Are you an Unethical Photographer? 3 Things to Avoid :: Digital Photo Secrets

Are you an Unethical Photographer? 3 Things to Avoid

by David Peterson 8 comments

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.

Only get this close to people you really know well.
Never take a photo like this with a telephoto lens.

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.

If someone really is struggling, depict it as strongly as you can.
Do your best to give your subject real dignity.
Discard all other images.

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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  1. Alison shilliday says:

    I have read a lot on street photography and attended courses but your article really gets to heart of the ethics necessary for travel / street photography . Your approach is the best advice I have read. I travelled around Mynamar for 3weeks and found this a profoundly humbling experience , I met many wonderful people who shared their stories and were real inspirations of human resilience and determination to improve the lives of their children . Their hospitality laughter and smiles despite their poverty (in my eyes) will always stay with me . It is all to easy to shoot without considering their dignity
    Your tips are extremely useful and will guide my travel photography .

  2. Tasos says:

    Similar to photographic depiction of a subject, which reflects that subject in a false light, is depiction of a subject from a distance (at a private social gathering) with the aid of a telephoto lens ... without the subject's foreknowledge or permission after the fact, AND as the subject ate ... very unattractive. The aforementioned practices, especially in a private event setting, where a certain degree of privacy is expected, are underhanded, imposing and frankly, arguably boorish. At least if the photographer is nearby and within sight of others, they are aware of the possibility of becoming a photographic subject. Shoot others in the same manner and light that you would prefer, and if question should arise if a shot would be appropriate, don't shoot.

    Thank you, David, for your tips and articles about or related to ethics. They not only are invaluable and often thought provoking, they often encourage conversations with a friend or loved one, who also loves photography.

    Warm regards - T

  3. BobbyG says:

    First thank you very much for all your tips and e-mails I find them extremely helpfull.
    This one hit home because my great grandson just passed and all the ignorant family members with their I phones were snapping away pics of a dead babys body and posting to Facebook absolutely disgusted me, I am putting together an album of all the photos I have of my one year old great grandson and will present it to my grandson so he can remember his son properly.
    Thanks for listening Bobbyg

  4. solomon says:

    hello David,

    this article helped me view things differently. it is nudged me in being sensitive about the needs of others and developing healthy respect for life.


  5. ajithaa says:

    I agree with you David.... I hope more people think of photography in the same way.

  6. Tom Collings says:

    Hi David,

    Its been years since I last thanked you for your "tips". I really appreciate your efforts and your emails. Reading the above is a great reminder of the ethics involved.

    Keep up the good work :-)

    Regards Tom Collings

  7. SJoe says:

    I completely agree with every point you said. Especially point no. 3. I come from a country where poverty and richness are two sides of the coin. You come into contact with princes and paupers in the same street. However, many photographers love to demean the lifestyle of my people and my country. I have seen poor people rich in happiness. However, many photographers, both within the country and foreign photographers paint a grim tale all the time. I believe art should build a community up, not tear it down. Sadly, lot of photographers, with aims of creating a deep impact, break a lot of hearts!

  8. Cathy says:

    Good post, David. I agree with everything you said!

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