Mark Sealy – Decolonising the Camera: Photography in Racial Time

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Notes from Sealy’s book:

Throughout this text I suggest that a photograph of a racialised subject must be both located in and then de-located from the racial and political time of its making and not solely articulated by its descriptive (journalistic) or aesthetic (artistic) concerns. I maintain that it is only within the political and cultural location of a photograph that we can discover the coloniality at work within it, and only then, through understanding this, can a process of enquiry begin into the nature of its colonial cultural coding. A key aspect of decolourising the camera is to not allow photography’s colonial past and its cultural legacies in the present to lie unchallenged and un-agitated, or to be simply left as the given norm within the history of the medium. Decolonising the photographic image is an act of unburdening it from the assumed, normative, hegemonic, colonial conditions present, consciously or unconsciously, in the moment of its original making and in its readings and displays. This is therefore a process of locating the primary conditions of a racialised photograph’s coloniality and, such, decolourising the camera works within a form of black cultural politics to destabilise the conditions receptions and processes of Othering a subject within the history of photography‘. (pg. 2)

‘Throughout this text, I examine the visual and structural complexities at work within a given photograph’s social and political formation, which I refer to as its ‘racial time’. Racial time enables us to consider a photograph’s function as a sign within the historical conditions concerning the ‘relations of representation’ that Hall discussed in ‘New ethnicities’. I employ the idea of racial time to signify a different but essential colonial temporality at work within a photograph’. (pg. 3)

‘The legacies of colonialism and racism worry the history of photography. They enable the fractures of enlightenment and humanitarian thought to haunt the present’. (pg. 5)

I maintain that photography is dominated by the legacy of colonial consciousness repressed in the present‘. (pg. 6)

The story of Alice Seeley Harris and her Congo missionary work, lantern slide shows in the UK. Whilst this work was done with the best of intentions, and it profoundly affected informed public opinion especially against the Belgian colonial power, it also underlined English (white) superiority and the (Christian) civilising mission.

The photos’ original display and reception was as theatrical lantern slides, which functioned within a specific set of scripted performative narratives working to service and expand the objectives of British Protestant missionaries based in the heart of the Belgian Catholic Congo. Locating them back within this context deepens their significance, enabling us to consider missionaries with cameras as people uniquely situated on the front line of the British empire, fuelling with their ‘knowledge’ the wider enterprise of British colonialism. On the surface, these ostensibly benign photographs ‘humanise’ the African subject by exposing King Leopold II’s regime of violence. But they can also be read as rallying calls, not for the liberation and freedom of African subjects, but for the construction of a higher, morally colonising authority that was understood as uniquely British and therefore just’. (pg. 7/8)

Alice Seeley Harris. 1904. Nsongo District. Nsala of Wala with severed hand and foot of his five-year-old daughter murdered by BAIR militia. This was all that remained of a cannibal feast following the murder of is wife, son and daughter.

Seeley Harris’s images hold a unique place within the history of photography. That she was one of the first women photographers to pick up a camera in the cause of humanity represents a critical turn in the history of photography, and forces us to rethink how it has been written in relation to gender, religion, race and empire. Her photographs also show important early images of African victims of violent direct colonial rule. The work they perform across the history and visualisation of violence in Africa is fundamental to the visual, physical and political pressures to which the African body has been subjected in colonial and postcolonial encounters. Seeley Harris’s images demonstrate European photography at work in Africa and trace the genealogy of photographic practices and representations that frame the African subject in crisis‘. (pg. 12)

Alice Seeley Harris. 1905. Congolese Children.

