A question of ethics: Photographers in the spotlight

Press photographers at work

Photographers are facing enormous ethical questions posed by the allegations aired during the ongoing Leveson inquiry. Here, Max Houghton, course leader in MA Photojournalism at the University of Westminster and a writer on photography offers her personal views on the challenges ahead.

"For a number of years I was relentlessly pursued by 10 to 15 men, almost daily... Spat at, verbally abused... I would often find myself, at the age of 21, at midnight, running down a dark street on my own with 10 men chasing me. And the fact they had cameras in their hands made that legal."

Such was actor Sienna Miller's shaming testimony to The Leveson Inquiry into the culture, practice and ethics of the press, which has shown news photographers in an unflattering light.

Professional bodies such as the British Press Photographers' Association (BPPA) have been quick to counteract this tarnishing, insisting - accurately - that such behaviour does not typify the approach of the majority of news photographers. Yet in order for any meaningful change in these appalling practices to occur, those of us who work in and with photography are charged with taking this criticism seriously.

Miller's testimony needs to serve as a wake up call for the whole profession, not as an opportunity to trot out the 'we made her who she is today' defence, nor for the principled majority to distance itself from the unethical minority.

Public figures have the right to a private life. Miller became famous because she is good at what she does, and was a lucky winner in life's beauty lottery and is therefore prodigiously photographable. These elements combined do not de facto entitle every aspect of her life to be invaded.

Actress Sienna Miller has told the judge-led inquiry into media ethics how media intrusion had left her in a state of "complete anxiety and paranoia"

The photographers who come to the University of Westminster to study on the course I run, MA Photojournalism, do not, for the most part, want to photograph celebrities. But many of them are interested in photographing in developing countries. Some of them even want to change the world (thank goodness). While the subjects of photographs are as varied as people on this earth - that is indeed what they are - the considerations that apply to taking and using their image are the same.

Many factors come into a play at the moment of squeezing the shutter. Does the photographer have the consent of the person he is photographing? If the person is not capable of giving their consent (if they do not speak the same language, or are injured for example, or even dead), is it appropriate to continue photographing?

If the person in the photograph is in obvious distress or danger, should the photographer put down the camera? Are there circumstances in which the photographer should provide help or assistance? If the photograph is taken, after all these considerations, who will see it? How will its future dissemination affect the people in the photograph?

In her now infamous opening line to The Journalist and the Murderer, Janet Malcolm wrote: 'Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on, knows that what he does is morally indefensible.'

The author expands on this in an interview with The Paris Review, saying that journalism is not a 'helping' profession, except for in the way that its exponents help themselves to 'what our subjects don't realize they are letting us take'. Ouch. How to argue with her position?

Photographers attend a mass picture-taking gathering organised by the group I'm A Photographer, Not A Terrorist! in protest of stop and search action by police in Central London, January  2010 Photographers have found themselves under attack from all sides in recent years, including a series of clashes with authorities relating to the right to take pictures in public

The most serious and considered practitioners are always careful to refer to the practice of making not taking photographs, but is this in fact a case of weasel words? And does knowing and understanding that photography is always a transaction make the act any more palatable? At what point does voyeurism - all photography is surely this - tip into scopophilia, a love of looking?

Among the current concerns of the photographic profession is that Leveson could result in so-called 'French-style' privacy laws - ie stringent ones - which would create as many problems as it would ease.

Photography of public marches and the police handling of them could be out of bounds. Street photography might become virtually obsolete. Imagine a history of photography without Cartier Bresson. While a debate about legislation and how it might benefit photography would no doubt be a valuable exercise, swingeing laws would not eradicate unethical practices any more than marriage prevents infidelity.

Photography exists in an interregnum right now, and is wrestling with new problems as well as difficulties inherent to the medium.

The rise of citizen journalism means of course that anyone with a camera can and does get published. As they are not members of a specific profession, and thus not united by a code of practice, anything goes.

If their imagery goes a step further, some editors might prefer to use their work. Staff photographers are becoming an increasingly rare breed, and this inevitably leads to an influx of freelancers, who are not necessarily working towards a united set of principles.

The demise of newspapers means that editors are ever more desperate to deliver customers to their diminishing advertisers and as such will publish anything they think they will help them in this quest.

Press photographers take pictures of a prison van leaving the City of Westminster Magistrates Court in London

The concept of 'public interest' has long since morphed into 'what interests the public'…which, to the dismay of serious news photographers, means a picture of someone who once failed to win on the X-Factor buying a large skinny latte (with their cellulite showing).

It is the duty of contemporary photographers to question continually what they are looking at, and why it is appropriate to permit others to look too. Such self awareness would not limit their practice, but would rather enhance it. And of course many of them do.

While the so called "Stalkerazzi" shame the profession, members of the BPPA and the photographers' branch of the NUJ, among others, are creating forums and running events where these and other issues are given serious consideration. They also provide an excellent opportunity for newcomers to consider the boundaries of their profession.

But even when best practice is followed to the letter, photographers might find their images take on other, unexpected forms. Jodi Bieber photographed Afghan women for a Time magazine article, and was aware of the power of her image of Bibi Aisha, whose nose and ears had been cut off by members of the Taliban as a punishment for fleeing her husband's home. Knowing Bieber and her work, I am certain she did not seek a sensationalist image, and - importantly - nor has she criticized Time for using the image of Aisha on its cover.

I agree with its usage, but not its accompanying cover strap line: What Happens if We Leave Afghanistan (no question mark). For me, Time turned an image taken with integrity into propaganda.

