad wolf and blowing someone’s house down.
How would you feel if some photographer you barely knew came into your home and portrayed your life as a struggle when you’re actually quite happy? You’d be incensed. I’m not saying it’s never right to show the struggle of others, but don’t force it on people who are otherwise completely happy with the way things are. If someone is joyful and impoverished, that’s wonderful news! Share it with the world. People need to know that you don’t need to live in a first world country to be happy. Happy people are everywhere.
A bad photo can do real damage. Whether you are entering the world of an animal or the world of your fellow man, you are never a mere passenger. Your presence and your photography will have an impact. As photographers, we have the unique ability to create meaning where there previously was none. I implore you not to abuse that privilege for a quick ego boost.
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