Slavery as a period of shame rest and advocates of the abolition movement well celebrated and honoured. Seeley Harris’s photography produced emotive rememory work, by reawakening the spectre of European slavery. The images critiqued the Western world’s sense of progress and, as archival records of Western endeavour, now allow us to peek into the dark side of Enlightenment thought‘. (pg. 34/35)

There has been much discussion about photographs and their capacity to trouble the subconscious, as well as the unfixed nature of their meaning and reception. photograph might be a fixed image but its meaning is much less stable’ (Campany 2007, p.20), and its reception cannot be guaranteed Hall 1973). do not carry universal meanings. ‘Rather, an image speaks” to specific sets of viewers who happen to be tuned into some aspect of the image, such as style, content, the world it constructs, or the issues it raises (Sturken 2001:45). It is important to recognise time, place and emotive voice in the location and reception of photographs, especially when looking at the Other, and the cultural positionality of the different people in the imagination of those doing the looking‘. (pg. 34/35)

The story of Ota Benga, a Congolese Pygmy who was exhibited in a New York zoo with apes (pg. 42).

One of the key points of ignition for this debate was the now seminal work by Susan Sontag, On Photography, in which she stated: ‘The ethical content of photographs is fragile. With the possible exception of of those horrors, like the Nazi camps, that have gained the status of ethical reference points, most photographs do not keep their emotional charge’ (Sontag 1973, p.l6). Sontag here suggests that most photographs are temporarily and culturally charged with ethical power at the time of their production and initial consumption, but then later become transformed into petrified moments of atrocity whose ethical power is degraded. The exception to this rule, for Sontag, are photographs from Nazi concentration camps. Perhaps such images resonate across time whenever mass acts of violence are shown to us, but the context of their original display and meanings produced will always be open to deconstruction. It is clear that there is a degree of memory management at work when we consider what constitutes the central motif of discussions on the theme of atrocity‘. (pg. 66)

Nazi images were known since 1935 but Life (and others) paid scant attention until the opening of the camps (pg. 68/70), as this tended to be seen as Soviet propaganda until the Allies actually saw for themselves. (pg. 72). The Russians were even seen as terminators rather than liberators, as that was the Allies role / right (pg. 75). Yet, despite huge outpouring of sympathy for the Jews who were murdered, there was little overt sympathy for the slaves or other camp victims.

Note that the Allied Victory Parade in Paris was all white (pg. 89).

In Life’s ‘Atrocities’ feature of 7th May 1945 (pg. 81 onwards), race was totally omitted. Rather the article aided US foreign policy.

The editors of Life can therefore be charged with a large degree of misrepresentation and race management through the use of the from the death camps, because they did not provide their readers with the critical information concerning the majority of the victims. The ‘Atrocities’ photographs, which flow seamlessly into those taken at the San Francisco Conference, can now be read as working more to aid American national and foreign policy during the conference than as working to highlight the core violent and racial realities of the death camps. If had seen fit originally to position these images within the context of the racist violence to which they now belong, then it is possible that those campaigning for the rights of the black Americans and subject peoples at the conference would have had a powerful visual tool to assist their cause. They aimed to enshrine anti-racist clauses fully within the formulation of any new universal declaration, but anti-racism and colonial freedoms were omitted from the outcomes of the San Francisco Conference. This created despair among key black political activists such as Max Yergan and Walter White. The latter commented that ‘the San Francisco [UN] Charter provided “scant hope for liberation” for the 750 million people in non-self-governing areas’ (Anderson 2003, p.56). Life had the opportunity to explain that race was integrally part of the concentration camps, but they did not. And thus, even with the increasing amount of visual evidence that was emerging from the camps, the dominant powers driving the formation of the United Nations failed to recognise the catastrophic disasters of race -orientated violence‘. (pg. 105)

Archival photographs are a message from the past. They open and adjust our understanding of the the way we were (pg 106)

Azoulay (2015: 195) suggests that the impact of the archive can be dulled (pg. 108).

The archive of the world image bank has built fortunes by trading in malign images of the Other.

The mass of photographs taken in Africa by Europeans, such as the one made in 1923 and sent back to England as a colonial Christmas card from the African Oil Nuts Company and Miller Brothers, based in Nigeria, illustrates the debasing approach by colonials to taking photographs of Africans as a form of trophy image-making.