When the image went on to win World Press Photo, it was then used as the invitation to the subsequent exhibition. While I am not suggesting censorship of difficult imagery, it is not hard to conceive of a more respectful approach to disseminating the image (such as printing it on the inside of a fold-out invitation).

A photograph never exists in isolation. It is always part of a triangulated relationship which involves the photographer, subject and audience.

And photojournalism by its very nature is collaborative, and this means that picture editors, writers, designers, art directors and editors all share responsibility in the ongoing life of a photograph.

Frequently, however, doing the right thing comes naturally. As LIFE photographer Bill Eppridge commented about his unforgettable image of mortally wounded Robert Kennedy: "I never hung it on my wall."

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  • rate this

    Comment number 74.

    It is known that the presence of cameras encourages action, and that the media feeds on that action. Yeach.

  • rate this

    Comment number 73.

    Inevitably it's not about the sleazy photographer,the immoral editor,the money grabbing company,the fame seeking star ,or the gossip hungry crowd.,It's about everyone of us and how we let this happen, frankly I despair..

  • rate this

    Comment number 72.

    Inevibitably It's not about

  • rate this

    Comment number 71.

    There are many celebrities and famous sportsmen who live their private lives out of the spotlight and others who will appear at this enquiry who moan about their every move being photographed and reported if they dont like it dont use the media when they want publicity its a 2 way street remember no attention no mega bucks

  • rate this

    Comment number 70.

    what if it's classified as art?

  • rate this

    Comment number 69.

    I was once witness to an appalling act of disrespect and disregard by a very large group of "Press Photographers".

    I can state that they behaved like a bunch of wild animals that were out of control. There would be no way I would do the same - so could never become a news snapper.

    The BBC should be providing UNBIASED news coverage yet sometimes Push & Push & Push a story just to keep it alive!

  • rate this

    Comment number 68.

    Having watched some of these photographers trying to get a picture and inciting those around them to 'beef it up' so the picture reflects what they want to portray rather than the actual truth Lord Leveson needs to come up with concrete enforceable proposals. Furthermore EVERYONE is entitled to privacy and truthful reporting whoever they may be, celebrity of public. The press is out of control.

  • rate this

    Comment number 67.

    Like the rest of the press and other organizations. Moral attitudes and compassion do not exist anymore. Anything for a story, true or otherwise is the norm now. Rely on the government or the legal profession to bring in laws [that will be adhered to] forget it. Money these days speaks volumns. Not Morals!

  • rate this

    Comment number 66.

    I can appreciate that all sections or depts. at BBC are given their moment on HYS...from entertainment, photos through to the weather office.

    I do wish we could comment on more important issues though. Leaving those issues open for comment longer as they are closed too soon.

  • rate this

    Comment number 65.

    Seems a shame to regard photography and photojournalism as intrinsically abusive if you going to teach it....... I would rather teachers of photojournalism are enthused by its mighty achievements and its important roll in educating society...... this seems sadly missing from this teachers understanding of what photojournalism is and what it can achieve.

  • rate this

    Comment number 64.

    The Daily Mail has admitted the story they ran 14 years ago, taken up and cited ever since, that (the Labour) Birmingham Council was to ban Xmas was a complete fabrication. In other words a complete lie.
    Trotsky said, 'the tabloids lie all the time, the broadsheets only lie when the State requires it'
    Still true.
    Who decides a nipple shot is bigger news than a famine?

  • rate this

    Comment number 63.

    'Miller became famous because she is good at what she does' Sorry Max, what is that exactly? Your quote 'Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on, knows that what he does is morally indefensible' shows you do not know the profession at all.

  • rate this

    Comment number 62.

    Sorry, who is Sienna Miller again? She must be glad of the free publicity from Leverson. University of Westminster students are not taught shorthand - rather like the BBC - so who are they to comment on real journalism?

  • rate this

    Comment number 61.

    Nice piece Phil, you should write more!

    Most of the comments seem to miss the problem completely... The photographers in question are selling the pictures, if no one BUYS them, there is no market for them. So that'll be who? Oh yes, the EDITORS of the publications.

    The ethical and moral deficiencies that condone or use phone hacking are unlikely to be isolated to that area alone.

  • rate this

    Comment number 60.

    chubattack - I'd like to know what you're basing your comment on. I was at Millbank during the student protest and neither I, nor anybody else I know who was there, witnessed any photographers or journalists encouraging people to smash any windows.

  • rate this

    Comment number 59.

    Licence them ! If photographers and journalists needed a licence to practice then it would be seen more as a profession with standards rather than a racket anyone can have a go at. Loosing your licence/ being suspended for failing to follow a code of practice would then cost you. (The licence would let you sell to or work for publications and would not exclude the public from one off submissions)

  • rate this

    Comment number 58.

    Pity the Queen, she cannot even take her dogs for a walk in the Highlands of Scotland unless tha Paparazzi are lurking behind every bush. Sienna Miller bought it on herself, the Queen had it thrust upon her for all her 85 years.

  • Comment number 57.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • rate this

    Comment number 56.

    We the public have created the market for celebrity tittle-tattle that fuels the need for the kind of behaviour that is typical photographers whose integrity is in serious question or, more likely, non existent. Respect, empathy and some restraint is certainly required but certainly we do not need prohibitive legislation.

  • rate this

    Comment number 55.

    I agree with you completely on the need to establish a code to prevent excessive intrusion. But I always get worried by lines like, "The concept of 'public interest' has long since morphed into 'what interests the public'…"

    Who, exactly, defines the "public interest"? The intellectual elite? Isn't it the case that the problem of celebrity is ultimately a problem with the public itself?


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