a question of ethics

It sounded like a simple goal: a day of photographs, with no churches, otters or birds.  It led to fascinating and complex conversations about the ethics of street photography, and I’m still not sure where I stand.  So, I’m going to share some of the questions that arose– and, riskier, the photographs — as I try to work this out.

Question 1:  What do you see in this photograph?

Question 2:  Is this woman harmed or exploited by the taking of this photograph?

Question 3:  If we speculate on her state of mind, are we invading her privacy?

Question 4:  Is it wrong to post this, or to choose to look at it?

Question 5:  Does it matter whether she is recognizable, or whether you might recognize her?  So, is it different to view this picture from Boston or Haiti or LA — so that you are looking at someone remote, whom you will probably never meet or see — than it is to view it from Hebburn or Jesmond or Durham, when you might bump into her on the street?

Now, lets try all that again with this picture:

Question 6:  Are questions of privacy, intrusion, ethics different if one uses paint rather than pixels?

Question 7:  Does it matter whether the woman is recognizable, if the painting is representational, accurate?

Lets try this one more time, with a modern painting by Richard Whincop.  (This is a painting I love, that Richard gave me when I left my curacy, so lots of you will have seen it before…)

Question 8:  Would your feeling about the picture that hangs on my wall be any different if Richard had given me the original photograph, instead of his painting of it?  What if the painting an photograph were identical in terms of recognizability and emotional expression?  (I’m not saying they are.  But I’m not saying they’re not.  Does it matter?)

Well, that should keep us busy for a while. What do you think?

2 thoughts on “a question of ethics”

  1. The painting vs photo thing is interesting. I think that we still tend to assume that people sit for paintings (with the inherent consent of sitting still for all that time) in spite of the fact that many (most?) are done from photos which may or may not have been taken with permission. Richard’s painting is obviously done from a photo or memory—the subject did not pose for that image.

    I don’t have answers. I do know that I try to avoid appearing in tourist photos when I’m out and about in Boston. It’s not so much about permission as feeling odd about showing up in some stranger’s memory book.

    And a story, to expand the question: my mom and sister were having lunch in a restaurant that had local paintings on the wall for sale. My sister looked at the painting in their booth and realized that it was the garden and front porch of my parents’ house. I think my mom was delighted more than anything (she took me to see it a few weeks later), but it did seem mildly invasive to me (and I will probably never again live on that property).


  2. that must have felt very strange indeed. I’m glad your mother could laugh at it. I suspect if I’d liked it (and knowing that the house itself is loved) I might have brought it home.

    I have often tried to avoid tourist cameras — and news cameras too. But here, the easiest way to do that seems to be to offer to take charge of the camera and invite all the tourists to stand in the magic spot on the bridge under the cathedral so you can get them all in.

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