photography ethics

Yes, you have a camera, but do you have ethics?

I’ve been a photography buff for decades. Ever since I bought my first SLR camera, I’ve been addicted to taking photographs. I’ve been fortunate to live in some pretty damn photogenic places. So anytime I’m bored I grab my camera and head out to spend the day shooting whatever I come across. I’ve also been fortunate in being able to travel to some pretty exotic places, locales where it is almost impossible to not take a great shot.

I don’t tend to take typical touri shots when travelling. I seldom snap establishing shots, those showing the name of the place I’m visiting or, using a temple in Thailand as an example, the entire wat. My eye is attracted to colors, especially when they play off each other, patterns or lines that repeat themselves, and movement. I lean more toward shots of small details than those showing the big picture. But that’s because I shoot when I travel to provide photographic remembrances of where I’ve been and of what I experienced. Not for proof I was there. So I never take the ‘here’s me in front of (fill in the blank)’ shot. A photo of an intricate or unusual door knocker rather than the entire building resonates deeper for me and years later when I run across the shot it immediately triggers the day’s excursion, if not the entire trip, in my mind. And despite the advice I was given on a street in Penang, and as much as I appreciate the disciplined simplicity of The 7 Shot Rule, I snap away at whatever catches my eye. I take tons of photographs on every trip.

As fascinating as buildings, street scenes, and touri attractions may be, it really is the people of a place you visit that speaks to that locale’s soul. I’ve a photo I took of an old lady performing janitorial duties at a small shrine on the grounds of Tanah Lot in Bali – a shot I’ll come back to here in a minute – that I treasure much more than those I took of the temple that day. I don’t think it is possible to really capture the feel of a place unless you also capture the picture of some if its residents. And there’s the rub. And where one’s moral compass and sense of ethics, not to mention common decency, come into play.

I recently read a blog post that was about older farang and Thai bar bois. I think. The blogger’s fascination with stringing trite overblown phrases together made the narrative difficult to follow. I don’t know if his point was that such relationships were good or bad. I don’t know if he ever made a point, or if instead he too became lost in the inanity of his prose. The post wasn’t interesting enough to take a second stab at and I clicked over to a local weather report instead, something vastly more entertaining. But before I did, his lead-in photograph slowly loaded. It was an obviously surreptitiously taken shot of an old white guy and a younger Thai man starting their way across a city street. And I immediately thought, “Well, that will be a nice surprise if either of those gentlemen run across this blog.”

Surprise: yes. Nice: not so much.

hot shot

Do you have the right to post a person’s picture on the internet without their approval?.

I highly doubt the blogger knew either of the two; it was a snuck shot taken from too far away for him to have been part of the group. I highly doubt whether he bothered to ask if he could take their picture. Or he would have taken another one, closer, and better framed. And I highly doubt if he bothered to talk to them and find out if in fact their relationship was what he assumed it to be. But he had no qualms about posting their picture as a graphic portrayal of a older/younger/ gay couple, most likely involved with Thailand’s commercial sex industry. His assumption about their relationship may have been correct. And probably was. But it could be as likely that the picture was of an elderly straight English teacher and a student, or even a elderly visitor being shown around town by a younger member of a family he was friends with. You’d think one’s ethics would demand investigating the circumstances surrounding that shot before publishing it on the internet. And asking for permission. But, obviously not.

I’d probably let that photo pass without comment if not for having previously read a post by the same blogger who stated he’d been taught that anyone out in public was fair game to anyone with a camera. I’m not sure if it was in the same post or another, he also once said that when someone asked him to not take their picture, he almost always assented to their request. Almost always. In other words, this blogger feels he has some inalienable right to take anyone’s picture at anytime. Even when they have asked him not to do so. Forget any question of ethics, morals, common decency, or respect for your fellow man . . . if I want your picture I will take it. And publish it on the internet too if it amuses me to do so. That the same blogger routinely attempts to portray himself a as a saint . . . well, I sympathize with him. It must be a hard life and damn difficult to be a saint when that halo keeps sliding down to hang noose-like around your neck.

