An Ethics Framework for Photography (Part One)

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I have been researching the ethics of photography, as developed in earlier posts during the MA. My current ‘best approach’ is a Ten Point Framework.

  1. SURFACE – THE PHOTOGRAPHIC ITSELF (Technical – Composition – Manipulation)
  2. MEANING – THE SUBJECT MATTER (Content – Symbols – Narrative – Caption)
  3. GENRE – UNIQUE CONSIDERATIONS (e.g. Documentary, Nature, News, Portrait)
  4. TIME AND PLACE (Significance – Appropriateness – History – Altered Meaning)
  5. SOCIETY – CULTURAL & RELIGIOUS CONSIDERATIONS (Understanding – Respect – Sacred – Taboos)
  6. GAZE – GENDER, RACE & EQUALITY (Stereotypes – Colonialism – Norms)
  7. POWER – RELATIONSHIPS (Photographer – Subject – Curation – Audience – Media)
  8. CHANGE – INTENTION (Observe – Document – Advocate – Programmatic)
  9. NETWORK – DISTRIBUTION & REUSE (Trustworthiness – Context – Alteration)
  10. LEGAL (Ownership – Consent – Privacy – Data Protection)

The intent is not to provide some kind of ‘check list’ to score an image against, and it is most certainly not to suggest right or wrong. Rather, the aim is to suggest questions in systematic areas of consideration. It is hoped that the Framework may be used as a tool by photographers to think through possible issues before taking, editing or curating photographs, as well by editors and curators to consider images as they are presented to audiences. This is also not a series of discrete, analytical, linear steps. Rather, the sections of the Framework overlap and provide pointers for thought. Gaze affects meaning, as does composition. Time and place can affect power relationships, and so on. And, in today’s digital age, everything is affected by the network.

What follows is a necessarily abbreviated version of a more comprehensive work in progress, which will eventually become a book. I would be grateful for any feedback, critique or suggestions.

First some general thoughts on Ethics. We often use the words ‘Ethics’ and ‘Morals’ interchangeably, and a Moral Philosopher studies Ethics. In this work, I use the word ‘Ethics’ as being about behaviour in a social context – the principles of our conduct, our relationships with others, and how things are judged. I use the word ‘Morals’ as being about personal codes – about something being right or wrong to us – and therefore providing a standard against which to measure our own behaviour. Morality is often (but not always) concerned with religious belief, whilst organisationally oriented ethics can be embodied in Codes of Conduct to encourage consistent behaviour.

There is a difference between Ethics and the Law. Whilst something might be legal, that does not mean that it is ethical. And there are usually gradations rather than black and white rules. It depends on how we pose the question. Consider how we might talk about ‘fake news’ being bad:

  • We make a judgemental statement – Fake news is bad. This is moral realism.
  • We make a statement of our own views – I don’t like fake news. This is subjectivism.
  • We campaign and vent our feelings – We should ban fake news. This is emotivism.
  • We want to instruct others – Don’t create fake news. This is prescriptivism.

All have validity depending on the context in which the thought is being expressed. And all have ethical implications.

Sir William David Ross defined 5 core ethical principles. Non-maleficence (not doing harm), promoting maximum good, fidelity (faithfulness), reparation (making amends) and gratitude (thankfulness). Much of this might be considered common sense or intuitionist and builds directly on Aristotle.  The principles still hold true today. Ross was a pluralist, meaning that he saw that are many influences on ethical principles, depending on contexts and relationships. It is a pluralist approach that I am taking in what follows.

Susie Linfield clarified a useful ethical stance for photographers, making it clear that there is a subject-photographer-audience triangle.

Photojournalists are responsible for the ethics of showing, but we are responsible for the ethics of seeing’. (2010: 60).

The Photography Ethics Centre comments:

‘… [ethical] questions relate to concepts like dignity, respect, and responsibility, and to how we apply these concepts to our practice. We might ask ourselves: how do I respect the dignity of the people I am photographing? What is my responsibility to my subjects? Do I have a responsibility to the audience?’

Paul Martin Lester created the Systematic Ethical Analysis (SEA), in my view the ‘current best approach’ for ethical analysis of photographs. He notes five specific areas of concern in photography – victims of violence; rights to privacy; subject, image and context manipulation; persuasion; and stereotypes. He then identified six ideas in moral philosophy that are made central to his model, very similar to Ross.