The full caption reads: ‘Christmas photograph of staff at the African Oil Nuts Company and Miller Brothers. Three rows of bare-chested African workers pose for the camera, each man’s chest painted with a letter spell out ‘1923, Badagry, Merry Xmas’. Four Europeans dressed in white sit on a makeshift bench up front beside three African children, possibly domestic servants. Badagry, Nigeria, circa 1923 Badagry, Lagos, Nigeria, Western Africa, Africa’. (Bristol Archives)

This seminal photograph now forms part of a permanent exhibition at Liverpool’s Slavery Museum. It is on continuous public display, because it highlights the colonial cultural arrogance that was at work visualising the black body in the early part of the twentieth century. (pg. 110)

Racial time does not tick along in a fashion that produces seconds, minutes, hours and days. It works more like a cultural pulse in which the political conditions around it cause it to quicken or slow down. (pg. 115)

Churchill saw Empire as both Britain’s right and means of survival until US joined WWII (pg 122).

Black people (from the Empire) featured more favourably in UK war effort posters ((pg. 126) to encourage more of sense of working together, united.

US Army had issues with segregation (see Olusoga) Also ran ‘together we win’ campaigns (pg. 138)

1960s – independence of African states from Colonial rule (pg. 160)

Wayne Miller, war photographer who was at the Camps, turned his attention to US social conditions.

Miller’s Chicago project for his Guggenheim Fellowships was formally titled ‘The Way of Life of the Northern Negro‘, drawing on St Clair Drake and Horace R. Cayton’s title ‘Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro in a Northern City’. The specific use of the word ‘Northern’ in Miller’s title helped to define the parameters of his photography culturally and politically. It also signified an important characteristic in Miller’s approach to the project: he, like Drake and Cayton, recognised that in 1946 black Americans living in the north were distinctly different. These people, who had established themselves in Chicago, could no longer be framed as being culturally from elsewhere, transient Others, from a generic, southern US, alien space. They were not migrants but were rather individuals within a large, settled, permanent community that was now fundamentally ingrained within the social fabric of Chicago and other northern cities. Black citizens of Chicago had contributed fully through the workplace to the industrial success of the city. The riots of 1919 played an important part in anchoring the black presence in the north: ‘Anchorage in a space is an economic-political form which needs to be studied in detail’ (Foucault & Gordon 1980, p.149). Miller’s use of the term ‘Northern’ effectively closed the gap in relation to the hierarchy of migratory claims over Chicago and demanded parity for the black presence within the city’s migrant story.

Miller’s photographic intentions in 1946 echoed the historic photographs commissioned by E. B. Du Bois in 1900 for his American Negro’ project, which won a gold medal at the 1900 Paris Exposition. Du Bois organised over 350 images into albums entitled the ‘Types of American Negroes, Georgia, USA and Negro Life in Georgia, USA’. The central idea behind his project was to visually unlock black US citizens from the burden of scientific racism that, at this time, dominated perceptions of black people, suggesting that they were inferior human subjects. There is correlation between [Wayne] Miller’s and Du Bois’ projects in their shared intention to use photography as a tool to disrupt ingrained cultural hostilities towards black Americans. This moment of international acclaim for Du Bois (who should also be recognised as probably the first curator of a black photography exhibition) at the Paris Exposition acted as a significant cultural and visual indicator’. (pg. 195)

Miller’s Chicago project was part of a longer radical tradition within the US to mobilise photography in an attempt to humanise their black, American subject for the wider, racist public’. (pg. 196)

1948 British Nationality Act paved the way for Empire Windrush, which arrived 22 June 1948. Ship carried 492 workers from Caribbean. (pg. 206)


Historical notes – Wikipedia:

The Race Relations Act 1968 was an Act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom making it illegal to refuse housing, employment, or public services to a person on the grounds of colour, race, ethnic or national origins in Great Britain (although not in Northern Ireland, which had its own parliament at the time). It also created the Community Relations Commission to promote ‘harmonious community relations’. The Act made amendments to the Race Relations Act 1965. It was superseded (and repealed) by the Race Relations Act 1976. The Act was criticised for poorly translating ‘new standards of behaviour’ into an effective legal document.

