Cambodia Project Ethics

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There are several layers in any ethical discussion of photographs. I am researching new ways to address these issues, with global relevance. This includes research into current best practice. There is a need is to have a framework which is accessible and useable both in situ (as the photograph is taken) and after that fact (as it is edited and used).

My start point for development is a ten point framework that I am researching, and I will use my own Cambodian project to illustrate.

    1. THE PHOTOGRAPH ITSELF (Technical – Composition. Think Szarkowski et al.)
    2. SUBJECT MATTER (Content – Symbols – Meaning)
    3. CULTURE (e.g. Hofstede + Confucius)
    4. PLACE (Significance – Cultural – Spiritual – Grave)
    5. TIME (Significance – Appropriateness – History)
    6. CHANGE INTENTION (Observe – Document – Advocate – Programmatic)
    7. POWER RELATIONSHIPS (Photographer/Subject – Knowledge – Politics – Media – Ownership)
    8. NETWORK EFFECTS (Nodal Identity – Searchability – Trustworthiness – Actionability)
    9. ROLES (Photographer – Editor – Media – Audience)
    10. THE LAW (Of course)

First, the photograph itself. I have always tried to present things in a factual way. Whilst a photographer always comes at a project with a point of view, I do not see ethical concerns with my mode of presentation.

Second, and related, the subject matter of Genocide and then children in primary schools is sensitive. Since the beginning of our work in Cambodia, we have always taken photographs with respect and permission – either by the subjects themselves (Sarath et al), or with the agreement of the schools, teachers and families. During the school project, we also supplied copies of images, especially as Khmer Rouge families had little photographic record.

Third, from a cultural perspective, Cambodia reflects its deep Buddhist roots. In taking a respectful approach, never portraying either the culture of the subjects in an ‘othering light’, this has not particularly impacted either my approach to photography or the reception of my images locally. I have constantly ‘checked in’ with local views on the work. It is fair to say that there is little photographic work on the Genocide produced locally (exceptions being Mak Remissa and Rithy Panh). That said, the use of metaphor and allegory is the predominant form – very much in line with my own approach.

Four, place. My work of necessity includes landscapes and other places of cultural, historical and spiritual significance. It also includes graves, with human remains. Like all aftermath photography, I have taken conscious decisions as to how to depict these places. In so doing I have both studied the historical photographic record, and sought local counsel. I have tried to avoid the tropes of dark tourism in the work presented, although I am aware that some of my earlier work fell into these traps.

Five, time. In my candid, street and portrait work I have long decided to avoid timing photographs which show individuals in a  disrespectful light. More broadly, Genocide and its associated emotional and psychological impact is a hugely sensitive subject. I have studied the work of many others, photographic and written, in how best to depict the flow of time of such events. And time is a fundamental in telling the personal stories of Sarath et al. I feel quite some pressure to tell these stories accurately but also in ways that today’s audience can relate too, without falling into rephotography tropes. I will leave it to my audience to decide the level of my success, but I see no ethical issues arising from my treatment of the subjects.

Six, in any program of change, there are ethical dimensions. To what extent does the change agent push against norms. In our school development case, this was clearly the case. Yet all was done collaboratively and was enthusiastically received by the Government, local authorities and families concerned. In the FMP, the intention is impactful education. Whilst this must challenge the perceptions of the audience (e.g. to what extent was the US bombing responsible for the rise of the Khmer Rouge and thus Genocide), my intent is to provide material that encourages legitimate self-reflection.

Seven, ethics involves power relationships. I have been treading carefully in Cambodia, to be sure that the subjects of my work do not fall foul of any kind of backlash, Governmental or otherwise. My personal reputation in Cambodia is quite strong, and I have always had to deal with the issues in nuanced ways, starting with working with Khmer Rouge rather than blanket condemnation. This led to Ingrid and myself receiving medals from long-standing Prime Minister Hun Sen, who frankly has a poor international reputation. Still, I am conscious that this is an important personal story and needs to be told powerfully without sugar coating terrible events.