With the advent of digital photography, everyone is a photographer these days. You don’t even need a camera. In many cases, your cell phone will suffice. Digital camera technology is amazing. Point and shoot cameras allow for professional looking shots with no need on the part of the photographer to know anything about the art. I have a friend who became fascinated with photography late in his life (well, in his early 30s; he’s not even 40 yet). Not surprisingly his love affair with taking pictures started in Thailand, when he was teaching English at a small school up north.

The boy doesn’t have a pedophiliac bone in his body, or he wouldn’t be my friend. But you’d be suspicious of his motives thanks to the pictures he likes to take; his initial shots were all of his young students and he got so many compliments on them that those type of shots remain his primary subject matter. I kid him constantly about his Margaret Keane school of photography. He doesn’t know an f-stop from a hole in the ground. And wouldn’t know how to set the aperture to take such a shot if he needed to. But he has a natural eye for composition and last year sold one of his pictures to National Geographic for their annual calendar. Professional photographers with a vast knowledge of technique and years of experience would undoubtedly like to kill him. Slowly. With much pain involved in the process.

With everyone out and about armed with a picture taking piece of technology these days, and with no need to know anything more than what button to push to take a shot (though many of today’s cameras do not even require that level of skill) the question of ethical photography plays an even greater role. Especially since so many of these photos get published on the internet. A few years ago, on a primarily gay website, I ran across a shot taken at Tawan during one of their Handsome Man contests. The picture was of the contestants on stage, but included some of the audience. And there I was, front and center (well, actually front and slightly to the right). I’m not closeted, so I didn’t care. And wish I’d saved a copy of the photo. But had the shot instead appeared on the cover of Time, I doubt I would have been as pleased. So the question is, if someone is out in public, do you have the right to take their picture and publish it without their consent?

old woman in bali

Not A Happy Camper

Easy answer: No. Regardless of what your misguided high school photography teacher told you. Professional photographers seldom publish someone’s picture without first obtaining a consent, or release, to do so. Accredited journalists exercise the same degree of care, though crowd shots of significant newsworthy events are usually acceptable without obtaining permission of those photographed. In both cases, it is more a question of legalities than ethics that come into play. The ‘anyone in public is fair game’ argument would hold up in a court of law about as long as it took the defense attorney to get that dubious bit of wisdom out of his mouth. When it comes to photography, the courts have held that there is a different standard for public figures and private citizens. One’s ethics should tell you that without having to get the courts involved. My somewhat more sage high school teacher passed along a better piece of advice: If you have to make an excuse for, or justify your actions, ethically, you were wrong in the first place.

If the shot you are taking is for your own personal enjoyment and will not be published, it is a slightly different story and your conscious should be your guide. For me, even if that shot will never be seen by anyone but myself, I still would not be comfortable taking someone’s picture who has indicated they do not want to be photographed. The old lady in Bali I mentioned earlier is a good case in point. I love that photo. The expression on her face is priceless and speaks volumes. But when I took it, well, there’s some disgust there; I wasn’t sure if part of what her face was saying was, “Don’t.”

I could have easily ignored that reading and wandered off to take other shots. Instead, I followed her to where she dumped her basket of trash and showed her the pictures I’d taken of her. She did not speak English, and my Bahasa is minimal. But she laughed at the photo and at the look I’d captured, Rather uproariously for an old woman. So I was probably good to go. Even then, I asked, “okay?” and hugged my camera to my chest, asking her permission to keep the shot. With some of the smile still lingering on her face she patted my arm and nodded yes. Had she said no, I would have deleted the photo. Instead, not only did I get to keep a picture I treasure, I have a brief interaction, a small moment of enjoyment shared with a local that brings an even warmer memory than the shot alone would ever be capable of doing.

As far as publishing her picture on the internet? Mmmmmmmmm. Enjoy it now, I may think better of it later.

Turtle Ass Award

Turtle Ass Award Winner: Unethical Photographer/Bloggers

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