The ‘Act was the focus of Enoch Powell’s infamous Rivers of Blood speech, delivered in Birmingham to the West Midlands Conservative Association on 20 April 1968. The speech strongly criticised mass immigration, especially Commonwealth immigration to the United Kingdom and the proposed bill. Whilst known as the ‘Rivers of Blood‘ speech, Powell always referred to it as ‘the Birmingham speech‘.

Powell was sacked from Ted Heath’s shadow cabinet the following day.

Note: This is also a backdrop to the work by Gian Butturini, on London, and the current controversy


Sealy: Early 1970s, black youth crime (fanned by the media) affected public perception of race.

1981 Brixton Riots … then the Greater London Council (GLC) set up new programs. From 1981 to 1986 this majorly influenced UK cultural policy and it is arguably from that the ‘concept of Black British photography could grow’ (pg. 207)

Neil Kenlock & Charlie Phillips. 2005. Roots to Reckoning Exhibition. Museum of London.

Crucially, we look through these three bodies of work, we can see clearly that as documentary photographers Francis, Kenlock and Phillips collectively rejected making work through the prism of racial conflict, nor did they draw out clichéd moments of austerity when photographing the black subject. Their contribution within the field of black representation effectively comes from a place of cultural familiarity, affinity and reflection. They aimed to be at the service of their community rather than simply observers of it. They were separately but simultaneously documenting the black subject, trying to capture tenderly, through photography, the unobtainable essence of black Britain’s humanity. They were attempting to create a new image of black life that would work to reframe their communities’ affectionately and make these communities visible on the terms of their own individual perspectives or ideas of what constituted a black life.

In practice, these communities were, to some degree, romanticised through photographs. People are shown, for example, in their Sunday-best clothes, or at work, smiling at the camera, masking the realities of their hardships through a willingness to participate in the recording of their lives. On reflection, within this type of essentialist documentary focus it is evident that a rather conservative construction of a homogenous black subject is at work’. (pg. 210)

The work produced by practitioners such Armet Francis belongs to a radical form of engagement, an engagement that works on its black context. In this, the (B)lack British photographer must be insightful chronicler of black people’ experiences. In discussing the act of taking a photograph from within the places and spaces defined as ‘the black community the core theoretical dialectic at work was whether the epidermal schema of the photographer made a difference to the making and reception of the work. The preferred politically-correct answer during the late 1970s and early 1980s was an essentialist and defining ‘yes’. Vanley Burke, the Birmingham-base photographer who is of the same generation as Francis, Kenlock and Phillips, claims that his work is a form of ‘histograph‘:

A histograph, capturing the personal, social and economic life of black people as they arrived, settled and became established in British society The ‘histograph° metaphor makes the camera and the photographer appear to be a sensitive recording machine, making a template to the life being lived in black communities. It throws the emphasis away from the photographing process itself – the practice of representation which the photograph always represents – onto the photographed subject. It is the people and their lives, it seems to be saying which are important. (S Hall 1993, p.13)

This mode of positive template-imaging photographic practice was typical of the work that attracted support from the GLC. This is illustrated most effectively by one of the last photographic exhibitions that the GLC supported in 1986, which opened just a days before the GLC itself was finally shut down by Margaret Thatcher’s government. The exhibition was shown at the Brixton Art Gallery and was titled ‘Reflections of the Black Experience’. It showed the works of nine photographers operating across the documentary tradition: Marc Boothe, Vanley Burke, Sunil Gupta, Mumtaz Karimjee, Dave Lewis, Zak Ove, Ingrid Pollard, Suzanne Roden and Madagi Sharak.’ (pg. 212)

Unfortunately ‘Reflections of the Black Experience’ commissions rather suffer from being too generic and lacking clear photographic narration. Quite observational. Difficult to locate feeling and mood. Compare Dawoud Bey (pg. 214) who was much more intimately engaged with his subjects and their lifestyle. (pg. 213/4)

But it did signify a new context of Black photography becoming a political act.