Eight, today’s social networks amplify concerns, sometimes needlessly. We have witnessed the Khmer Rouge Reconciliation areas going from zero connectivity with the world, to Facebook sharing. All of our work in Cambodia, educationally and Cambodia, has been online since 2000, and we have not once had any concern raised or misinterpretation of our work. That said, whilst the photos taken of children when younger were within the context of approval by schools and family, things are changing.  The same children have grown up to be connected online, and I must be careful to respect any claims they have to curating their current digital identity.

Nine, there are multiple roles in any photographic activity – photographer, editor, media owner, audience and so forth. Part of my intention to publish a book in Cambodia is to respect local industry. All editing and writing will be undertaken independently of the local publishers, whilst also with full agreement of our collaborators.

Ten, the law. My work raises no unusual legal issues.

One current ‘best practice’ is Paul Martin Lester’s SEA (Systematic Ethical Analysis) Framework. Whilst I have questions about his approach (see my notes on his book –  Paul Martin Lester), it is one of the more comprehensive and practical ‘ethics checklists’ out there. Lester focuses on context, roles and uses western ethical ‘syllogistic’ models, in a largely ‘post shooting’ framework of questions. But he does not deal with culture, power, change dynamics or network propagation.

Using the Cambodian project as a case study with Lester’s SEA:

Step1: What are three significant facts in the case? Genocide happened, my friends suffered, they consequently dedicated their lives to education.

Step 2: What are three facts you would like to know? At this point, merely ensuring that the facts I will be presenting in the FMP are totally accurate.

Step 3: What is the ethical dilemma? I see none, other than as described and dealt with above.

Step 4: Who are the moral agents and what is their role? My friends, Government contacts, School teachers and families involved, my wife and myself (as change agents).

Step 5: What are the stakeholders and what is their role? My friends, my wife and myself (both as change agents).

Step 6: What are all the positive and negative values of the agents and stakeholders? There has always been uncertainty over the roles of the Khmer Rouge in the reconciliation areas. Whilst there are no clear indications of genocide as such (in fact, Cheat Chum was cleared by the UN Tribunal) it was war and bad things happened. Since that time, and for twenty years, we have seen nothing but good actions in our area of concern, education. There has been no evidence of financial corruption, either, as meticulous records were kept by Save the Children.

Step 7: What are the loyalties of the agents and stakeholders? It is probably fair to say that there is significant loyalty, locally, to my wife and myself. Even today, our names are used by the Ministry of Education, for example. There is also a quite intense loyalty between the key local actors – Sarath, Simeth and Sereidy – and in fact we all share mutual personal loyalty forged over the years of working together.

Step 8: Consider against 6 ethical philosophies – Golden Rule (do as you would be done by), Hedonism (do what makes you happy), Golden Mean (Aristotle – find a middle ground), Categorial Imperative (Kant’s deontology –  an objective, rational, necessary and unconditional principle that we must always follow), Utilitarianism (maximise good), Veil of Ignorance (anonymity). I think the project passes all of these tests, though Lester misses other issues – culture, power, politics and the like.

Step 9: What creative and/or credible alternatives could resolve the issue? Other than to continue as we have been doing, I see no actions arising.

Step 10: What would you do? Keep going.


Header image: Mick Yates. 1994. Torture at Tuol Sleng. Phnom Penh.

BOURGEOIS, Denis. 2010, revised 2012. The Ethics of Organizational Change. Personal Papers.

HOFSTEDE, Geert. 1980. Culture’s Consequences. 1984 Edition. London: Sage Publications.

LESTER, Paul Martin. 2018. Visual Ethics. New York: Routledge.

PANH, Rithy & BATAILLE, Christophe. 2011. L’elimination (Literature & Documents). 2013 Edition. Paris: Editions Grasset.

PLAISANCE, SKEWES & HANITZSCH. 2012. Ethical Orientations of Journalists Around the Globe – Implications From a Cross-National Survey. Communications Research 39. Available at: (accessed 07/06/2019).

YATES, Mick. 2005. Building Better Organizational Networks. Available at: Mick Yates 2005 – 2018 Building Better Organizational Networks (accessed 08/06/2019).