In the early 2000s, when the photographer duo Broomberg & Chanarin were allowed into a psychiatric hospital in Cuba to take pictures, they noted that the patient they were going to photograph was “up to his eyebrows in medication”. The doctors said it was okay to photograph him, but Broomberg & Chanarin had their doubts. They realised that just asking the patient, “Can we take your photograph?” wasn’t going to get them a considered answer, either. Not long after the shoot, they quit taking pictures. Instead, they dedicated their photo projects to analysing power differences in the production and distribution of images.
Their radical decision draws attention to a pressing question: what kind of responsibility do photographers and photo editors have towards their subject? While various photographers’ associations have produced ‘ethical guidelines’, they’re often too idealistic to be executed well amidst the complexity of real-life situations. How do you ask someone if they’re okay with being photographed when drugs, emotional dependence, power dynamics, or cultural misunderstandings might play a role (and you don’t even know which)?
what kind of responsibility do photographers and photo editors have towards their subject?
“The camera is a kind of passport that annihilates moral boundaries and social inhibitions, freeing the photographer from any responsibility toward the people photographed,” Susan Sontag wrote in 1977, with no small amount of pessimism. She continued: “The whole point of photographing people is that you are not intervening in their lives, only visiting them.” And indeed, a camera often helps photographers to do things which they wouldn’t have the courage to do without one. They enter people’s houses, they capture intimate moments, they go to war, they document loss, and they leave. They were, after all, just visiting.
Appropriating someone else’s story, and potentially betraying that person’s consent, doesn’t even necessarily happen while the photographer shoots. It also happens when the editor edits, the graphic designer designs, the publisher publishes, the social media user shares, and the viewer views. Because, let’s be clear, the viewer also shapes how the photo is perceived, by viewing it in a particular context, with a particular agenda: to gain information, to enjoy the aesthetics, to be surprised, to be sexually aroused. Even if the photographer seems trustworthy, the photo is not.
even if we think we are viewing critically, we can be seduced by the underlying persuasive elements of an image
Photos are actually very good at covering their tracks, when it comes to disguising the various betrayals that occur in the process of taking and viewing a photo. Dutch cultural analyst Mieke Bal calls this the pull of the image: so effective and penetrating is a photograph’s means of communication that when we see a photo, even if we think we are viewing critically and we’ve checked the facts, we can be seduced by the underlying persuasive elements of an image. Bal mentions the example of the colonial postcard. These 19th and 20th century photos of nude women from African countries were most likely taken without consent, yet decades later, they continue to be reprinted in academic studies. While these studies try to illustrate that the postcards give a fictional perception of the women’s sexual availability, Bal points out how such reprints, by their very nature of being reproduced, contain implicitly the opposite message, making it difficult for the viewer to absorb a singular meaning from the academic argument. The pull of the images is stronger than the analyses in words.
Many artists, like Broomberg & Chanarin, have drawn and continue to draw attention to this issue of the betrayal of the subject. Instead of choosing to shoot people’s most intimate or vulnerable moments, sometimes photographers emphasise the opacity of their subjects’ lives – as in this photo from Alessandro Penso’s series Refugees in Bulgaria (2013). It’s a photo of a sports room, repurposed for refugee families, who have built their own private spaces. It’s no less meaningful than a photo that would have peeked behind the sheets, showing explicitly the personal expressions of love or loss on people’s presumably readable faces and gestures. Rather, the photo offers insight into something the refugees were clearly concerned with: their need of a private life.