  • Categorical Imperative –role-based, organizational or cultural rules (Immanuel Kant)
  • Utilitarianism – what produces the most good for the greatest number (Jeremy Bentham / J.S. Mill)
  • Golden Mean – what the majority might think is right, ignoring extremes (Aristotle)
  • Golden Rule – do to others only what you would have done to yourself (Egyptian Middle Kingdom)
  • Hedonism – because you can, and you like the result (Epic of Gilgamesh)
  • Veil of ignorance – apply the equality of blind justice (John Rawls)

I find this is all necessary, helpful and practical – but not sufficient. Lester’s SEA does not directly address cultural concerns, genre specific issues, gender & equality, change, power relationships or the network sharing of images, as he leaves these to something of an ad hoc, dialectic process within the SEA.

I hope to redress this with the 10 Point Framework. The first four points of the Framework are covered in this post, and others will follow later.


At its simplest level, this covers considerations of composition and technical execution.  This might be how a camera club judge looks at images in competitions. Or it could be how a print is judged for quality, or how photographers are granted distinctions in the Royal Photographic Society.

In an attempt to better assess impact and quality, John Szarkowski usefully defined five questions to ask – the thing portrayed itself, the detail, the frame, the timing of the capture and the vantage point from which it was taken. All pertain, in my view, to technical content rather than meaning.

Vilém Flusser noted that the ‘apparatus’ of photography is not just a camera, but includes the photographer’s experience, his or her approach to the technique of picture-making, the role of technology makers and so on. All of these things affect the photographic process, from taking to preparing for viewing. Flusser considered the photograph itself as a surface, to be ‘read’ as such, and I am picking up that word.

From an ethical standpoint, few of these considerations might directly raise concerns, although the question of manipulation of images might.

Historically the scientific indexicality of photography was seen to be its strength – and its weakness against fine art. When we talk of a picture being ‘accurate’, we are using a variety of ‘truth’. If we believe that a photograph accurately depicts something in the real world – a person, a landscape or a new event – we are generally using ‘correspondence theory‘ as a way of considering whether what is seen is ‘true’. What is on the surface of the photograph is a representation of what was actually before the camera.

Photographs have always been processed to various degrees, for printing or other consumption, since the beginning of the medium. For example, it is instructive to review how Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother was posed. It was then manipulated to remove the mother’s thumb at the bottom right.

Dorothea Lange. 1936. Migrant Mother of Seven, Nipomo, California. Retouched and Original.

Today, digital manipulation offers an almost infinite range of choices. This can affect the most basic aspects of a photograph, their correspondence with reality, and thus raises many ethical concerns, depending on the purpose intended for the image.


Photographs have content of some kind. An image of a flower could be critiqued technically as above. But it could also represent something more. It could suggest a wedding, a birth or a death. The meaning and thus implications of the photograph go beyond the colours of the flowers shown and the composition. Meaning could also depend on other things depicted in the photograph. It could be read according to the context in which the image is presented to its audience – alongside other images, for example. Or it could be affected by a caption.

Consider Robert Mapplethorpe’s flower photographs, or the still life work of Edward Weston, with their erotic overtones. What actually is the meaning of Mapplethorpe’s pistils? Are they flowers, or sexual icons? Do they have any ethical considerations in themselves, or in terms of the audience?

Mapplethorpe’s work on the homosexual male bondage, discipline, sadism and masochism subculture of New York City in the late 1960s  onwards sparked much controversy. When we lived in Cincinnati, his 1990 exhibition The Perfect Moment sparked a debate both about obscenity and the use of public funds for artwork. It also led to debate on the Constitutional limits of free speech in the United States. Legal challenges against the show were unsuccessful.

Demonstrators in Cincinnati. 1990. Contemporary Arts Center.

Whilst Mapplethorpe’s work can still surprise audiences, the debate about obscenity and freedom of the arts has moved on, even if the content remains unchanged. It can be argued that Mapplethorpe changed the way we look at Fine Art photography. And this also demonstrates that ethical (and legal) considerations of Meaning can therefore change over time.

As opposed to Correspondence Theory, Coherence Theory suggests that the truth of any proposition relates directly to some already specified set of propositions. The relevance here is that any image may or may not be coherent based on its contents.

