The ethics of photography is not something that I’ve previously considered in much detail, just assuming that it didn't really apply to me. After all, I typically shoot empty spaces, at night, with no-one else involved. I've certainly felt unease on occasion when seeing photographs of homeless or otherwise disadvantaged people presented in a way that seems to place their plight below the photographer's desire for self-promotion, but apart from that it's not an issue that's been at the forefront of my thoughts.
Unsurprisingly though, I find myself writing yet another reflection where one of the key realisations is that I have much to learn and much to incorporate into my own thinking, particularly with regard to my own practice. The work of the photographer Jeff Mitchell was in sharp focus this week, as his image of refugees travelling from Croatia into Slovenia taken in 2015 was famously used by UKIP in their Brexit campaign last year.
Migrants are escorted by police as they walk from the village of Rigonce, Slovenia to a refugee camp in Brežice on October 23, 2015. Jeff Mitchell/Getty
I found Mitchell's own response to the use of this image rather interesting, as instead of being outraged, he seemed to take a much more sanguine view of things:
"Photographers are there to record stories, as they happen and when they happen, in the best way we can. But what happens after that, how our images are used, can be out of our control…
My job – telling the story of the migrants – had been done. It’s just unfortunate how it’s been picked up.
It’s difficult for any agency – Getty, Reuters, AP – that circulates photographers’ images. They’re out there. And it’s not just Ukip. Newspapers also use shots in the wrong context. It depends on the political slant of any organisation.
You have to remain impartial. I’m there to record what happens. I know it sounds simplistic, but you shoot what’s in front of you."
Jeff Mitchell's best photograph: ‘These people have been betrayed by Ukip’. The Guardian, 22nd June 2016
In Mitchell's view, his work was done. What happened next was out of his hands and thus, by implication, not really his problem. The buck seems to have been decisively passed! The discussion around this topic on the forum this week suggested a range of views in response to this view. From my initially neutral stance where it seemed to me that, as the image was obtained and used in a legal manner, there was no real blame to be apportioned, I think I've been convinced to consider that as image makers there may be at least some responsibility for where the images ultimately end up.
This is of course a complex challenge particularly, as Mitchell highlights, in the 'digital age', but it is one I increasingly feel we are obliged to engage with in some way. If nothing else, I think it’s important to strive to protect the clarity of one's own voice and if the images are going to be used in a manner that seems contrary or incongruent with the motivation that underpinned the creation of the image, as artists we should seek to defend ourselves. Of course, this is a context-dependent argument, with the reason the images were created in the first place needing to be considered.
This is an extension of the idea of 'authorship' that we explored in week 3. In the case of Mitchell's work, he seems to have a less rigid view of 'authorship' and is seemingly less concerned that his photograph has been appropriated to promote a message that he may not personally agree with. Accordingly, I feel that the 'ethics' of photography is an individual and context-dependent thing and depends on a number of factors, including the sort of photography one engages in and the intended use of the images created. I can only really comment on my own motivations and respond to a personal ethical challenge. Reflecting on my own motivations for taking photographs, I would have to say that there's an element of selfishness there. A desire to express something internal, almost regardless of how, or by whom, it is received. It's like self-analysis. As such, it’s important to me that I represent the impulse that has inspired the photograph as honestly as possible. Admittedly I don’t always understand that impulse - which partly explains why I find myself studying an MA in photography - but if I have an ethic it’s the idea that I have to be as faithful to this internal impulse as possible. My hope is that the work might connect with others out there who share or are able to identify with the same impulse (I’m already hating the word ‘impulse’!)…if my work was able to connect with, or initiate communication or dialogue with others in some way, I’d be very gratified.
It’s also very important to me to support other artists as far as possible, particularly those who’ve had a role in supporting or inspiring my work. Sometimes just a few encouraging words is enough, but of course purchasing and promoting their work is even better.
As outlined here, my ethics strike even me as rather limited in scope and poorly-formed. I don’t yet feel fully-equipped to address the deeper questions of why I shoot what I do and why anyone should care. These questions seem to hang ominously over me at present, prodding me for a response. I'll need one...soon!
Falmouth university ma photography critical research journal