BBC Black & White Minstrel Show only stopped in 1978 … Wikipedia

As the 1980s progressed, a typical example of the contestation over this difficult political and cultural terrain, which were unfolding within photography in Britain, was the verbal mauling by black delegates that the feminist photographer Spence received in 1987 at the National Photography Conference, in Salford, Greater Manchester. This was the city in which, just a year before, a thirteen-year-old Bangladeshi boy named Ahmed Iqbal Ullah was stabbed to death in the school playground by a white pupil.

After Spence’s keynote speech titled ‘Questioning Documentary Practice? The Sign as a Site of Struggle’, arguments within the conference raged. She had infuriated some of the black delegates by not addressing the question of race. George Shire, a young Zimbabwean scholar, led the outrage that split the conference for the rest of its duration along the lines of gender and race. According to Sunil Gupta, a photographer and gay activist who was present at the event, Spence had ‘skirted around the issues of race and there was an uproar, she finally left the conference’. Gupta puts the politics at work during the conference into a wider context when he states that, ‘in retrospect, those were also the days when folks were pretty territorial about work, women did women and blacks did blacks’ (Gupta 2015). It was at this conference in Salford, funded by the Arts Council of Great Britain, that black British photographers came politically into full view on the national stage of photography for the first time’. (pg. 219)

It was difficult to locate a ‘Black aesthetic’ which frees the Black photographer from the burden of representation, yet also allow the question of race to enter the work. It’s not just Black photographers … (pg. 221)

Ten 8 and Joy Gregory .. pointed the way with auto-portraits.

Rotimi Fani-Kayode (1955-1989). Black, gay, self-exiled from Lagos, Nigeria.

Working during the height of the AIDS crisis and responding to the homophobia of both Thatcherite England and his home country of Nigeria, Fani-Kayode produced images that exalt queer black desire, call attention to the politics of race and representation, and explore notions of cultural identity and difference. He wrote, “On three counts I am an outsider: in matters of sexuality; in terms of geographical and cultural dislocation; and in the sense of not having become the sort of respectably married professional my parents might have hoped for”. Guggenheim.

Seydou Keïta (1921 – 2001). Bamako, Mali.

‘It’s easy to take a photo, but what really made a difference was that I always knew how to find the right position, and I never was wrong. Their head slightly turned, a serious face, the position of the hands … I was capable of making someone look really good. The photos were always very good. That’s why I always say that it’s a real art’. 1995/1996 © André Magnin.

 Back to Sealy:

It is doubtful if African photographers are economically and institutionally able to currently drive trends in the appreciation of Africa’s photographic history, and the benefits gained from such a project, both financial and cultural, need careful consideration. Long before 1991 and the ‘discovery of Seydou Keita’ and the establishment of Rencontres de Bamako in 1994, trends were fixed through specific cultural and curatorial displays of African photographic subjects and practices were managed by strong market-led interest in African works from Eurocentric private collectors, galleries, government-funded cultural agencies and philanthropic entrepreneurs. These trends disproportionately dictate, even today, the terms of African photographic image reception, and dangerously reproduce the historical, cultural, hierarchical and political disavowal embedded within the histories of photography and its associated and problematic colonialities. These are in need of deeper forensic enquiry concerning the colonial conditions of power that surround the history of reading African photographic production and display’. (pg. 240)


Header: Mick Yates. 2002. Malawi.


HALL, Stewart. 2013. Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices. 2nd Edition. London: Sage.

PINNEY, Christopher & PETERSON, Nicolas. 2003. Photography’s Other Histories. Durham: Duke University Press.

SEALY, Mark. 2019. Decolonising the Camera. London: Lawrence & Wishart.

An Ethics Framework for Photography (Part One)

mickyates Aftermath, Change, Collaboration, Culture, Documentary, Ethics, Gaze, History, Ideas, Journalism, Media Theory, Mick's Photo Blog, Nature, Philosophy, Photography, Politics, Race Leave a Comment

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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