We might see a picture of a horse carrying out some task, perhaps helping medics in World War One. We ‘know’ what a horse is. We also ‘know’ about World War One. We might even ‘know’ that cavalry was a part of the army on both sides, with major losses of animal life. Whilst we are not actually sure that horses were involved in medical work in the trenches in World War One, it seems that it could be possible. It is a coherent imagine that could correspond to reality. By contrast, seeing a picture of horses pulling machine guns on the front line in the First Gulf War seems far-fetched. It is an incoherent image.  Is this being presented with an intent to deceive, in an unethical fashion, or is it simply presented as a fantasy?

Symbolism within an image is an important indicator of meaning. Charles Sanders Peirce was one of the first semioticians, and he noted three categories relevant to understanding content and meaning.

  • an index – a reference to reality, including the constituent parts of an image.
  • a symbol – a conventionalised representation of a thing, either real or imaginary.
  • an icon – the likeness of or relationship to the subject in the image.

Differentiating between these when looking at a  photograph helps to guide us through the evaluation its meaning, and thus any ethical considerations. It is also important to note that meaning is not absolute – it can depend on the context that we use an image, or the caption used.

Consider this street photograph and the various components within it:

Mick Yates. 2014. Dublin.

How do we ‘read’ this? As a simple photograph on the streets of Dublin? As girls laughing at someone? As an example of eccentric fashion?

Is the photograph saying something about the individual featured? About gender? A caption can make all kinds of difference to the audience interpretation, either positively or negatively.

I have written separately on street photography  – and the genre will be further considered when discussing gaze and privacy later in the Framework. But at this point I am suggesting that the genre of candid street photography can raise ethical questions, some easier to resolve than others

First, the law is reasonably clear. Candid people street photography in the UK in public places is legal – although harassment and later defamation are not. And there are considerations concerning the legal use of photography to imply endorsement in advertising, as well as in protecting brands.

Second, the law is not the same as ethics, and there are different sets of ethics. For example, the ethics with which photos are judged in a group such as the RPS may or may not be the same as how they would be judged by a homeless charity.

Third, in my parlance, morality is personal, and can be different again to the ethics of an organization I belong to. One could interchange the words, ethics and morality, but the key point is that personal morality can be different to organizational ethics which can be different to the law. It is possible that the law is broadest, and personal morality the narrowest – at least it is in my case as I do not take pictures of homeless people without both a good reason and permission. Many such images are taken and often rewarded, especially on social media, including in group such as the RPS.

Interestingly, whilst there is an RPS code on nature photography, ironically to my knowledge there isn’t one on street photography.


Many genres have their own subset of ethical considerations. A still life of a bottle of wine, flowers and a glass might raise no ethical debate. But a similar advertising image promoting excessive drinking could.

A photograph of your cat at home might be totally innocuous. Photographing lions with a zoom lens in a well-run national park is also, today, an everyday occurrence. But deliberately steering zebras into the ambush of a pride of lions could raise an ethical flag, akin to organising a crime in order to capture a news photo. The Royal Photographic Society, amongst others, has provided some useful guidelines on nature photography.

A news photograph of Prince William visiting hospital on the birth of his son and waving to the crowd raises few issues. But isolating or editing the sequence of news images to suggest him ‘giving the finger’ to the press seems inappropriate. Another angle showed that the Prince was simply indicating that he now had three children. If news is ‘the truth’, why was ‘the finger’ photograph given prominence in newspapers? Why is this translation of events acceptable?

Reuters. 2017. Prince William.

Indeed, truth might be a malleable term these days of ‘fake news’, but the issue shouldn’t be ignored. This is why most reputable news organisations have strict codes of ethics, such as the National Professional Photographers Association or the Associated Press.

In a rather specialised form of documentary / advertising photography, the genre of NGO work have often focused on a single smiling child ‘to save’ and thus encourage monetary support from audiences, rather than, e.g., highlighting community initiative and improvement. Sadly, disaster and pulling at heart strings raises more money than success. Save the Children, in The People in The Pictures noted:

‘Debates about representations of global poverty and images of suffering have been going on for many years, yet the voices of the people featured in the images – the contributors – have been notably absent. There has been a tendency to consider and judge the image alone, rather than recognise it as the result of a process involving multiple stakeholders, one of whom is the person in the image’. (2017)

The research suggested ways to make imagery that is responsible, accountable, and that better respects the rights and priorities of contributors.

Nick Ut took an iconic image of Kim Phúc fleeing napalm bombing in Vietnam in 1972. Ut took the photograph, then immediately helped Kim to hospital. The news editors decided that the public interest in showing the story outweighed the normally taboo depiction of a naked child. This was a series of ethical decisions taken by different people in the chain of the photographic apparatus – to take the photograph, to help, to edit, and subsequently to publish.

Violence in photographs is always an area of debate,  an extreme case being Genocide. My own documentary practice has been focused on the depiction of the aftermath of Genocide in Cambodia. How does one deal respectfully and ethically with that subject?

Photographers who entered the Nazi camps after WWII took images of the bodies and the emaciated prisoners. Few were prepared for what they saw, but all felt it ‘the right thing to do’ to take and share the photographs. Some realised they were going too far in making ‘good’ compositions of a terrible scene and stopped taking pictures. They were all faced with ethical choices, as were the editors of newspapers in using the images.

And can one over-aestheticize human misery, a charge sometimes levelled at Sebastião Salgado?

Sebastião Salgado. 1984. Korem Camp, Ethiopia.

In this, I side with Salgado, but the question is a valid one about the ethics of taking images of distress.

And these leads into the genre of portraiture. Portraits can be snapshots, instant, fun. Or they can be composed for the news (Prince William, for example).  Environmental portraits attempt to capture something of the subject’s character, using time and place. And sometimes they create powerful meaning.

Arnold Newman took a portrait of Alfred Krupp, scion of the German steel making and armaments family, in 1963.

Arnold Newman. 1963. Alfred Krupp.

It is impossible not to see evil in this image. Newman’s choices were deliberate – the lighting, the setting, the composition, the pose – all designed to reveal a story and a character. By all accounts, Krupp was very unhappy with the image. Newman’s choice were not just those of a photographer working his craft – they were ethical, with an audience in mind.


All photography is about time. Whether an image is captured at 1/1000th of a second, or taken over a month, the resultant image is a slice of time. It can never actually be the present, because when it is viewed the photograph is of the past. And in all but the most abstract imagery, photographs depict a setting or place.

At its most simple, in the taking of the photograph, we should consider whether the time and place is appropriate. And whether the subject is. Smiling selfies at Auschwitz or Choeung Ek could be considered to be in very poor taste and be disrespectful to the victims. Visiting shrines in inappropriate clothing or taking photographs of people mourning at a funeral could be another example of disrespect.

At a 2019 Royal Photographic Symposium on ethics, time was a common theme. It was suggested that photographers need to take the time to understand their subject and get to know individuals within that story. Jess Crombie noted that there is danger in a ‘single story’ as this can perpetuate harmful stereotypes and unconscious biases.

In fact, I personally consider the issue of respect as central to my moral compass in how I take photographs today – although I admit that I have not always shown that sufficiently in some of my work of the past fifty years.

Issue of Times and Place are often most pronounced when the culture visited is not that of the photographer (and see point 6, on Gaze).


Beyond the taking of ‘current’ images, a photographer might be illustrating an historical event, thus working with and across time.

How should we photograph in retrospect? David Campany talks of ‘late photography‘, Peter Wollen of ‘cool photography‘ (meaning after the fact, and not in the heat of the moment), and Thierry De Duve discusses ‘time exposures‘. All are referring to photography after the fact, rather than photography as news.

This is taking photography back to the days of Matthew Brady and Roger Fenton, who could only record battlefields long after the battle had stopped. Brady is thought to have re-arranged corpses in the process, and Fenton added cannon balls. This practice might be questioned today.

Documentarians such as Sophie Ristelhueber (Fait, on Iraq) and Alan Cohen (The European Ground) told the story of past events with modern imagery. This is a form of ‘aftermath’ photography. In Ristelhueber’s case, she was reporting on fairly recent events. She could not show the fighting, so she depicted the terrain and its details. Joel Meyerowitz did something similar, though more classically oriented, in his work recording the aftermath of 9/11. He commented that the images almost took themselves, and he noted ‘the awful beauty’ of the scene. For Cohen, the events of the Holocaust were long gone, and in fact even many physical manifestations were crumbling. He took images of the ground at the sites of the Holocaust. Alfredo Jaar’s strategy, of documenting the Rwandan Genocide without actually depicting it, is another solution.

Part of the creative solution for all of these photographers was the notion of traces, quite abstract in Cohen’s case. And the ethical considerations in such cases are around respect for victims, accuracy, and the relevance of artefact chosen and metaphor suggested.

The audience might also have a different interpretation of a photograph with the passage of time. It is interesting that we often look back at what were essentially ‘street snapshots’ as ‘documentary records’ – at least, I find myself doing that in my own work. Time does change meaning.

For example, today we are sensitised to the portrayal of children. We might question the photographs of 10-year-old Alice Liddell taken by Rev. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (Louis Carroll). The photographs have not changed, but our interpretation might.

Lewis Carrol. 1859. Alice Liddell.


How can we think through the meaning of a place, beyond its obvious historical and cultural references? In Place and Placelessness, Edward Relph wrote of a hierarchy of place – from the most primitive to the most abstract sense of place. I find this the most clearly structured way of considering the implications of place in ethical terms.

  1. Pragmatic or primitive – instinctive or unselfconscious – though animals might also be able to define ‘home’ spaces.
  2. Perceptual – human reflection on space – based on needs, practices, emotional encounters. Safety, warmth, food.
  3. Existential – as members of a cultural group, defining the group or configured to physically manifest its practices. Home, workplace, layout of Balinese villages etc.
  4. Sacred – archaic, symbols, meaningful objects, ritualised relationships to the space. Sacred landscape, human-built places of worship, cemeteries.
  5. Structural or geographic – analytical, reductionist, scale, relationships of spaces. Use of light, space and movement in a Frank Gehry building.
  6. Architectural or planning – considers living spaces, uses, relationships though may leave ‘non-spaces’ between. Shopping malls, new housing estates, new towns.
  7. Cognitive – abstract definitions as objects of reflection, not experiential other than as basis for actual constructs. Architectural sketches, materials development, social studies and research.
  8. Abstract – non-Euclidean, theoretical, thought experiments. Mathematical space, time and movement.

He writes about bringing a sense of authenticity into the understanding and consequent depiction of place.

‘An authentic attitude to place is thus understood to be a direct and genuine experience of the entire complex of the identity of places – not mediated and distorted through a series of quite arbitrary social and intellectual fashions about how that experience should be, nor following stereotyped conventions. It comes from a full awareness of places for what they are as products of man’s intentions and the meaningful settings for human activities, or from a profound and unselfconscious identity with place’. (1976: 64)

In terms of ethical content, some is quite obvious – sacred and religious spaces, for example. But when one visits the people of the Highlands in Papua New Guinea, are we just ‘seeing’ the place as a tourist site – like we might take a picture of a building – or are we thinking about the importance of the spaces to the people’s way of life? Are we seeking a ‘snap’ to enter in a  competition, or to share on Facebook? Or are we seeking to explore and accurately tell a cultural and social story?

Mick Yates. 1994. Pajia, Tari, Highlands, Papua New Guinea.

Relph notes that there is also a hierarchy in one’s personal relationship with place, both as an inhabitant of place and as an observer. In ascending order:

  • Existential outsideness – everywhere the same except in superficial qualities (unreality, poetry?)
  • Objective outsideness – viewed scientifically and dispassionately
  • Incidental outsideness – place as background to something else
  • Vicarious insideness – a second-hand experience of place
  • Behaviourist insideness – deliberate attendance (and analysis) to place
  • Empathetic insideness – understanding the real meaning of the place
  • Existential insideness – significance of place without conscious reflection

Most have ethical flags – ‘behavioural insideness’ for example (anthropology, ethnology etc.) versus ‘existential outsideness (tourist?) – which has bearing on the Papua example above. Others are rather descriptive. But even the simplest, like ‘home’, raises questions about how we should depict it.

James Tyner commented that the Khmer Rouge were ‘objective outsiders’ and were not insiders or empathetic. Cambodia’s geographic regions were deliberately designed to destroy the community’s previous sense of place, and 20,000 gravesites were hidden in the landscape. Does this impact the way we should photograph? In my own case it did. I focused my re-telling of personal stories from the Genocide on the anonymity of this grave sites.




Framework Development History

A Research-Led Practice .. September 26th, 2019.

Socially Engaged Photography .. August 24th, 2019

Ethics of Photography – Participation .. August 8th, 2019

Ethics of Photography – Nature .. August 7th, 2019. Simplified to the 10-point framework.

Journalistic Ethics .. June 26th, 2019. An 11-point framework.

Cambodia Project Ethics .. June 17th, 2019. A 12-point framework

FMP Week One Reflections .. June 9th, 2019. Unveiling the first 8-point framework.


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